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The discussion over the disciples' plucking grain on the sabbath is the first of two consecutive sabbath controversies Luke now narrates. The tension about the grain incident comes because of tradition about the sabbath in Judaism, since it was a day of rest on which all labor was prohibited (Ex 20:11; m. Sabbat 7:2; m. Pe'a 8:7). Jesus' reply escalates the tension by raising an example involving David that was clearly outside the normal limits of Old Testament law. The legal discussion turns into yet another battle over authority, only this time it is the holy day of the sabbath and the right to interpret the law that is disputed. Both of these matters were of deep concern to many Jews, so the debate is very significant.
Jesus is different from other teachers before him. He and his disciples conduct themselves as if certain practices of the law are not matters of major concern. Why is he different? The previous passage made the case that Jesus' presence means the arrival of a new period. Here Jesus begins to explain why a new period is present. He possesses unique authority. He can evaluate the law and is Lord of the sabbath. It seems that Jesus is advocating an ethic in which people have more value than rules—at least this is suggested by the example Jesus cites from David's life. What is harder to tell is whether Jesus is arguing that the Torah was always intended to lead to love, relationship and holiness or whether he is bringing a new law marked by new freedoms. Neither of these options makes Jesus an antinomian. Rather, the question is how we should view some aspects of the law. Whichever option one takes here—and it is not clear—it took the disciples years to sort out the theological issues involved in this dispute, as Acts 15 shows.
The event starts innocently enough. The disciples move through a field and pick some of the grain that has been reserved for those in need (Deut 23:25). The taking of the grain is not a problem; the issue is their "labor." The question comes, "Why are you doing what is unlawful [ouk exestin] on the Sabbath?" The Pharisees are saying that such labor is not permitted. So their question is really a rebuke and a warning. The fact that the leaders kept such a close eye on the disciples shows where things stood between the two groups.
Jesus replies with Scripture—"Have you never read . . . ?" He appeals to the story of 1 Samuel 21:1-7 and 22:9-10. Some of Jesus' points build on implications in this passage. The story records how David entered the tabernacle and procured for his troops consecrated bread that only priests were permitted (exestin) to eat. Jesus notes explicitly that this was not legal according to Torah (Ex 25:30; 39:36; 40:22-23; esp. Lev 24:5-9). First Samuel 22:9-10 suggests that the priest inquired of the Lord and then gave the provisions, so the act was appropriate. In sum, David received legally prohibited bread for his troops and was not judged negatively for it.
Jesus' analogy is neat, because it raises an example, sanctioned by Scripture, where the letter of the law was not kept. Thus Jesus becomes an interpreter of the law, either by interpreting its real intended scope or by bringing a new law that shows the old law is passing away. Unfortunately, it is not clear from this Lukan text which direction is in view. But the declaration of Jesus' authority is clear, for he explains, "The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath."
The analogy is neat for another reason. David and his troops were the ones who took the consecrated bread, so the parallel to the disciples' violation is clear. Now Jesus might be saying that just as David, as the national leader, could procure such bread for his troops, so may I. Or he may be making a greater claim: I have authority over the sabbath. The illustration means that if the leadership condemns Jesus, they had better be ready to condemn David and reject the testimony of Scripture. But Jesus' remark raises the stakes and claims that Jesus rules over elements of the law as important as the sabbath, a day that was sanctified in the Ten Commandments (Ex 20:8-11).
In Jesus' reply both the term Lord (kyrios) and the title Son of Man are important. They focus the entire reply on Jesus. This is unlike the parallel in Mark 2:28, which highlights the issue of the sabbath being designed for human beings as well. The Markan reply suggests that Jesus is arguing about what the real limits of the sabbath law are. There has been no violation here, since the sabbath, designed for humankind and not against them, was never intended to prevent someone from eating.
The battle over the grain becomes yet another discussion of Jesus' authority. He is not just a teacher, a great example or a moral-religious leader like other greats of history. He claims to possess authority over laws and institutions that God has ordained. Again, the event forces a choice. Is Jesus right or wrong about himself? Does he reveal the way of God or pervert it? It is either one or the other. Making a choice is necessary, since even being neutral is choosing.