Christ had been put to justify himself in conversing with publicans and sinners: here he is put to justify his disciples; and in what they do according to his will he will justify them, and bear them out.
I. He justifies them in their not fasting, which was turned to their reproach by the Pharisees. Why do the Pharisees and the disciples of John fast? They used to fast, the Pharisees fasted twice in the week (Luke 18:12), and probably the disciples of John did so too; and, it should seem, this very day, when Christ and his disciples were feasting in Levi’s house, was their fast-day, for the word is nesteuousi—they do fast, or are fasting, which aggravated the offence. Thus apt are strict professors to make their own practice a standard, and to censure and condemn all that do not fully come up to it. They invidiously suggest that if Christ went among sinners to do them good, as he had pleaded, yet the disciples went to indulge their appetites, for they never knew what it was to fast, or to deny themselves. Note, Ill-will always suspects the worst.
Two things Christ pleads in excuse of his disciples not fasting.
1. That these were easy days with them, and fasting was not so seasonable now as it would be hereafter, Mark 2:19, 20. There is a time for all things. Those that enter into the married state, must expect care and trouble in the flesh, and yet, during the nuptial solemnity, they are merry, and think it becomes them to be so; it was very absurd for Samson’s bride to weep before him, during the days that the feast lasted, Jdg. 14:17. Christ and his disciples were but newly married, the bridegroom was yet with them, the nuptials were yet in the celebrating (Matthew’s particularly); when the bridegroom should be removed from them to the far country, about his business, then would be a proper time to sit as a widow, in solitude and fasting.
2. That these were early days with them, and they were not so able for the severe exercises of religion as hereafter they would be. The Pharisees had long accustomed themselves to such austerities; and John Baptist himself came neither eating nor drinking. His disciples from the first inured themselves to hardships, and thus found it easier to bear strict and frequent fasting, but it was not so with Christ’s disciples; their Master came eating and drinking, and had not bred them up to the difficult services of religion as yet, for it was all in good time. To put them upon such frequent fasting at first, would be a discouragement to them, and perhaps drive them off from following Christ; it would be of as ill consequence as putting new wine into old casks, or sewing new cloth to that which is worn thin and threadbare, Mark 2:21, 22. Note, God graciously considers the frame of young Christians, that are weak and tender, and so must we; nor must we expect more than the work of the day in its day, and that day according to the strength, because it is not in our hands to give strength according to the day. Many contract an antipathy to some kind of food, otherwise good, by being surfeited with it when they are young; so, many entertain prejudices against the exercises of devotion by being burthened with them, and made to serve with an offering, at their setting out. Weak Christians must take heed of over-tasking themselves, and of making the yoke of Christ otherwise than as it is, easy, and sweet, and pleasant.
II. He justifies them in plucking the ears of corn on the sabbath day, which, I will warrant you, a disciples of the Pharisees would not dare to have done; for it was contrary to an express tradition of their elders. In this instance, as in that before, they reflect upon the discipline of Christ’s school, as if it were not so strict as that of theirs: so common it is for those who deny the power of godliness, to be jealous for the form, and censorious of those who affect not their form.
Observe, 1. What a poor breakfast Christ’s disciples had on a sabbath-day morning, when they were going to church (Mark 2:23); they plucked the ears of corn, and that was the best they had. They were so intent upon spiritual dainties, that they forgot even their necessary food; and the word of Christ was to them instead of that; and their zeal for it even ate them up. The Jews made it a piece of religion, to eat dainty food on sabbath days, but the disciples were content with any thing.
2. How even this was grudged them by the Pharisees, upon supposition that it was not lawful to pluck the ears of corn on the sabbath day, that that was as much a servile work as reaping (Mark 2:24); Why do they on the sabbath day that which is not lawful? Note, If Christ’s disciples do that which is unlawful, Christ will be reflected upon, and upbraided with it, as he was here, and dishonour will redound to his name. It is observable, that when the Pharisees thought Christ did amiss, they told the disciples (Mark 2:16); and now when they thought the disciples did amiss, they spoke to Christ, as make-bates, that did what they could to sow discord between Christ and his disciples, and make a breach in the family.
3. How Christ defended them in what they did.
(1.) By example. They had a good precedent for it in David’s eating the show-bread, when he was hungry, and there was no other bread to be had (Mark 2:25, 26); Have ye never read? Note, Many of our mistakes would be rectified, and our unjust censures of others corrected, if we would but recollect what we have read in the scripture; appeals to that are most convincing. “You have read that David, the man after God’s own heart, when he was hungry, made no difficulty of eating the show-bread, which by the law none might eat of but the priests and their families.” Note, Ritual observances must give way to moral obligations; and that may be done in a case of necessity, which otherwise may not be done. This, it is said, David did in the days of Abiathar the High-Priest; or just before the days of Abiathar, who immediately succeeded Abimelech his father in the pontificate, and, it is probable, was at that time his father’s deputy, or assistant, in the office; and he it was that escaped the massacre, and brought the ephod to David.
(2.) By argument. To reconcile them to the disciples’ plucking the ears of corn, let them consider,
[1.] Whom the sabbath was made for (Mark 2:27); it was made for man, and not man for the sabbath. This we had not in Matthew. The sabbath is a sacred and divine institution; but we must receive and embrace it as a privilege and a benefit, not as a task and a drudgery. First, God never designed it to be an imposition upon us, and therefore we must not make it so to ourselves. Man was not made for the sabbath, for he was made a day before the sabbath was instituted. Man was made for God, and for his honour and service, and he just rather die than deny him; but he was not made for the sabbath, so as to be tied up by the law of it, from that which is necessary to the support of his life. Secondly, God did design it to be an advantage to us, and so we must make it, and improve it. He made if for man. 1. He had some regard to our bodies in the institution, that they might rest, and not be tired out with the constant business of this world (Deut. 5:14); that thy man-servant and thy maid-servant may rest. Now he that intended the sabbath-rest for the repose of our bodies, certainly never intended it should restrain us, in a case of necessity, from fetching in the necessary supports of the body; it must be construed so as not to contradict itself—for edification, and not for destruction. 2. He had much more regard to our souls. The sabbath was made a day of rest, only in order to its being a day of holy work, a day of communion with God, a day of praise and thanksgiving; and the rest from worldly business is therefore necessary, that we may closely apply ourselves to this work, and spend the whole time in it, in public and in private; but then time is allowed us for that which is necessary to the fitting of our bodies for the service of our souls in God’s service, and the enabling of them to keep pace with them in that work. See here, (1.) What a good Master we serve, all whose institutions are for our own benefit, and if we be so wise as to observe them, we are wise for ourselves; it is not he, but we, that are gainers by our service. (2.) What we should aim at in our sabbath work, even the good of our own souls. If the sabbath was made for man, we should then ask ourselves at night, “What am I the better for this sabbath day?” (3.) What care we ought to take not to make those exercises of religion burthens to ourselves or others, which God ordained to be blessings; neither adding to the command by unreasonable strictness, nor indulging those corruptions which are adverse to the command, for thereby we make those devout exercises a penance to ourselves, which otherwise would be a pleasure.
[2.] Whom the sabbath was made by (Mark 2:28); “The Son of man is Lord also of the sabbath; and therefore he will not see the kind intentions of the institution of it frustrated by your impositions.” Note, The sabbath days are days of the Son of man; he is the Lord of the day, and to his honour it must be observed; by him God made the worlds, and so it was by him that the sabbath was first instituted; by him God gave the law at mount Sinai, and so the fourth commandment was his law; and that little alteration that was shortly to be made, by the shifting of it one day forward to the first day of the week, was to be in remembrance of his resurrection, and therefore the Christian sabbath was to be called the Lord’s day (Rev. 1:10), the Lord Christ’s day; and the Son of man, Christ, as Mediator, is always to be looked upon as Lord of the sabbath. This argument he largely insists upon in his own justification, when he was charged with having broken the sabbath, John 5:16.