Mark 2:23-28

The Kingdom Challenges the Law – The Sabbath

Mark continued with a third incident involving Pharisees.

Mark 2:23-28 – Jesus Discusses the Sabbath

23 One Sabbath Jesus was walking through some crops.  
As they were walking along their way
some of the disciples picked off some ears of grain. 
24 The Pharisees said to  him,
“Look, they are doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath.
25 And he said to them, 
Have you never read what David did when he was in need
and he and his companions were hungry?
26 .. how he entered the house of Abiathar the high priest
and ate the loaves placed before God -
which it was unlawful for anyone to eat
other than the priests -  
and gave some to those with him?” 
27 He then said to them,
“The Sabbath is there for people’s sake,
not people for the Sabbath’s sake.”
28 And so the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.

This activity of the disciples was the first time in the narrative where they were collectively described as doing anything! And their first action was to contravene the law!

The Scriptural Background of the Sabbath

The custom of Sabbath observance had a wonderful history. It was indeed listed as one of the requirements of the covenant between Israel and God, situated firmly within the Decalogue.

Its significance was explained differently in the two separate accounts of the Decalogue in the Hebrew Scriptures.

a) At the Service of Creativity: The relevant text from the Book of Exodus had said:

Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. 
Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 
But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; 
you shall not do any work - 
you, your son or your daughter,
your male or female slave, your livestock, 
or the alien resident in your towns. 
For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea,
and all that is in them but rested the seventh day;  
therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day
and consecrated it. (Exodus 20:8-11)

Sabbath was seen within the context of the creative working of God. It was a time to rest from work, yet it still expressed real creativity, a continued sharing in “the way of being” of God.

Work and productivity were not to dominate human life and endeavour. Indeed their purpose was to enable a sharing in the creative “leisure” of God. Sabbath was at the service of “life to the full”.

All were called to share in this creative leisure of God. It was not exclusively for Jews but was meant also for slaves and foreigners as well.

It is obvious from the context that Sabbath did not deal directly with the issue of worship. Indeed, God was honoured and worshipped simply by resting from work.

The creative work of God continued as persons “recreated”. Such recreation nourished the spirit as well as the body and kept the purpose of life in focus. It was a gift of God and an expression of trust in God’s providence.

b) As a Celebration of Liberation.The text from Deuteronomy provided a different but complementary nuance:

Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy, 
as the Lord your God commanded you. 
Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 
But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; 
you shall not do any work - 
you, or your son or your daughter,
or your male or female slave, 
or your ox or your donkey,
or any of your livestock, 
or the resident alien in your towns, 
so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. 
Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, 
and the Lord your God brought you out from there 
with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; 
therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day. (Deuteronomy 5.12-15)

Deuteronomy spoke not of the creating but of the liberating God, and Sabbath was interpreted in the light of liberation.

The requirement to desist from work and instead to rest was made possibly even more firmly than in the Exodus text. Work was not meant to enslave and oppress, but to foster growth in freedom. Sabbath was a celebration of freedom and liberation from unjust oppression, a gift of the liberating God, and an act of confidence in God.

c) The Certainty of “Enough”. A third text, an incident recounted in the Book of Exodus, added a further tone to the concept of Sabbath. It illustrated God’s response to the hunger of the Israelites during their wanderings in the Sinai Peninsula, when they were fed with Manna.

... in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 
When the layer of dew lifted, 
there on the surface of the wilderness
was a fine flaky substance, 
as fine as frost on the ground... (Exodus 16:13-14)
...‘Gather as much of it as each of you needs, 
an omer to a person according to the number of persons, 
all providing for those in their own tents.’
The Israelites did so, some gathering more, some less. 
But when they measured it with an omer, 
those who gathered much had nothing over, 
and those who gathered little had no shortage;
they gathered as much as each of them needed... (Exodus 16:16-18)
On the sixth day they gathered twice as much food,
two omers apiece... (Exodus 16:22)
(Moses said) “Six days you shall gather it; 
but on the seventh day, which is a Sabbath,
there will be none.” 
On the seventh day some of the people went out to gather, 
and they found none.(Exodus 16:26-27)

Sabbath observance expressed trust in the provident God. Yet from the context it was also evident that this provident God was concerned essentially with what might be called “enough” – neither too little nor too much. In the simple economy of the day it confronted the idea of accumulation as a hedge against an uncertain future, of competitiveness and of social inequality. Eventual settlement and agricultural development in the Promised Land may have required a more sophisticated economy, yet the basic concepts of “enough”, of trust in God’s providence and of equality and cooperation remained (or should have remained) fundamental to Israel’s self-understanding. 

d) A Call for Readjustment. The model of Sabbath acquired further refinement in the Book of Leviticus. 

You shall count off seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, 
so that the period of seven weeks of years gives forty-nine years... (Leviticus 25:8)
And you shall hallow the fiftieth year 
and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. 
It shall be a jubilee for you: 
you shall return, every one of you, to your property 
and every one of you to your family... (Leviticus 25:10)
That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you: 
you shall not sow, or reap the aftergrowth,
or harvest the unpruned vines... (Leviticus 25:11)
Should you ask, “What shall we eat in the seventh year, 
if we may not sow or gather in our crop?” 
I will order my blessing for you in the sixth year, 
so that it will yield a crop for three years.  
When you sow in the eighth year,
you will be eating from the old crop; 
until the ninth year, when its produce comes in,
you shall eat the old. (Leviticus 25:20-22)

The Jubilee Year – the Sabbath of Sabbaths - may never in fact have been observed in practice. But it expressed a wonderful trust in God, a trust that perhaps was beyond Israel’s capacity. It emphasised and endeavoured to implement in practice the ideas of freedom, of “enough” (or perhaps even of “abundance”), of trust in God’s providence. It clearly opposed the idea of accumulation of wealth and land, as well as the possibility of on-going indebtedness.

This was the vision of Jesus – but the condition of its happening was also clear: 

You shall observe my statutes and faithfully keep my ordinances,
so that you may live on the land securely. (Leviticus 25:18)

In the Book of Leviticus, and even more so in the mind of Jesus, Jubilee abundance was a factor of conversion, of fidelity, of assurance in the providential love of God.

It was precisely this concept of Sabbath that these Pharisees had lost sight of in their fascination with rules and regulations.

Jesus did not directly defend the disciples’ action but introduced a whole new attitude to Sabbath that went far beyond meticulous observation of sets of laws. David obviously did not consider himself bound by laws in a situation of need (not that the law he contravened had anything to do with Sabbath).

Jesus addressed, however, another issue vastly more pertinent than regulations. He spoke of the occasion when David .. and his companions were hungry. This change of focus was not a claim that the disciples’ actions were motivated by hunger. That could hardly have been the case. But these Pharisees’ preoccupation with Sabbath regulations was happening against the widespread experience of the hunger of so many of the small landholders, peasant farmers and day-labourers of Galilee.

In their concern to make the Sabbath law applicable to the general population, the Pharisees imposed impossible requirements on the poor. Faced with the nature of the land that the poor were farming and with their own dire need, it was impossible for them to find enough even to survive without contravening the details of Sabbath observance.

The situation was aggravated by the fact that much of the fertile land was owned by Pharisees, as well as by the priestly and scribal aristocracy resident in Jerusalem. It was to these that many of the poor were hopelessly indebted. To Jesus’ mind concentration on the niceties of Sabbath observance in the face of unnecessary but crushing poverty was obscene. 

In light of this we understand well Jesus’ claim:

27 “The Sabbath is there for people’s sake,
not people for the Sabbath’s sake.”.

The original purpose and focus of Sabbath had been utterly lost in the plethora of rules and regulations. It was to this focus that Jesus’ call to conversion was largely directed.

Mark concluded the incident with the telling observation:

28 ... so the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”

The appropriate punctuation in the original text is unclear. [The earliest manuscripts contain no punctuation whatsoever, and even later ones do not show inverted commas to indicate direct speech.] Many translations so punctuate as to place the remark on the lips of Jesus. It can equally be read [as is done here] as a comment added by Mark himself for the enlightenment of his readers. This latter reading perhaps fits more easily with the development of the narrative to date, and indeed with its further unfolding. Jesus was reluctant to accept the title Christ or Messiah. It would therefore seem to have been inconsistent for him suddenly to make the claim to be lord of anything. Like the earlier statement about the authority of the Son of Man in the story of the forgiving of the paralytic’s sin, this comment is better seen also as an editorial addition from the pen of Mark.

Indeed, the claim could be a profound statement of the faith of Mark.

Jesus was not lord of the Sabbath in the sense simply that he interpreted its claims or even freely overrode them. He was lord of the Sabbath rather in the sense that he embodied the power and intention of God contained in the concept of Sabbath. He saw his authority expressed not in freedom from Sabbath law but in his power to bring about the liberation it was instituted to celebrate.

At the end of the narrative Jesus would die on the eve of the Sabbath. The Sabbath would follow, and on the following day the tomb would be found to be empty. Jesus would be raised by the power of God.

Jesus’ death was an act of trust that God was in control, making his death not only his path to perfection but also the source of life and salvation for the whole world. That was the meaning of Sabbath.Understood in that sense, Jesus was indeed lord of the Sabbath.


Jesus had not set out deliberately to antagonise the varied interest groups. His simple living of the Kingdom message had drawn their criticism and opposition:

Their destructive concentration on peripheral issues eventually led Jesus to challenge directly the constricting narrowness of their vision.

Next >> Mark Chapter 3