Matthew 12:1-2 “At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.”
Some would say these verses prove Jesus didn’t keep the Sabbath. If true, that would mean Jesus violated a law of God that carried the death penalty. Instead, we find that what Jesus actually “transgressed” was one of the Jewish traditions; not God’s law.
Here’s how the Sabbath law reads:
“Remember the Sabbath day, to 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. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Exodus 20:8-11)
God’s Sabbath law requires ceasing from labor and work, but there isn’t a great deal of detail on what that should look like. When a man was found gathering sticks on the Sabbath, perhaps in a high handed way, Israel was not sure what to do with him and had to petition God through Moses to find out (Numbers 15:32-36). In that case, God required the man be put to death.
God elevated the importance of Sabbaths among his laws.
“You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, ‘Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the LORD, sanctify you.” (Exodus 31:13)
By the first century, Jewish oral law and tradition had built up thousands of fence rules to help people avoid accidentally straying into a violation of God’s law. Jesus was actually violating a man-made tradition and not his Father’s law.
Another time, Jesus rebuked some Pharisees for tithing on spices (not a bad thing) while ignoring the weightier matters of justice, mercy, faithfulness and love of God (Matthew 23:23, Luke 11:42). The Pharisees tradition of not allowing grain to be picked for immediate consumption would have caused hungry people to remain hungry. The weightier matter was to have mercy and allow the hungry to eat.
If we read on in Matthew 12, Jesus mentions two instances where it was acceptable to follow the weightier of two laws when extenuating circumstances brought them in conflict.
“But He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he became hungry, he and his companions, how he entered the house of God, and they ate the consecrated bread, which was not lawful for him to eat nor for those with him, but for the priests alone? Or have you not read in the Law, that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath and are innocent?” (Matthew 12:3-5)
Then Jesus stated his intended meaning directly.
“And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:7-8)
Fence-rule-traditions are not bad in and of themselves. The problem occurs when the traditions become enforced without mercy.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” (Matthew 5:7)