Commentary on Luke 6:1-5
Yet another confrontation between Jesus and some Pharisees. Following immediately, as it does, after the parable about the patch and the wineskins, it confirms what Jesus said about the gap between the traditionalists and his vision.
He and his disciples were walking through a cornfield and it was a sabbath day. The disciples were plucking heads of corn, rubbing them in their hands and eating them. The sabbath did not forbid walking short distances. And custom did not forbid “gleaning”, that is, taking corn left over by reapers. It did forbid reaping and threshing. Only a very narrow-minded interpretation could have described plucking as reaping and rubbing between the hands as threshing but that seems to be what is happening here.
The disciples are asked, “Why are you doing something that is forbidden on the sabbath day?” Jesus answers very quickly and to the point. He makes no reference to the narrow-minded legalism that his critics reveal, the “old wineskin” mentality. Instead, he throws at them an incident. David and his men were hungry so they went into the house of God and, with his approval, ate the holy bread which only the priests were allowed to eat (1 Sam 21:6). Each sabbath, 12 loaves of fresh bread were set on a table in the Holy Place. The stale bread was eaten by the priests.
As king, David put himself above the law. Both David’s and the disciples’ actions involved godly men doing something forbidden by law. However, it is never a violation of a law to do what is good and to save life (eating for survival). In that sense both David and the disciples were within the spirit, though not the letter, of the law.
And Jesus, too, is above the law, “The Son of Man is master of the sabbath.” Jesus has the authority to overrule man-made laws concerning the Sabbath, particularly as interpreted by the Pharisees. This does not mean, of course, that Jesus (or even God for that matter) can or will do anything he feels like doing. Jesus will never go against anything that involves the True or the Good; with his Father he is the Source of all that is true and good.
But many of the Jewish laws (like civil laws) are positive law. In themselves, they involve matters which are neither good nor bad. In itself, it is neither good nor bad to stop at a green light or go through a red one. It is neither good nor bad in itself to abstain from work on the sabbath. What makes these acts good or bad is the deeper good of which they are a sign. That deeper good may sometimes involve their non-observance. Hunger and survival may over-ride a rule to fast. In a matter of extreme urgency it may be necessary to drive (safely) through a red light. The letter of the law is violated but not the good it intends.
Some manuscripts of Luke contain a very pertinent saying at this point: “On the same day, seeing a man working on the sabbath day, Jesus said to him: ‘Friend, if you know what you are doing, you are blessed; but if you do not know, you are accursed as a breaker of the Law’.” (Jerusalem Bible, loc. cit.) That is a sentiment that goes with new wine and new wineskins.
If truth and goodness are not violated by doing or not doing something, can we way there is sin or evil there?