What can we bring to the Lord? Should we bring him burnt offerings? … No, O people, the Lord has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. [Micah 6:6a,8 (NLT)]
In the Holy Place of the Tabernacle, there was a table on which the showbread was placed. Consisting of twelve loaves of unleavened bread stacked in two columns, it remained on the table for a week. When new loaves replaced it, the showbread was removed and eaten by the priests in the sanctuary. Because it was holy, no one other than a priest could eat it. Nevertheless, when David and his hungry men arrived in the town of Nob where the Tabernacle was located, Ahimelech the priest gave them the previous week’s showbread once he was assured the men were ceremonially clean. Having no other food for the famished men, the priest understood that feeding them was more essential than compliance with the ceremonial law. He knew the laws of compassion, mercy and love took precedence over ritual.
A thousand years later, Jesus and his disciples were walking through a grain field on the Sabbath when the hungry men picked some heads of grain and ate them. The Pharisees charged them with breaking the law, but not because they were picking grain in someone else’s field. It was perfectly permissible to do what they’d done any other day of the week but they’d done it on the Sabbath! Although harvesting grain was one of the thirty-nine categories of forbidden work on this day of rest, it’s not as if they were reaping sheaves of grain! Actually, the hungry men were doing no more work than someone feeding himself at a table. Moreover, Jewish tradition prohibited fasting on the Sabbath.
That subtle difference, however, was lost on the Pharisees who couldn’t see beyond the technicalities of the law. After Jesus reminded them of the story of David and the sacred loaves, He pointed out that they clearly didn’t understand God’s words in Micah about preferring mercy to sacrifices and that compassion was as important as the Law. Declaring Himself Lord over the Sabbath, Jesus then claimed authority over how the Sabbath was to be observed. To the Pharisees, however, His words were heresy.
Soon after, the Pharisees continued to exhibit their lack of mercy when they condemned Jesus for healing a man on the Sabbath. Jesus exposed their inconsistency by asking if they could save an animal on the Sabbath and then pointing out that a man was more valuable than a sheep. The laws of the Sabbath were never meant to release people from the need for mercy, whether to feed the hungry or relieve the misery of the afflicted.
Jesus regularly came into conflict with the Pharisees regarding the Sabbath but His issue wasn’t with the Sabbath; it was with the Pharisees. God didn’t create the Sabbath before making man! After creating humanity, God knew people would need a rest from the burden of work so He created the Sabbath for them. “The Sabbath,” Jesus explained, “was made to meet the needs of the people, and not the people to meet the requirements of the Sabbath.”
While this sacred day of rest and worship should have been viewed as a gift from God, by Jesus’ day, it had been complicated with an extensive list of restrictions (along with a variety of devious ways to skirt them). The Pharisees, however, had built their lives around rules and regulations and when Jesus questioned their authority, they called a meeting to plot His death. They didn’t understand that our God is a God of love not ritual, a God of people not regulations, a God who asks us to do is what is right, love mercy, and walk humbly with Him.