April 29, 2017

Mark 2:23-28: The Sabbath Made for Man

The central theme of Jesus’ teachings on the Sabbath and the commandments revolve around reverence for both God and man. Such a profound reverence for humanity in the context of Mosaic Law was a relatively new idea in Jewish culture and theology and is best summed up in Jesus’ statement on the “greatest commandment” of Deuteronomy 6:5, i.e., that man is to love God above all else as well as love his neighbor as himself (Mark 12:29-31).1 However, this revolutionary focus on the welfare of mankind is perhaps best demonstrated in the passage commonly known as the “Lord of the Sabbath” (2:23-28),2 in which Jesus instructs (or, more properly, reminds) the Pharisees that “the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (2:27).

This relatively short passage does significant heavy lifting for the applicability of Mosaic Law then, as well as Christian doctrine now. Three questions that characterize the general controversiality of this narrative, and the specific scandal that twisted up the Jewish officials’ shorts at the time, are as follows: Are Jesus’ disciples actually breaking the Sabbath Law (2:24)? Do Jesus’ claims actually undermine Mosaic Law (2:27)? And, what does it really mean for the “Son of Man” to be “Lord of the Sabbath” (2:28)?

Looking back on the passage through a Christian lens, it may seem deceptively easy to answer these questions, but to Jesus’ audience it, like most of his teachings, was a sort of riddle with multiple meanings and layers. At every level though, we see both God and his creation, mankind,3 as the foundation for the whole of the Law (Matt 22:40). The underlying purpose of this law is the glorification of the Creator4 through reverence of and to His creation,5 and attentiveness to the difficulty involved in keeping it is in always maintaining an upward movement of that reverence to God without forsaking mankind.6

Modern Exegesis

The first question at hand is of the validity of the Pharisees’ accusation—whether or not Jesus’ disciples are even breaking the Sabbath Law as they walked through the grain field picking ears (Mark 2:23) and shucking them by hand to eat them raw as they went (Luke 6:1). There are certain allowances and prohibitions involved in this simple act though. First of all, there is, of course, a general prohibition on work of all kinds on the Sabbath day (Exod 20:10). At first glance, this seems fairly clear and applicable to the disciples’ activities since “even in plowing time and in harvest time you shall rest” (34:21).

Although, while they were, in the strictest sense, engaged in a “harvest” activity of sorts, this particular kind of harvesting by hand was not prohibited during the work week under Mosaic Law as long as it was done by hand and eaten on the spot:7 “If you go into your neighbor’s standing grain, you may pluck the ears with your hand, but you shall not put a sickle to your neighbor’s standing grain” (Deut 23:25). Clearly, the small amount of grain the disciples would have been picking by hand and eating would not have amounted to what could have been harvested by sickle reaping. While relevant to analyze the activity itself, any argument for or against the illicitness of the act of harvesting (as theft or similar) misses the point of the Pharisees’ accusation, i.e., that the men should not have been lifting a finger on the Sabbath day at all. So, was it work, or not?

Because of this somewhat gray area of the Law, even this small effort of snacking on grains could have been considered a sort of subset of reaping,8 which falls under the category of manual labor in much the same way as one poor fellow was once made an example of for breaking the Sabbath law while just gathering sticks to roast his marshmallows (Num 15:32-36).9 Even more than accounting for the accusation by categorizing gathering grain as work, if we are to take a messianic/prophetic view of the narrative, then the evidence stacks up a little further against the disciples’ case. Not only were they doing work in picking and shucking grain, which rivaled or at least equaled the simple gathering of sticks, but they could, by a particularly nitpicky onlooker, have also been accused of making roads or pathways through the field:10 “as [the disciples] made their way” (Mark 2:23).

From a mundane analysis, it seems petty to think of what a sorry excuse for a “road” or even a “path” could be made by a fatigued man strolling through a grain field. Perhaps we could be a bit more sympathetic to the owner of the field though, if we imagine at least twelve to seventy men tromping through the stalks making pathways as they chow down on his grain. But, while the Pharisees probably were not concerned with the farmer’s property, they could have also missed the messianic link to this act of path-making from the prophet Isaiah: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord” (Is 40:3).11 This nod to Isaiah’s prophecy12 may be just one tiny drop in the massive bucket of Jesus’ prophetic fulfillments, but it is also one more strike in terms of the disciples’ breach of Sabbath Law.

All things considered, Jesus’ retort was in light of accepting the disciples’ activity as a technical violation of the Law and his lesson was that the type of violation/work was actually justifiable.13 The story of King David that Jesus reminds the Pharisees of (1 Sam 21:1-6) tells of a two-fold infraction of Levitical/Mosaic Law. One, more explicitly, is that David and his men ate the Bread of the Presence, which was reserved for the priests only (Lev 24:5-9). The second,14 more implicitly, is that David took this holy bread for himself and his men, who were all presumably travelling on the Sabbath day (an unlawful activity in itself),15 as hinted to by the fact that the bread was available16 (and very likely stale at that point) and then replaced (1 Sam 21:6). The moral of the story that follows is in the two groundbreaking statements that say essentially the same thing in two subtly different ways and strike at the real meat of the issue: “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27), and, “the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath” (2:28).

Looking back on the Gospel from a Christian perspective, it may be easiest to say that what is going on here is that Jesus is pulling rank on the finicky Pharisees, i.e., in his messianic mission and in comparing himself to David, also an “anointed one” of sorts (1 Sam 16:13), Jesus is asserting that preaching his Gospel takes precedence over the Law.17 This does not hold much water within the context of his own lessons though,18 as Matthew recounts Jesus’ explicit assertion: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matt 5:17). While there may be an implication of Jesus paralleling himself to David19 (and rightfully so), this is really a lesson directed to the common man and Jesus himself as a man, rather than the messianic/kingly status of himself or David, and the original intended purpose of the Sabbath as instituted by the Big Man Himself.

The first intention of the Sabbath is to direct man’s undivided attention to the Creator, which, more specifically, raises the human mind and intentions above routine, daily labors to fulfill his unique privilege and covenant relationship with God. 20 This is an act of remembrance intended to memorialize, in a broad sense, the glory of creation and, in a more specific sense, the liberation of God’s people from slavery,21 i.e., the Israelites from Egypt (Deut 5:15) and all of God’s people from slavery to sin.22 Therefore, the Law carries a necessary condition that any observance of it (or any law) that would hinder man’s spiritual efforts becomes an inherent contradiction to the Sabbath itself.

The second intention, as mentioned above (see Introduction and fn. 3), is that the Sabbath Law is anthropocentric as well as theocentric. This means that just as the second commandment, i.e., to love one’s neighbor, “is like [the first]” (Matt 22:39),23 the Sabbath is made for both God and man. So, the Sabbath has an apparently humanistic objective for the general welfare and refreshment24 of man after his labors in creation. The Torah even hints to this ordering of purpose, as we encounter the term “sabbath” (שבת) in two narratives before the institution of the Ten Commandments—when God šābbat (“rested”) from his labors of creation (Gen 2:3) and when He told Israelites to rest on the day of the qideš šabbat (“holy rest”), rather than gathering food/manna (Exod 16:23). These two instances had little (or at least vague) implications of man’s responsibilities to the Sabbath and spoke only to the benefits for man on the Sabbath. Therefore, Jesus’ claim that the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath does not undermine Mosaic law, but rather ensures its fulfillment.

Verse 28, “the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath” (Mark 2:28), belongs to verse 27, in a sense, and is interpreted by the latter.25 Many modern commentators make the connection with the term “the Son of Man” in this narrative in the same ways as other narratives which refer to the prophetic title from Daniel 7:13. Like many of Jesus’ teachings, this is indeed true, but is only one layer of the riddle, and to say that the Son of Man (being Jesus) is “lord” of the Sabbath can also be interpreted as an unveiling of his divinity, having authority of that which is designated holy by and to God.26 This interpretation can even go so far as to say that the title, “Lord of the Sabbath,” is Jesus intentionally putting a (i.e., his own) human form to Daniel’s “son of man.”27 However, like many of his other teachings, this instance seems to point more to Jesus’ special position as both God and man28 and highlights his humanity among his fellow men.29

While Jesus had an awareness of his divine nature,30 it served him better in this case to appeal to his humanity as a literal son of man[kind] among other men (i.e., his disciples) in saying that mankind is lord of the Sabbath,31 as it was made for all of us, even insofar as our obligations to it are ultimately for our spiritual benefit. The importance of this lesson, particularly when directed at Pharisees, whose job it was to administer and judge Mosaic Law, is to remind men who spend so much time in protecting and preserving the faith and the Law that they might easily forget that men were originally meant to live by that Law and not die by it32 (a problem that persists even to this day in nearly every form of organized religion). To bind up the teaching of the Sabbath being made for man and the son of man being lord of the Sabbath not only clarifies the purpose of religious precepts overall, but also bears out Jesus’ messianic mission as the fulfillment of the Sabbath.33 The Sabbath Law involves trust in God to provide for man’s needs while he rests from his labors—the disciples were indeed following and trusting God in his human incarnation.

Witnesses to the Living Tradition

Ancient commentators and Church Tradition also largely treat the Lord of the Sabbath passage in terms of the balance between theology and humanity, but more properly by emphasizing the union of Jesus’ divine nature and human nature. In terms of the patristic and some medieval writers, this platform was likely inspired by the still-fresh heresies that seemed to be banging at their doors with the tenacity of Jehovah’s Witnesses,34 many of which glorified Jesus’ humanity over his divinity or his divinity over his humanity.35 Given also the long history in Judaism and the severe penalties prescribed in the Torah for transgression of Sabbath law,36 the efforts to maintain the balance of theological observance and humanitarian observance naturally leaned in favor of humanity to pick up centuries of slack in Israelite culture.

Novatian argued that there was a simultaneously inverse relationship between Jesus and the Sabbath Law that the passage speaks to, i.e., that while he was under the Sabbath Law in his humanity he was also above the Sabbath Law in his divinity.37 Although such a view successfully supports Jesus’ unique forma servi and forma dei,38 it does not much good for the rest of us fleshy little servi; we first have to more closely and materially identify with the God-man. St. Augustine pointed out the simple fact that Jesus, along with his disciples in the field, did get hungry and eat, taking this as an obvious proof that he was indeed truly human39 (as well as God). St. Thomas Aquinas accounted for the needs of the body in tandem with the needs of the soul, claiming that man has a natural inclination, not only for physical nourishment, but also for spiritual refreshment,40 which attempts to taste the greatest refreshment of enjoying God in heaven41 (Rev 7:16). This has since been adopted into Church Tradition, which takes the whole incident as simple evidence to bear out Jesus’ humanity.42

So, Jesus and his disciples all had a mean appetite after what we could assume to be a long day of preaching. But, the issue of the Sabbatical Law still pressed on the ancients as it does the moderns. While it is true that the disciples were eating simple food for pure nourishment, rather than slaving over a hot barbecue grill for pleasure,43 a stricter Levitical interpretation might still accuse them of failing to properly “deny” themselves, as well as rest, if they were to extend typical atonement practices to every Sabbath day (Lev 16:31). This is to say that a priestly stickler of the time could have argued that the disciples were working to pick the grains and, in eating them, they were also failing in the more stiff Levitical understanding of this Hebrew word anah (עָנָה), usually rendered in English as “deny,” which more specifically meant to “humble” or “mortify” one’s nephesh (נֶפֶשׁ), “life” or “soul,” particularly in fasting (23:32) to show particular reverence to God by denying the flesh.

On the one hand, Lapide may have countered this argument by asserting that since the Sabbath was made for man and Jesus was the Lord of the Sabbath (and, thus, the Lord of men), it was his prerogative to dispense with such prescriptions as he saw fit.44 On the other hand, and of more lasting significance for the Church, St. Thomas observed that the Sabbath was instituted in a broader sense so that practical obstacles to religion (e.g., hunger and fatigue) would be removed45 for that one sacred day. Lapide would have agreed with this counterpoint though, as he also did admit with greater thrust than the former assertion that the benefit to man intended in the Sabbath observance was to restore his body from the fatigue of the week’s work in order to direct his thoughts to spiritual salvation; anything that was hurtful to this pursuit should be abandoned just as manual labor is instructed to be abandoned in favor of the overall benefit of the individual.46

It may even be tempting to run with the title of “Lord of the Sabbath” in a Christian context and disregard the Sabbath Law altogether as a component of the ceremonial law that was fulfilled and passes away under the New Covenant.47 But, as one of the Ten Commandments (Exod 20:8-11), the Sabbath Law is in fact a moral law as it governs the worship and morality of man’s action (or inaction) towards God.48 Since it is a moral law and the disciples’ activity of plucking and eating grains is, in one capacity or another, a technical infraction of the Law, then we are left again to reconcile the authority and purpose of the Law itself.

The Sabbath was made for man, who is Lord of the Sabbath (both Jesus and all sons of man), and was imparted to man so that he could, as he refreshed his body after six days of necessary labor (Gen 3:17), make reparations to his soul49 for the sins he committed after six days of worldly involvement.50 Church Tradition has understood quite literally that the Law is not violated as long as the activity in question serves both/either God and/or benefiting one’s neighbor (as oneself—including feeding one’s own body in need of nourishment).51 Similarly, it should also be acknowledged that the disciples eating these meager rations of hand-collected grains allowed them to subdue their own passions (i.e., hunger) in order to heal those (i.e., their neighbors) that are agitated by other passions (i.e., sin) by leading them to virtue through preaching the Gospel,52 which, like any other task, cannot effectively be done under the fatigue of hunger53 when all you can think about is your next meal.


In the strictest sense of Mosaic Tradition, Jesus’ disciples were breaking the law. However, Jesus’ claims (with recourse to Davidic history) were not that the Pharisees were incorrect in their claim to the infraction, but that the infraction was justified and took a higher priority than their stickling54 under the intended purposes and precepts of the Sabbath Law itself. While being Lord of the Sabbath may involve Jesus’ messianic mission as the divine “Son of Man” (Matt 24:30), his usage of the phrase in this narrative speaks more to his and everyone’s humanity, in that every human is Lord of the Sabbath, since it was made for us “in the beginning” (Gen 1:1; 2:3).

The key verse of this passage is the one that is unique to Mark’s Gospel: “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27). This one statement underpins Jesus’ teachings on the Law throughout the Gospels as it develops (rather than abolishing) the old covenantal laws of the Levites by exalting the greatest commandments, i.e., to love God above all and to love one’s neighbor as himself (Rom 13:10). This simplified recapitulation parallels the original bestowing of the Ten Commandments themselves. It is an example of God leading his people ever forward out of the darkness of a primitive existence55 in which man, when left to his own devices and in an attempt at judiciously ordering himself and his surroundings,56 will often construct laws of such complexity and disordered priorities that he would die by them rather than live by them.57

Sometimes it takes God’s intervention to slice off the fat of man’s own obsessive worldliness58 to remind us what is most important—glorifying the Creator through proper care of the creature. Providing a timeless example of divine guidance, this passage remains a valuable lesson today for the establishment and proper dispensation of doctrine to be for the benefit of man, rather than enslaving man to doctrine.

1. Cf. Matthew 22:37-40; John 15:12.
2. Cf. Matthew 12:1-8; Luke 6:1-5.
3. While the Sabbath Law is stated and revisited several times in the Torah, the wording of Exodus 23:12 and Deuteronomy 5:14 particularly center on the benefit of the Sabbath for man.
4. See Romans 1:25. Cf. Deuteronomy 17:3.
5. E.g., 1 Corinthians 6:19.
6. Cf. 1 Corinthians 15:43-45.
7. Mary Healy, The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 64.
8. Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 240.
9. Cf. Exodus 35:3, which suggests that the major transgression could have been both/either the fact that the man was gathering sticks and/or the fact that he was obviously intending to kindle a fire with them.
10. Marcus, Mark 1-8, 240.
11. Cf. Mark 1:3.
12. Marcus, Mark 1-8, 239.
13. B. Harvie Branscomb, The Gospel of Mark (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1937), 57.
14. There is, arguably, still a third infraction to Mosaic Law (see Exod 20:16), i.e., David’s deception, that we will revisit shortly.
15. Cf. Exodus 16:29; Acts 1:12.
16. Healy, The Gospel of Mark, 65.
17. Ibid.
18. See Matthew 23:25. Cf. Sirach 32:15.
19. If this is the case, Jesus would likely have been improving on David’s story, rather than emulating it—a common biblical theme—since David actually lied to Ahimelech/Abiathar to get the bread of the presence and Jesus’ narrative involves no deception. Marcus, Mark 1-8, 240-1.
20. Healy, The Gospel of Mark, 65.
21. John R. Donahue and Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, vol.2, Sacra Pagina Series (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002), 114.
22. Cf. Romans 7:25.
23. Cf. John 13:34.
24. Marcus, Mark 1-8, 245.
25. Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration (New York: Doubleday, 2007), 325. 26. Healy, The Gospel of Mark, 65.
27. Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, 326.
28. Ibid., 325.
29. Cf. Matthew 1:23; Isaiah 7:14—Ἐμμανουήλ/עִמָּנוּאֵל, “God is with us.”
30. Brant Pitre, The Case for Jesus (New York: Image, 2016), 126-31.
31. Branscomb, The Gospel of Mark, 58-9.
32. Ibid., 57.
33. Healy, The Gospel of Mark, 65.
34. E.g., the Arians—the more things change, the more they stay the same.
35. The former was exemplified in the heresy of Adoptionism and the latter in the heresy Docetism.
36. E.g. Exodus 31:14-15; 35:2.
37. Novatian, The Trinity 11, in Thomas C. Oden and Christopher A. Hall, eds, Mark, vol.2, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 35.
38. Hilary of Poitiers, The Trinity IX.14, in William A. Jurgens, The Faith of the Early Fathers, vol.1 (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1970), 874.
39. Augustine, Against the Apollinarians 80, in Oden, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, 35.
40. Cf. Matthew 5:6.
41. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae II-II.122.4 (Lander, WY: The Aquinas Institute for the Study of Sacred Doctrine, 2012), (hereafter, ST).
42. Catechism of the Catholic Church 544 (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), (hereafter, CCC). Cf. The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Church Publishing, Inc., 1979), 868 (hereafter, BCP). Cf. The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms (Lawrenceville, GA: Christian Education & Publications, 2007), 8.7 (hereafter, WCF).
43. John Chrysostom, Homily 39 on Matthew, in Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea (New York: Preserving Christian Publications, Inc., 1999), 51.
44. Cornelius á Lapide, The Great Commentary, 4th ed., trans. Thomas W. Mossman, vol.3, Catholic Standard Library (Edinburgh: John Grant, 1908), 378.
45. ST II-II.122.2.
46. Lapide, The Great Commentary, 377-8.
47. E.g., BCP 869. Cf. Luke 16:16; Romans 10:4; CCC 129; BCP 847; WCF 21.7.
48. ST I-II.100.4.
49. Cf. 2 Corinthians 5.
50. Unknown Greek, Sermon 6 1-2, in Oden, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, 36.
51. CCC 582.
52. Lapide, The Great Commentary, 378.
53. Cf. Lamentations 4:9; Deuteronomy 8:3.
54. E.g., Matthew 12:11-12.
55. Cf. Galatians 4:3.
56. Cf. Romans 4:13-14; 1 Corinthians 6:7-8.
57. See Leviticus 18:5; Romans 10:5; Galatians 3:12.
58. Cf. Philippians 3:19.