We have noted often how the Pharisees had added quite a few restrictions to the Law that were not required by Moses. They had done so as part of their shift to Hellenized rationalism, which turned their Hebrew mysticism into legalism. It meant a usurpation of the heart-led way, firmly planting the intellect on the throne of the soul. Jesus accused them of laying heavy burdens on the common people while exempting themselves through all kinds of secretive loopholes. They no longer understood God, nor His divine moral character, and so they had no real clue about the meaning of Moses’ Law.
The Law of Moses insisted that the people of Israel treat their fellow Israelis as family, and God was their ultimate head of household. While it’s never okay to rob your brother of his livelihood, it’s certainly okay to expect a certain amount of sharing essential life support. So the Law of Moses said if your brother Israelite was walking through your field of ripening grain, he couldn’t do any damage, but he could eat as much as he could process with his bare hands as long as he stopped when he left the field. This was permitted on the Sabbath, because it was a simple matter of getting and preparing the food at hand. In this case it meant plucking a head of grain, rolling it between your palms to break the husks, blowing on the chaff to remove it from your hands, then eating the exposed grains from the stem.
But the Pharisees and their oral traditions had built up an unnecessary hedge to “protect” the Law from transgression. They treated the Law as a fragile princess whose honor must never be sullied. They called these actions reaping, threshing and winnowing, unlawful labor on the Sabbath. It was missing the point entirely, as Jesus showed them. With their carefully constructed, intricate restrictions on human behavior, they couldn’t account for several famous events in the Scripture.
When David was on the run with his handful of closest bodyguards and lieutenants, he stopped by the Tabernacle and asked the attending priest if they could have the old showbread (1 Samuel 21:1-8). It was perfectly legal for them to eat that, since the fresh bread had just been put in place that morning. In other words, it was a simple matter of the priest sharing his portion of the leftovers, something that was probably barely palatable at this point. He was unlikely to miss it much. His restrictions were reasonable.
And don’t the priests have to perform hard labor in the Temple on the Sabbath? Nobody complains about that. If what His disciples did was profaning the Sabbath, so was what the revered King David did, and so did the priests up to that day.
But that wasn’t what made them angry. It was when Jesus affirmed that His authority was higher than the Temple, about which they had become institutionally OCD in protecting its precious honor. (Did they forget it was built by the most paganized and immoral king in the nation’s history?) Then Jesus quoted Hosea 6:6, “For I desired mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.” The Pharisees didn’t know Jehovah, didn’t have a clue to His ways. The rituals always took second place to knowing God because they were meant as nothing more than symbolic indicators of how God viewed things in certain specific contexts. If you don’t know God, you can hardly extrapolate from one instance how He’ll act in another. The Sabbath was a blessing, not meant as a burden.
The Jesus poked them again, saying He was the Messiah and was Lord over the Sabbath observances. It was for Him to judge what was and was not lawful before God. We can only guess at their shock because they failed to seize Him immediately for saying such a thing. Instead, He kept on walking with His disciples and went into their synagogue. The Pharisees plotted to catch Him in front of more witnesses. So pretending to take His rabbinical status seriously, they asked him a question about the finer points of the Sabbath Law. Is healing on the Sabbath unlawful labor? By this time, the bogus oral traditions had ruled against it. Here was Jesus the Miracle Worker in a chance encounter with a man who had suffered his whole life from a crippled hand.
Take a moment to consider: Why were there so many diseases like this among the people of God? Where was the shalom? It was hindered by the leadership of the nation. They had gotten so far off track as to deprive the common people of the benefits and blessings of the Law. They were hateful and abusive to common peasants. The promise of shalom included guarding against most diseases. So it wasn’t this man or his family who had sinned, but in effect, the Pharisees who had sinned and made this man miserable, and now they were going to deprive him of his one chance at healing.
Jesus slapped them hard. “So, you have no trouble rescuing your domestic herds from trouble on the Sabbath, but you want to keep this Son of Israel in his misery because of your silly and unlawful legalistic reasoning? Is your brother Israelite not more important than a mere animal?” His comment implies that the only reason they could offer for their position is that their herd was their money, but healing this poor wretch wasn’t going to help their bottom line. So Jesus healed the man right there.
And all they could think about was how personally insulted they felt, shamed about the real issue of holiness in this man’s life. Instead of rejoicing that a brother Israelite was freed from his bondage, they began plotting how they could have Jesus arrested.