At that time Jesus passed through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick and eat some heads of grain. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to Him, “Look, Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath!”
He said to them, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and those who were with him were hungry — how he entered the house of God, and they ate the sacred bread, which is not lawful for him or for those with him to eat, but only for the priests? Or haven’t you read in the Law that on Sabbath days the priests in the temple violate the Sabbath and are innocent? But I tell you that something greater than the temple is here!
If you had known what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice, you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:1–8)
Last week, we saw the opening of this confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees and learned a little more about the dynamics underlying it. This wasn’t just an argument over sabbath rules, even though it was presented that way. The Pharisees were questioning the validity of Jesus as a man of God and accusing him of trying to lead Israel astray.
So Jesus, with his unmatched insight into human hearts, skipped the intended argument completely and went straight for the substructure.
He started with a story.
In 1 Samuel 21, a still-young David came to the tabernacle in Nob in desperate straits. Although he didn’t tell the priest there the truth about his situation, he was running for his life — the king, Saul, was after him to kill him.
David had left Saul’s city abruptly, apparently without provisions for the journey. He’d been hiding out for several days, and he still had a long way to go. He had several young men with him, whom he left in hiding while he went to the priest. They were all dangerously hungry.
David didn’t ask the priest, Ahimelech, to break a law — only to feed him. But the only food on hand was the consecrated “bread of the Presence,” the ceremonial showbread that was baked and offered to God each day. Only the priests could lawfully eat it. But after asking a few questions, Ahimelech gave the bread to David and his men. He fed and therefore saved a man whom God loved, even though it meant breaking a clear prohibition.
We have to admit right up front that this is not a simple story to interpret. The Old Testament itself never passes judgment on it, either to justify Ahimelech and David or to condemn them. It just tells us what happened.
On the other hand, the law regarding the showbread was very clear, and Jesus himself stated without fanfare that eating it was “not lawful” for his David or his men to do. And David was no stranger to the consequences that came from disrespecting the holy things of God. Saul, David’s predecessor and the man who was trying to hunt him down and kill him, had lost God’s favor — and ultimately his kingship — because he played fast and loose with the sacrifices offered to God and because he failed to honor God’s holiness. By this time, Saul had lost all access to God’s guidance, was tormented by evil spirits, and was courting madness.
Some commentators have argued that a higher law was at work in this situation, one defined by compassion and necessity — David was starving, after all. Others accuse such an interpretation of being a compromise, nothing but flimsy “situational ethics.”
David was clearly sinning, if not in eating the bread, then in lying to Ahimelech (which ultimately had tragic consequences). And yet — can we safely accuse him of being a law-breaker in this circumstance?
On some level, it seems Ahimelech at least believed there was a higher law at work — that it was more important to show compassion and feed a starving man than it was to preserve the sanctity of the bread. Maybe. Or maybe he was just caught off guard and responding fearfully to the demands of a young warrior who was clearly in trouble. After all, the first thing we’re told about Ahimelech in the story is that he was afraid when David showed up. He knew something was off.
The fact is that when he came to Ahimelech and asked for the bread, David was at his lowest point, demoralized and desperate. He never walked such a shaky moral line again until he fell completely over it in his later adultery with Bathsheba.
So I’m not at all sure that Jesus meant for the Pharisees to draw a clear moral conclusion from this story, any more than we can easily do so. Instead, he seems less focused on the details of the story and more focused on the people in it.
A Cast of Characters
Think about the scene in Matthew. The Pharisees have just passed judgment on Jesus and his disciples, so Jesus invites them to go ahead and pass judgment on David — and that, under the circumstances, is a difficult thing for them to do.
The “not lawful” in David’s story is plain enough, but are the Pharisees really comfortable passing a judgment that the Scriptures themselves never did?
Casting themselves in David’s story, could they really argue, with confidence, that Ahimelech ought to have refused bread to David — the man after God’s own heart, the beloved of the Lord, the original Messiah* and Israel’s ideal king?
Could they really claim that when this man came to the priest desperate, starving, needy, and fleeing for his life because of the madness, hatred, and envy of a wicked king, it would have been more righteous to turn him away than to feed him?
Could anyone argue that God, who feeds the hungry and identifies with the poor, and who had set David apart for his eternal purposes, would have approved such a choice?
Not only that, but Ahimelech’s choice to help David advanced God’s purposes in Israel. Can we argue that he should have turned David away, let him faint from hunger and be caught by his enemies, when he was God’s choice for king? Whatever we think of the ethics of the story, it seems that God used Ahimelech to do his will.
Think again of the scene in Matthew. Here are Jesus, his disciples, and the Pharisees. As Jesus put the Pharisees into the judgment seat over David, he also outlined the cast of characters in that wheatfield where they all stood. After all, the question over which they were ultimately clashing was Jesus’s implicit claim to be the Son of David, the promised Messiah.
And in retelling David’s story, Jesus highlighted something 1 Samuel 21 didn’t: that it wasn’t only David who was hungry and ate the bread but also “those who were with him.” He was, I think, drawing a deliberate parallel between his disciples and David’s men.
So if Jesus is the Son of David, and his disciples are “those who are with him,” and if they are hungry and being unjustly accused and hounded by the Pharisees, then just who in this story are the Pharisees? Might they find themselves uncomfortably corresponding to Saul — attacking God’s chosen ones out of envy and hate, lacking God’s Spirit and guidance, and on the verge of losing their position and power in Israel?
Jesus didn’t explain the story. He just left it there, with the tables turned on his enemies. Faced with this story from Israel’s history, the Pharisees found themselves trapped on a judge’s bench that had suddenly become a dock.
Next, Jesus turned to the law itself. We’ll look at this next week.
To be continued …
* “Messiah” means “Anointed One”; David was anointed by the prophet Samuel to take Saul’s place as king.
This is Part 204 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.
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