[Note: This is the “Old” version of the Grace Commentary on Luke. It will be updated to the new version soon.]
Though on the surface, it seems that the issue in Luke 6:1-11 is the law and tradition surrounding the prohibitions for the Sabbath, the real issues are cultural and theological. The actions that Jesus performed on the Sabbaths in this passage were allowed in certain situations by certain people. So when Jesus performs these actions—or instructs His disciples to do so—He is not violating the Sabbath law, or even the oral tradition about the law, but is instead making a startling claim about Himself, His ministry, and His followers.
When understood this way, the two events in Luke 6:1-11 starkly reveal the new wine that Jesus brings, and the new wineskins He puts it in (cf. Luke 5:33-39). Jesus shows how His interpretation and application of the Jewish Torah for His disciples is different than that of the Pharisees and John the Baptist. He does this by taking one of the key, identifying laws of Jewish life, the law of the Sabbath in Exodus 20:8-11, and interprets the law in such a way that does not break or abolish it, but fulfills and expands it for the benefit of all mankind.
Luke 6:1-5 will be considered here, and 6:6-11 in the next section.
6:1. Of critical importance to understanding Luke 6:1-5 is the difficult phrase at the beginning of the passage, on the second Sabbath after the first. This may be the most difficult and most discussed textual problem in the Gospel of Luke. The Greek phrase is sabbatō deuteroprōtō, and literally means “the second-first Sabbath.” Since deuteroprōtō is found nowhere else in Scripture or Greek literature, some believe it is a scribal error, and should be removed from the Greek text (cf. NIV, NAS; Bock 1994:534; Metzger 2002:116). Doing so, however, robs the passage of its force.
Among those who retain it, the word is usually translated as in in the NKJV, the second Sabbath after the first but this does not clarify which Sabbath is in view. Most scholars believe it doesn’t matter, and the events could have happened on any Sabbath of the year. This view notes that in the account that follows, the disciples of Jesus violate several of the 39 prohibited acts on the Sabbath as contained in the oral Torah, and based on this, the point of the passage is to show that Jesus followed the written Torah (the Pentateuch) but not the oral Torah (the Mishnah).
The point argued below, however, is quite different. Once it is determined which Sabbath Luke is referring to, it becomes clear that Jesus was not disobeying the oral Torah, but was in fact following it, and in so doing, made a provocative point about Himself and His ministry. To arrive at this conclusion, it must first be determined which Sabbath deuteroprōtō has in view.
A study of the Jewish background and the various views indicates that the Sabbath in question was Shavuot, the fiftieth day after Passover (see “What’s On Second? Who’s on First? Deuterōprotō in Luke 6:1”). According to the instructions in the Torah, the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot) Sabbath, like the Passover Sabbath, is not a weekly Saturday Sabbath, but is a holiday Sabbath, and can fall on any day of the week (Lev 23:21). This was the second of three Feasts which required pilgrimage to Jerusalem (Deut 16:16-17). During the Feast of Weeks, travelers would bring seven different kinds of first fruit offerings to the temple: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates (Deut 8:8). Several special ceremonies were conducted as these offerings were brought in to the temple and presented before the Lord.
But there was another offering for this day that was prepared and brought specifically by the temple priests. It was twin loaves made from new wheat flour. These loaves were specially made and prepared by the priests, and most curious of all, they were the only loaves ever brought into the temple that contained leaven (Lev 23:17). A special ceremony was conducted to prepare these loaves.
On the day of Shavuot, the priests would enter a field specifically chosen for this ceremony, and would harvest three seahs (about 24 liters) of stalks of wheat. After harvesting the stalks, the wheat had to be prepared in a way the differed from the usual way of separating wheat from the chaff. Usually, when wheat was harvested, the grain and chaff were separated through the process of threshing and winnowing. But the preparation of the wheat for the twin loaves used a special procedure known as “rubbing and beating.” The wheat that had been harvested was rubbed in the palm of the hands and then beaten with the fist in the other hand, though some say the beating could be done with the foot on the ground (Neusner 1988:745, Mishna, Menahot 6:5). Later tradition required that the wheat be rubbed 300 times and beaten 500 times, but this was probably not in practice at the time of Jesus. These actions were performed, even though it was the Sabbath (Neusner 1988:756, Mishna, Menahot11:1-3).
Finally, after the wheat had been threshed and winnowed by hand in the field, it was brought into the temple, where it was made into bread with leaven, before being presented before the Lord as an offering.
Two things are unique about this offering. First, it is the only offering that is presented to the Lord with leaven. Leaven, or yeast, is always a symbol for sin in Scripture, and so no other offering ever contained leaven. Second, this was the only offering that was prepared and shaped by the hands of men. Every other time, when grain or an animal was brought into the temple as an offering, it was offered just as it was. Yes, the grain might be roasted over a fire, and the animal would be slaughtered before it too was roasted, burned, or boiled, but no other actions of forming, shaping, or molding the offerings were to be performed. Only the two loaves on the Feast of Weeks were formed in such a way.
So in this context, what does the term deuteroprōtō mean? As stated, both the Feast of Unleavened Bread and the Feast of Weeks included offerings of the first-fruits. In Hebrew, the seven first fruit offerings of Shavuot are referred to as bikkurim, which is translated in the Greek Septuagint asprōtogenēmatōn (lit., “first ones.” Cf. Neusner 1988:168, 172, Mishnah, Bikkurim 1:6; 3:2). It is during the Feast of Weeks that the second first-fruits offering is brought into the temple (cf. Exod 23:19; 34:22; Lev 2:14; 23:17, 20; Neh 10:35; Ezek 44:30). So this seems to be the most likely explanation ofdeuteroprōtō. Deuteroprōtō is an abbreviated form of deuteroprōtogenēmatōn. The first first-fruits offering is the day after the first Sabbath of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and the second first-fruits offering is fifty days later on the Sabbath of the Feast of Weeks.
All of this is significant due to what Luke records next, that on this particular Sabbath, Jesus and the disciples went through the grainfields. This should be read quite literally. They were not on a path or road that went through the grainfields, but were walking off the path, through the midst (Gk.diaporeuomai) of the grainfields.
As they walked, they plucked the heads of grain (Gk. stachus, lit., “ears, stalks”). While this word can be used to refer to any kind of plant that produces stalks or ears, such as corn, barley, or wheat, in the New Testament, it always refers to wheat (Louw-Nida “stachus,” cf. also NET). The disciples are not plucking barley (Gk. krithē, cf. John 6:9, 13; Rev. 6:6), but wheat. Certainly, there is a more specific word for “wheat” (Gk. sitos) that could have been used, but Luke is not as concerned with the wheat as he is with what the disciples are doing with it.
He writes that after they plucked the ears, they ate them, rubbing them in their hands. Though this could be just a description of what they did with the grain (Bock 1994:522), it seems more likely that Luke points out their actions because of the symbolism of these actions on this particular day. These actions clearly resemble the actions of the priests as they harvest the grain and rub them in their hands to prepare the flour for bread.
6:2. The fact that some of the Pharisees were nearby and saw what the disciples of Jesus were doing shows that this was not just any grainfield, but was one specially tended and prepared for temple use on this day. If it were any random grainfield, one would have to conclude that the Pharisees were following Jesus around, or had coincidentally come upon Him as the disciples were picking grain (cf. Bock 1996:171).
Seeing what the disciples are doing, they ask them, “Why are you doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath?” The word Sabbath is plural, which may indicate that that the holiday Sabbath that year fell on Friday, causing back-to-back Sabbaths. But the issue of primary concern is why the Pharisees were questioning the disciples of Jesus.
Initially, people of western categories of thinking believe that the disciples of Jesus are stealing the wheat. The field was not theirs, nor was the wheat, and yet they plucked and ate of it as they walked along. But such is not the case. Land owners were required by Jewish law to let the poor and hungry eat from their fields. The poor could eat as much as they wanted as long as they did not do any harvesting, or collecting the grain in baskets. Even when it came time to harvest the field, the landowners were expected to leave the corners of the field uncut so that the poor could still eat (Lev 23:22; Deut 23:24-25). This was a form of practical welfare, and is seen in action in the book of Ruth.
So the Pharisees are not concerned that the disciples are eating grain that is not theirs. They are concerned that the disciples are plucking and eating this particular grain, in this grainfield, on this Sabbath. There were Jewish laws against thirty-seven types of work on a Sabbath, including harvesting, threshing, winnowing grain, and preparing food (Neusner 1988:187, Mishnah Shabbat 7:2). The disciples were technically doing all of these.
Sometimes priests could perform some of these prohibited acts on a holiday Sabbath if the holiday required it (Neusner 1988:756, Mishnah, Menahot 11:2-3; cf. Henry 1991:1671). For example, harvesting the firstfruits of barley for Passover was done on the holiday Sabbath by the temple priests (Neusner 1988:753, Mishnah, Menahot 10:3). Similarly, harvesting the firstfruits of wheat and preparing the twin loaves of bread could be performed by the priests on the holiday Sabbath (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 131a). So on both Passover and the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot, or Pentecost), the priests would enter into a field by the temple, harvest some grain, and then bring it into the temple to prepare as an offering.
It seems possible that the disciples were going through this particular grainfield on this particular holiday Sabbath, and performing actions that only temple priests were allowed to perform. The Pharisees, who are watching over the field, challenge the disciples for an explanation.
6:3. It is Jesus who answers the Pharisees, which may indicate that the disciples were acting on His instructions. As an answer, Jesus does not exactly defend the disciples or explain their actions, but provides a precedent from Israelite history. The account He chooses is when David…was hungry, he and those who were with him.
6:4. The account that Jesus refers to occurs in 1 Samuel 21. In 1 Samuel 20, King Saul’s son, Jonathan, told David to flee for his life because Saul wanted to kill him. In chapter 21, David and his companions have been on the run for three days, and have run out of food. After arriving in the town of Nob, David visits a priest in the house of God (this was before the temple was built), and asks the priest for five loaves of bread for him and his men. The priest tells David that the only bread he had was the holy bread, the showbread. The priest tells David that he can have the bread, if the men have not recently slept with women.
It is not important in this context why the priest required David and his men to have kept themselves from women, except to say that the showbread was holy and was intended for people who were ritually clean, as the priests usually were. What is important is that the priest recognized that according to the letter of the law, it was not lawful for any but the priests to eat the bread, the intent and purpose of the law enabled the priest to give the showbread to David and his men.
What did David and the priest know which Jesus also knew, but the Pharisees did not? The answer begins with understanding why the priests were given the bread in the first place. When God initially ordained the priesthood, He did not arrange for them to be paid. They did not receive a salary, a stipend, or any sort of monetary payment for their services. Nor were the priests allowed to own land. They were not given a portion of the land of Israel to grow crops or raise animals.
Instead, God provided for the needs of the priests through the grain and animal sacrifices of the people. When Israelites brought grain and animals to the tabernacle or the temple as an offering, a portion of it would be burned on the altar as an offering to God and the rest was usually reserved for the priests and their families.
Every week, to provide for their bread, the priests made twelve loaves of showbread (for more on the showbread, see Edersheim 1994:142). The loaves for the priests were made from the offerings of the first-fruits (which were stored in temple storehouses to last for the entire year), and any priest who had kept himself clean could eat of this bread (Num 18:11-13; 1 Sam 21:4-5). This bread for the priests was referred to as Terumah (or Terumah Gedolah) and is usually a food item given to the Priests as a gift. It is listed as one of the twenty-four priestly gifts.
These twelve loaves represented the twelve tribes of Israel, and were placed on a table in the Holy Place of the Tabernacle (Exod 25:23-30). Every Sabbath, new loaves replaced the loaves from the previous week, and the priests could then eat the loaves that had been removed (Lev 24:5-9).
The consumption of Terumah is guarded by numerous Torah-based restrictions and could be eaten by priests, their families, and their servants, as long as those who ate of these gifts were in a state of ritual purity. Interestingly, Terumah gifts were given to Elisha in 2 Kings 4:42, who gave them to other people who were in more need than he. While in this instance the loaves were made from barley, the point is still made that while the Terumah were generally reserved for priests, they could also be given to others who were in need. The intent and purpose of this law then, was to provide food for the priests, who had no other way of obtaining food.
When David came along, and he and his men were hungry, the priest recognized that at the core of this law, was God’s desire to provide food for those who did not have any. Even when the wheat was harvested for bringing it into the temple, God stated that some of the wheat be left in the field to provide for those who were poor and hungry (Lev 23:22). At this point in David’s life, he was both poor and hungry, and he was only asking for five loaves, which left seven for the priest, one for each day of the week.
So in 1 Samuel 21:5, David affirms that he and his men have kept themselves from women, and then goes on to point out that although the bread was consecrated in the vessel that very day, it had become common. This means that the day which David went to ask the priest for bread was a Sabbath day. The bread was changed every Sabbath. The fresh consecrated loaves were brought into the Holy Place and set upon the table, and the loaves from the previous week were brought out for consumption by the priests. The loaves that David was asking for were “in the vessel this day” which means that they had been brought out that very day, a Sabbath day.
Which raises the two points Jesus is making with this story.
Frist, the showbread was to be replaced early Saturday morning with freshly baked loaves. In order for the priests to accomplish this, they had to make the bread on the Sabbath. “The Sabbath-Law was not merely of rest, but of rest for worship. The Service of the Lord was the object in view. The priests worked on the Sabbath, because this service was the object of the Sabbath” (Edersheim 1988:v2,58). The Pharisees were allowed to do the work of baking bread on the Sabbath so that the loaves could be put out fresh on the table in the morning of the Sabbath.
The second point is that the loaves were intended as a provision for those who were hungry and in need (Pentecost 1981:165). Usually, this was the priestly family, but, as in the case of the priest giving the bread to David, the priest could give the loaves to those who were hungry or who were also in the service of the Lord. Though David was not yet king, the priest recognized that David was the anointed of the Lord, just as Jesus claimed about Himself and His disciples. Jesus, like David, “is waiting for the time when this kingship will come true. He too, is on the move with his odd little group of followers” (Wright 2004:67).
Both of these points relate to what Jesus and His disciples are doing in this grainfield on the Sabbath. By reminding the Pharisees of 1 Samuel 21, Jesus is implying that if the priests can make and exchange the loaves on the Sabbath, eat the old bread to satisfy their hunger, and give the bread to David who is also hungry, and none of this broke any of the Jewish law, then the disciples of Jesus can certainly eat a little grain on the Sabbath in order to satisfy their own hunger (cf. Matt 12:1). Jesus is saying that God’s law never intended to exclude people from basic needs, like eating, and David is an example of what the law really meant. In effect, if the Pharisees condemn the disciples, then they also condemn David and this priest who gave him the bread (cf. BKC 1983:219; Beale 2007:294; Wiersbe 1989:190).
Furthermore, if it is true, as argued above, that this Sabbath was the holiday Sabbath of the Feast of Weeks, then the actions of the disciples resembled that of the temple priests, who were not only allowed to perform these actions on this Sabbath, but were required to do so (cf. Henry 1991:1671). Jesus had His disciples perform similar actions to show that He was instituting a renewed Israel with a priesthood of all believers who did not require the mediation of temple or its sacrifices of sheep, bulls, and goats. Jesus was foreshadowing a means of direct access to God through Himself. This is the point of verse 5 (cf. the similar point in 5:20-21; Radmacher 1999:1260; Wright 2004:67).
Jesus was acting as a priest in providing food for His followers. This action had precedent in the example of David in providing similar food for His men. Furthermore, by having the disciples pick the grain and rub it in their hands, Jesus was foreshadowing the renewal of Israel and the creation of a Kingdom of Priests.
Jesus was not simply trying to provoke an argument with the Pharisees about the nature and restrictions of the Sabbath. Rather, He was trying to teach an important lesson to His disciples about the His own nature, and the purpose behind His mission. Jesus is saying that in Him are fulfilled the temple worship, the dwelling place of God with man (cf. Matt 12:6). In Jesus and His followers are the new priesthood, the new sacrificial system, and new center for the worship of God.
6:5. Though this final statement of Jesus has caused much consternation among scholars, the statement is simplified by understanding that Jesus is not claiming to be God, or that He has the infallible interpretation of the Torah. Though He is God, and does have an infallible interpretation of the law, his is not what He is stating in Luke 6:5 (contra EBC 8:887).
Rather, His statement is just another way of saying what He says elsewhere, that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. In other words, man is to rule over the Sabbath; the Sabbath is not to rule over man.
In the Gospels, when Jesus speaks of The Son of Man, while He is referring primarily to Himself, He is also speaking of all humanity (cf. Mark 2:27). The phrase is the preferred title of Jesus for Himself. In using it, Jesus is not claiming to be a man (though of course He was human), but was making a claim to be the representative of all humanity (Pentecost 1981:162). He was the son of Adam (Heb., ben Adam), the new man. Just as Adam represented all mankind when he sinned in the Garden of Eden, so Jesus also represents all mankind in His life, death, burial, and resurrection (see Rom 5:12-21).
Based on this understanding then, when Jesus says that the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath, He is saying, “I, and all humanity with me, is Lord of the Sabbath.” In other words, humanity rules over the Sabbath; the Sabbath does not rule over humanity. Or, to put it another way, “People control Shabbat and not the other way around” (Stern 1992:89).
Yet some forms of Jewish tradition had made the laws and regulations of the Sabbath too difficult and demanding. Keeping the Sabbath had become too much work. The purpose of the Sabbath was to give mankind a day of rest, reflection, and rejoicing in God, one another, and creation. But instead, it had become a burden, exactly the opposite of what it should have been. Jesus, as the representative of all humanity, was showing how the Sabbath was truly to be kept.
Many of the Jewish leaders would have been in full agreement with Jesus in this. A passage from the Talmud says:
Rabbi Yonatan ben-Yosef said, “For it [Shabbat] is holy unto you” (Exod 31:14). That is, it is committed into your hands, not you into its hands! (Yoma 85b).
A final comment from J. W. Shepard is appropriate here:
God made man and adapted the Sabbath to his use. It is a human necessity met by divine mercy. Man is more than any institution, whatever it may be. The state was made to serve man. Every institution of the church divinely founded is for the proper service of mankind. The Sabbath should serve man’s body, mind, and spirit. It should not be a day of pain, sorrow, and burdensome fear; but one of refreshment, peace, and joy (Shepard 1939:163).
The point of this entire passage then, is “not to pit the alleged legalism of the Pharisees (and scribes) over against the libertinism of Jesus” (Green 1997:252). Instead, it is simply to show that Jesus is living and acting within a particular form of Judaism which viewed mankind as the reason and ruler of the Sabbath, rather than the other way around. It serves us; we do not serve it. The same holds true with all other institutions, even those created by God. “Jesus is less concerned with abrogating Sabbath law, and more concerned with bringing the grace of God to concrete expression in his own ministry, not least on the Sabbath” (Green 1997:252). Divinely inspired institutions are given by God to man to help us live life to the full. They are not given as a means to gauge personal faithfulness to God.