*Scripture verses covered in this section's commentary are noted in italics

Luke 6:1-5 meaning

Verses covered in this passage:

  • Luke 6:1
  • Luke 6:2
  • Luke 6:3
  • Luke 6:4
  • Luke 6:5

Luke narrates the first of two confrontations between Jesus and the Pharisees. Who is in charge of the Sabbath: Jesus or the Pharisees?

The parallel Gospel accounts for this event are Matthew 12:1-8 and Mark 2:23-28.

After the Pharisees and their heart issues are revealed in Chapter 5, Luke continues with the theme of their disputes with Jesus in Chapter 6. This time, the Pharisees decide to engage Jesus over issues of conduct on the Sabbath:

Now it happened that He was passing through some grainfields on a Sabbath; and His disciples were picking the heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands, and eating the grain (v 1).

Luke begins with the phrase now it happened to show that what follows occurred during the same overall time-frame of the previous events (Luke 5). Luke is keen to point out that the particular day of the week that this interaction happened on was the Sabbath. This is important because the Sabbath was a holy day for the Jews that was set apart by God. The Sabbath occurred at the end of the week. It began at sundown of the sixth day and lasted until the sunset, 24 hours later. The Sabbath was a day of rest. Its observance was commanded by God and handed down through Moses in the Ten Commandments. The Sabbath is mentioned many times in the Old Testament. It is the fourth of the Ten Commandments. The original command to honor the Sabbath is found in Exodus:

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. For six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Lord your God; on it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male slave or your female slave, or your cattle, or your resident who stays with you. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and everything that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day; for that reason the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”
(Exodus 20:8-11)

Of all the Jewish practices, the weekly observance of the Sabbath was perhaps their most distinctive, since it occurred weekly, and included all classes of Jews. All their work was done during the first six days of the week, but on the Sabbath all work activity ceased in order to give space to rest, which was an integral part of worshipping God in their deliberate rest. Its rhythms served as a constant reminder to all Jews that God is the Creator, and they were God’s people.

One day, Jesus went through the grain fields on the Sabbath with His disciples. In the context of Luke, this takes place before Jesus chooses His twelve disciples in Luke 6:13-16. Which disciples could these be? It likely refers to the four fishermen called in Luke 5:1-11 (Simon, Andrew, James, John), along with the Levi the tax collector (Luke 5:27) and any others who were following Him at that time. Luke seems to be using the term “disciple” in its general sense representing those who follow a rabbi, or teacher, rather than “the twelve” (John 6:60-67). In any event, Jesus’s disciples became hungry while they walked through the fields. They began to pick the heads of grain and eat them.

But some of the Pharisees said, “Why do you do what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” (v 2).

When the Pharisees saw that His disciples were doing this, they accused Jesus. This indicates that the Pharisees were tracking Jesus, following along with Him, even as Jesusdisciples followed. They said to Him, “Why do you do what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” It appears from the tone of the interchange that follows that the Pharisees’ purpose in following Jesus was not to learn from Him and His ways. Rather, it seems the Pharisees had adopted a goal to undermine Jesus, and His teaching.

The main tact of the Pharisees’ accusation against Jesus at this point seems to be to attack His credibility. Their argument was because His disciples violated their Sabbath customs (with Jesus’s approval no less) that this exposed that He was either a fraud or at least a shabby Rabbi. The accusation was serious; keeping the Sabbath was a vital issue, and is treated in the Old Testament as a non-negotiable. One of the offenses God cited against Judah that led to their exile to Babylon was their neglect of the Sabbath (Jeremiah 17:19-27).

The Pharisees not only accused Jesus of breaking the law. They were also offended by Him. They were not offended that Jesus’s disciples broke God’s law on the Sabbath (they hadn’t). The Pharisees were offended because Jesus’s disciples violated their laws concerning the Sabbath (they had). But beneath the Pharisees’ offense was the dangerously mistaken assumption that their rules were God’s laws. The Pharisees had perilously put themselves in the place of God.

How did this come to be?

In a word, gradually. After the Jews’ returned from the Babylonian exile, they had a renewed veneration for God’s law (Nehemiah 8:8). Among the commands and customs the Jews observed more seriously was the Sabbath, and Nehemiah played an important role in restoring this observance (Nehemiah 12:15-22). But whereas Nehemiah merely reinstated the observance of the law of God, others later added man-made edicts. In the centuries that followed, religious regulations multiplied.

The Pharisees were at the forefront of advancing these regulations. Their rationale for the new observances were likely put in place as an extra hedge to protect Jews from even approaching a transgression. This would be understandable, given the drastic price the Jews had paid for their lack of observance of the Sabbath, among other offenses (1 Chronicles 9:1).

As is often the case, over time the rules became a source of power for the institution, and the original intent became secondary. Following the rules became more important than the Law it was meant to support. It grew into a kind of legislation that superseded the law of Moses. So, in a great irony, it led to another form of breaking the Sabbath law, one that Jesus will point out. It is a common occurrence that institutions are formed as a means of protection, but they end up being more concerned with perpetuating their own power and influence. This certainly seemed to be the case with the Pharisees.

In the third century A.D., many reforms that had developed after the Babylonian Exile were codified in the Jewish Mishnah, which reduced the oral tradition to writing. But the oral tradition already had a powerful influence during Jesus’s lifetime and was commonly referred to as “the tradition of the elders” (Matthew 15:2). Even if these traditions began with God-honoring intentions, in practice their rules had replaced and effectively nullified the heart of God’s original commandments (Matthew 15:6). Their focus had shifted from following God to retaining and advancing their own importance, prestige, and power.

Perceiving the Pharisees’ accusation and offense, Jesus brilliantly ignores their loaded question and reframes the issue with a question of His own,

And Jesus answering them said, “Have you not even read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him, how he entered the house of God, and took and ate the consecrated bread which is not lawful for any to eat except the priests alone, and gave it to his companions?” (v 3-4).

The Pharisees take offense and make the accusation that Jesus’s disciples do what is not lawful on a Sabbath. Jesus responds with a story and a claim. He asks them a rhetorical question that begins with an interesting phrase, have you not even read what David did…? Of course, the Pharisees, whose expertise was the scriptures, had read what David did when he was hungry.

When David and his loyal companions were fleeing from Saul, they came to Abimelech, the priest, for assistance. They were starving. Abimelech had no ordinary bread to give them, but he did have some consecrated bread. This bread was not lawful for him to eat nor for those with him, but for the priests alone. But Abimelech offered them the holy bread to David and his companions so long as they had abstained from sexual relations. David and his companions had abstained from sex, and so the priest gave them the holy bread to eat. This story is found in 1 Samuel 21:1-6.

Scripture does not condemn David, nor Abimelech for this action. Normally this would not have been allowed, but the exception was granted because of who David was (the anointed King of Israel) and the desperate situation that he was in as he pursued his calling righteously. By citing this example, Jesus shows the Pharisees how the law makes room for grace.

God’s law is intended as a benefit, not a burden. Even though it is absolute, there is a hierarchy, and loving and caring for people will always come above mere compliance. As the Messiah, Jesus too is an anointed King. He too is following His calling in righteousness. He too is granted an exception to the PhariseesSabbath customs. It is worth noting that the people are just plucking and eating the grain, they are not executing a commercial harvest. This has a corollary with the story of David, in that subsistence is in view; people need to eat.

It is interesting to note that in Matthew’s parallel gospel account, Jesus continues and uses a second line of argument with the Pharisees from the Mosaic Law, and even quotes from the Old Testament book of Hosea (Matthew 12:5-7).

Why does Luke’s Gospel not include this exchange?

It is possibly because of the difference in Matthew and Luke’s stated purpose in writing their accounts and who their intended audiences are. Matthew would include these statements from Jesus because it speaks to his Jewish audience who would be more familiar with the Law and the Old Testament. Matthew’s purpose is to reveal Jesus as the promised Messiah and coming King. Matthew 12:6 speaks to this claim when Jesus says to the Pharisees, “But I say to you that something greater than the temple is here.”

Jesus is claiming to be something greater than the earthly meeting place with God. He is the looked-for Messiah, Immanuel, “God with us” (Matthew 1:23). Luke, on the other hand, is writing to a Greek Gentile audience who would not have been as familiar with the intricacies of Jewish laws regarding priestly conduct in the temple on the Sabbath or Old Testament minor prophets. Luke instead speaks to the actions of David, a historical figure that might be better understood by his Greek audience.

And He was saying to them, “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (v 5).

Jesus ends His rebuttal with a divine claim: the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath. God established the Sabbath and is the only rightful Lord of the Sabbath. The Son of Man is a veiled but definite Messianic term (see commentary for Matthew 9:6). It was Jesus’s most frequent term to describe Himself. When Jesus said that the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath He was declaring, “I am God and I decide what is lawful to do on the Sabbath—not you!”

This will not satisfy the Pharisees as we will see in the commentary for the coming verses.

Biblical Text

1 Now it happened that He was passing through some grainfields on a Sabbath; and His disciples were picking the heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands, and eating the grain. 2 But some of the Pharisees said, “Why do you do what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” 3 And Jesus answering them said, “Have you not even read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him, 4 how he entered the house of God, and took and ate the consecrated bread which is not lawful for any to eat except the priests alone, and gave it to his companions?” 5 And He was saying to them, “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”

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