This article is an exposition of Mark 2:23-28.

Source: Marcus - Het evangelie volgens Petrus (Kok Kampen). 4 pages. Translated by Albert H. Oosterhoff.

Mark 2:23-28 Commentary - Jesus’ Work Controls Also the Day of Rest

The story about the criticism of Jesus’ disciples who plucked heads of grain is often referred to as a “Sabbath conflict.”1 This term gives the impression that two different views of the Sabbath come into conflict here: the legalistic one of the Pharisees and the liberal one of Jesus. It is important to realize at the outset that we need to take a different approach to do justice to the text. For it’s not so much a “Sabbath conflict” as a conflict about Jesus (on the Sabbath). The Sabbath is the battleground, but the struggle is about the work of Jesus. The Pharisees try to entrap him. When his disciples do something they try to make the Master responsible for it. For they want to sabotage his work. Indeed, it is possible that we should regard the question addressed to Jesus (“Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?”) as a formal warning to him. That would begin the procedure that leads to a formal accusation (after having given a warning) and that next step would then come in 3:2, 6.2 The Pharisees are not the only ones to speak about Jesus’ work (of which the Sabbath is the cause). Jesus himself also speaks in general about his qualifications when he says that the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath (2:28). The Sabbath is the décor; Jesus’s work is the issue!

The conflict happens on a Sabbath on which Jesus “was going through the grainfields” (2:23). The verb used (paraporeuesthai) is striking. It is not mentioned what Jesus “was going through.” Derrett 3 offers an interesting explanation. He assumes that Jesus was en route to another place. On the Sabbath, however, you often had to make a detour around towns that were passed along the way. If you were to enter a city or a town, you could not leave the area of rest surrounding that place on the Sabbath. Thus, you had to travel around the Sabbath area of such places and only enter a Sabbath area when you have arrived at the place you planned to remain that day, your “place of rest.” This explanation also shines a light on “going through the grain fields.” The normal way takes one past and through towns. But now they had to take paths through the open country and past the fields. In accordance with Palestine custom, grain was also scattered over these paths beside the fields and that meant that, as you walked along there was the danger that you could trample over heads of grain. But the disciples don’t let any ears go to waste. They rub the kernels out of the ears before they trample over the heads. During such a journey that is made to a more distant place, it makes sense that the disciples became hungry (Matt. 12:1) and that they ate the grain they rubbed out of the ears (Luke 6:1). This is not about a leisurely walk in the country, but about a trip on official business to a more distant work area on this Sabbath of preaching in Galilee. Jesus passes by because he is in transit in his Father’s service!

But the Pharisees are challenging his work in Israel (2:24). They warn him. He is responsible for the behaviour of his disciples and is being called to account for it. For their conduct shows that this Master does not submit himself the law of the Lord.

What was the disciples’ error? It was not a general error that could be observed by chance on the Sabbath, such as the disciples’ unlawfully making their way through the grainfields.4 Admittedly, the idea then is that the disciples “made their way” (hodon poiein), not that they “were going along a way” (hodon poiesthai; Judg. 17:8 is often improperly referred to as an exception: it speaks of a Levite who made his way to a possible place to stay in Ephraim). It would also be strange to suppose that Jesus’ disciples begin to go along a way. It is more likely that, at a particular moment when they arrive at a portion of the path through the grainfields on which seed has been scattered, they begin to make their way. But the Pharisees’ criticism is not directed to that. Their focus is on the preparation of food. For when the disciples walk on the grain stalks, they grab the ears and rub the kernels out of them. That has to do with the preparation of a meal, not with a playful gesture, or with a thoughtless eating of a few kernels. Mark makes that clear with the comparison of the consumption by David’s companions of the bread of the Presence. This is mentioned expressly in Matthew and Luke. Plucking ears (without the use of a sickle) is not forbidden (Deut. 23:25). But the preparation of a meal on the Sabbath to still one’s hunger has been forbidden since the people ate manna in the wilderness (Ex. 16; 31:15; 34:21; 35:2-3). The Pharisees are not just being censorious, but demand to know if Jesus intends to lead people away from the law of the Lord.

From Jesus’ answer (2:25-26) it is apparent that Jesus takes the accusation seriously. He does not accuse the Pharisees that they are binding people to the “commandments of men.” This is not about a conflict concerning the traditions of the Pharisees (as, for example, in Matt. 15:1-9). Jesus accepts the accusation that his disciples are doing something that is improper on the Sabbath. For he gives the example of David, who also did something that was unlawful. The law of the Lord prescribed that the bread of the Presence could be eaten only by the priests. Similarly, the law prescribed that one could not prepare a meal on the Sabbath. Jesus formally accepts the accusation! However, he asks whether it applies to him. Something that is generally true does not apply if something exceptional occurs. What is the exceptional thing? Jesus first gives an example from David’s life, in which Scripture itself shows that the law of the Lord was not applied to David in a particular situation. David and his men were also hungry: a comparable situation. It must have been a Sabbath then too, that is, the day on which the bread of the Presence was changed, so that the high priest could legitimately say that he could dispose of the bread (Lev 24:8, 1 Sam 21:4, 6). The reference to his story was sufficient to remind the listeners that David came to the tabernacle in haste and that he told the high priest that he was on an urgent mission (1 Sam 21:2, 5). Mark makes this clear when he uses the clause, “when he was in need” (2:25 chreian esche). David himself had been anointed as king and was in a rush. He did give the impression that he had set out in the service of king Saul for the benefit of the nation. Regardless, David was not on a journey of his own. That made the difference for the high priest. For the entire temple service existed for the benefit of the people. And when the welfare of the people is at stake, the priests can renounce their rights in order to serve the king and the people in this special situation. The exception arose because David had an extraordinary task. The example is suggestive. The Pharisees see Jesus as an Israelite who has to observe the law. But he compares himself to David and indicates that today he has to travel in the service of the King (God) and that higher commissions confer greater freedoms. Just as the need to offer sacrifices on the Sabbath excuses the priests who make the sacrifices (Matt. 12:5), so also the disciples are excused by the need to travel with Jesus in God’s mission work on the Sabbath. The issue is not how you regard the Sabbath, but how you regard Jesus and his work. The example concedes the position of the Pharisees about the Sabbath, but rejects their negative judgment of Jesus. Because of David’s stature, his companions were also able to eat of the bread that was not intended for them. Because of Jesus’ holy commission, his disciples also eat in a manner that is not proper for the Sabbath. This is not a case of “necessity knows no law,” but of the law being subject to the lawgiver. This is apparent from what follows in the last two verses.

A new argument begins in 2:27 (“And he said to them…”). This verse is sometimes understood as a general pronouncement that the Sabbath exists for people and not the other way round. But that is not possible. Jesus is not speaking about the character of the Sabbath, but about its establishment. He reminds the audience of the time the Sabbath was made (egeneto). The Sabbath came into existence “for man”; the singular is intentional. The reference is to the human being God created on the sixth day. After the Lord had formed man, the man and the woman, he rested on the seventh day. The Lord did not create man as embellishment for the day of rest, but vice versa. The manner in which this could be realized after the fall is described in the law of Moses. You cannot read verse 27 as a kind of crowbar in those laws, as if this verse were a rule that restricted the operation of the Lord’s laws. Verse 26 shows that those laws remain in effect (“not lawful”). And verse 28 does not contain a general conclusion that permits the relativisation of the laws about the Sabbath. Rather, it contains a special conclusion with respect to Jesus. This special conclusion would remain up in the air if verse 27 imposed a general principle (is every person then also “lord of the Sabbath”?). But the special conclusion connects to verse 27 if we continue to read that verse as a reminder of creation. Ultimately, the Sabbath was a gift to Adam. And now Jesus comes as “the Son of Man,” as the second Adam. As such he has the right freely to make use of the Sabbath, just as Adam had that right. He was not brought under the law that had to be added for Adam’s offspring because of sin.

Finally, 2:28 contains a statement of far-reaching significance. In it Jesus takes his place as the Lord with his own right of disposition. He is not like the servants who are subject to the stipulations of the law. He is the great son of Adam, who delivers humanity. He does not run afoul of the law and does not wrest himself free from it. Instead, as Lord, he stands above the law and applies the laws in accordance with the demands of his kingdom. Here, in one brief statement, we have an encapsulation of what Paul will explain in long letters about the freedom from the law under King Christ and his commandments.

These verses do not relativize laws and rules, not those concerning the day of rest either. Instead they subordinate those laws and rules to the work of the Master. The day of rest is for the Son of Man and he determines how we are to use it. More than the law is here!

The reference to the high priest Abiathar is striking and already caused a problem in the ancient church.5 Shouldn’t it be “Ahimelech” (1 Samuel 21:1; 22:9-11)? Is this an error and is that why Matthew and Luke don’t mention the name? Does Mark mean that the events took place in the presence of the (later) high priest Abiathar? Does he hark back to another name description, such as we find in 2 Samuel 8:17; 1 Chronicles 16:16; 24:6 (Zadok and Ahimelech, the son of Abiathar, were priests during David’s reign)? It is difficult to make a choice. It is possible that Jesus wanted to indicate the presence of Abiathar. The reference is somewhat redundant as an exact description of the time the event happened. Perhaps it is more in the nature of a general description of the time (it happened during the lifetime and in the presence of Abiathar, who became well-known as the high priest (cf. Luke 4:27: “in the time of the prophet Elisha”)). In that case Abiathar is referred to because he had great authority: no one less than Abiathar, who fled to David shortly thereafter, was present and he did not reprimand David. He even joined David’s ranks. Abiathar, authority for the teachers of the law, was thus really their opposite. For they too had to allow Jesus’ work to proceed and to join Jesus’ ranks.


  1. ^ F. Neyrinck, “Jesus and the Sabbath. Some Observations on Mk ii,27” in J. Dupont (ed.), Jésus aux origines de la christologie (BETL, 40; Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1975), 227-270.
  2. ^ J. Jeremias, “Untersuchungen zum Quellenproblem der Apostelgeschichte,” Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 36 (1937), 205-221.
  3. ^ J.D.M. Derrett, “Judaica in St. Mark” in Studies in the New Testament, I (Leiden: Brill, 1977), 85-100.
  4. ^ H.A.W. Meyer, Kritisch exegetisches Handbuch über die Evangelien des Markus und Lukas (Göttingen, 1855). P. Benoit, “Les épis arrachées (Mt.12,1-8 et par.)” in Exégèse et Théologie III (Paris, 1968), 228-242.
  5. ^ Craig A. Evans, “Patristic Interpretation of Mark 2:26 ‘When Abiathar Was High Priest,’” Vigiliae Christianae 40 (1986), 183-186.

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