“One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. And the Pharisees were saying to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?’ And he said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?’ And he said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.’ ”
The four Gospels are replete with stories that depict Jesus engaged in heated arguments with the conservative Jewish leaders of his day (usually the Pharisees) over the issue of the proper observance of the Sabbath day. Indeed, all of Mark 2:1-3:6 has as its main theme the issue of controversy over the meaning, scope and source of Jesus’ authority to interpret God’s will and to act on His behalf in the world (cf. 1:22, 27, 2:10, 2:28, 3:15). Over and over and over again the question arises for the assorted colorful characters who dot the landscape of Mark’s rich tapestry: who is this man? Where did he get such authority?
Too often passages such as Mark 2:23-28 are either written off as post-Easter, ad hoc creations of the early church to retrospectively justify the non-Sabbath observance of Gentile members, or valued because they demonstrate a more moderate, gentler approach to “rules” in the practice of one’s religion. All of this misses the point. For Mark, the issue at hand in this story of Jesus’ (and his disciples’) blatant disregard for the stipulations of the Mosaic law concerning the Sabbath is that of lordship: who speaks on behalf of God in history to make known His purposes and to reveal His will? The law? Or the Son of man? And if Jesus—as Mark clearly claims—has greater priority than the Torah, what does this entail about those who follow him, his disciples?
Let’s focus first on what is plain. Jesus does not deny that what his disciples have done (“work”) on the Sabbath is unlawful by appealing to the story of David and his men eating the showbread in the tabernacle which was set aside for the priests on the Sabbath. Instead, he simply concedes that David broke the “law”—and was well within his rights to do so as the anointed king. Implying that he himself is greater than David (as Matthew 12:1-7 makes clear), Jesus’ argument is about the priority of kingly authority over and against the law as demonstrated by biblical precedent. Someone greater than David is here—therefore, if David was allowed to violate Sabbath law, how much more is Jesus?
Beyond this breathtaking direct (and undefended but simply asserted) claim to sheer authority on the part of Jesus, one particularly subtle interpretative issue requires more attention in Mark 2:23-28. The twin propositions which Jesus concludes with in 2:27 and 2:28 are connected with the word “so” or “consequently,” though on the surface they seem unrelated. Mark 2:27 is a general affirmation or truism that the purpose of the Sabbath lay in its benefit to humanity’s central, load-bearing role in the cosmos (see Genesis 1). Sabbath is not an arbitrarily imposed “rule” placed as a burden upon humanity’s weary back meant to dominate and oppress us. Yet Mark 2:28 transitions away from humanity in general to Jesus in particular (“the Son of man”) and emphasizes his individual, unique lordship over the Sabbath. The question is obvious: how are these two ideas at all related to one another? The first revolves around creation and anthropology; the second around redemption and Christology. Yet Mark undeniably weaves these two seemingly distinct strands of narrative theology together. We are meant to muse upon them together in tandem, suddenly alert to an unexpected collaboration.
Critical here is the key phrase “the Son of man,” always Jesus’ favorite self-designation in Mark. What does this title mean? The obvious link is back to Daniel 7:13-14, where an apparently messianic figure (or perhaps, more symbolically, the people of Israel as a whole as God’s new humanity) overcomes the “beasts” and receives “dominion” (or “authority”) over all the earth under God (“the Ancient of Days”). This is true enough: Jesus regularly evokes the distant memory (to us) of Daniel 7 to help explain and frame his identity and actions.
Nonetheless, Daniel 7 is no isolated specter of ancient Judaism’s fertile but wild imagination. Daniel’s strange apocalyptic vision in this passage was itself already alluding to an still more ancient story: the story of humanity being given dominion over the animals (“beasts”) by God, installed and deputized as the kings and queens of creation by the Creator himself. Adam (“humanity”), other words, possessed the original job description of “lord over all” (cf. Gen. 1:26-28). Psalm 8 poetically echoes and celebrates this astoundingly majestic role in the universe for humanity by referring to individual, generic humans as “son of man.”
For Jesus to claim that he is “the” Son of man is to make a not so subtle assertion that he is the human being: the ideal that God is looking for, the one in whom the vocation and destiny of Adam’s helpless race finally comes to fruition. Finally the logic of how Mark 2:27 and 2:28 are connected (“so”) comes into focus. If the Sabbath was originally created to serve humanity—the true lord of creation in God’s intention—then the true human being, Jesus, must be heir to this lordship. He must have authority over the Sabbath (rather than vice versa). One greater than David is here, one who finally accomplishes the vocation of the human race in Genesis 1-2. Therefore, he has priority over the Sabbath—and allegiance to the Son of man takes priority over adherence to the Mosaic law, or any other rules that were given to Israel in the interim waiting period until the Messiah came (cf. Galatians 3-4).
Just as the benefits of David’s authority as king were enjoyed and derivatively participated in by those who were “with him” (2:25-26), so also Jesus’ followers—those who are “with him” (3:13-15)—also share in his authority over the Sabbath and, indeed, over all of creation.
At this point, all of this seems fairly abstract and vague. Jesus has authority over the Sabbath? Allegiance to him rather than to the Mosaic law is what counts? So what? What the rest of Mark’s narrative is at pains to show in concrete yet radically unexpected fashion is what this authority of Jesus, extended to his followers, actually looks like on the ground in real life. And Mark’s answer to that question is not primarily negative—“Following Jesus is not about observing the Jewish Sabbath, or about washing your hands ritually before meals.” While true enough, such a paradigm falls utterly short of Mark’s chief narrative contention which is slowly unveiled in the chapters still to come: that the cross now functions as the primary boundary marker of the followers of Jesus. It is participating in the death of Jesus with him and for the sake of others that now ought to shape the moral posture of disciples toward God, neighbor and self. The only “rule” of the kingdom of God, the only “law” of Christ, is to reenact the cross by bearing the burdens of others (Gal. 6:2) and putting their interests ahead of our own even if it costs us everything (1 Cor. 9:19-23, Phil. 2:4-11).
Tomorrow I’ll pursue this idea a bit further in light of Mark’s (in)famous “messianic secret” motif.
Nick Nowalk is a Ministry Fellow with Harvard College Faith and Action.