§ 49. The disciples’ grain-picking


§ 49.

The disciples’ grain-picking.

Matth. 12, 1-8.

A secret horror always seizes the apologist when he is to regard, even for a moment, a positive determination, which he regards as a divine revelation, as one which is somehow to be drawn into the negative dialectic and unassigned to a higher principle; indeed, he is even frightened when history wants to give him the factual proof that the positive provisions of the Old Testament do not have the value he attaches to them, – he must therefore forcibly keep at bay the dialectic which is so inconvenient to him and its appearance.

One Sabbath Jesus went through the fields of grain; his disciples were hungry, plucking ears of corn and eating. The Pharisees, who were always in the place where there was something to see, saw it and pointed out to Jesus that his disciples were doing what was not allowed on the Sabbath. Jesus replied that they had not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry, how he went into the house of God and ate the shewbread, which neither he nor his companions, but the priests alone, thirsted to eat. Or do you not know, Jesus asks, do you not know from the law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and yet are blameless?


Nevertheless, says Calvin, Jesus did not oppose the Sabbath law, but only the petty spirit of the Pharisees (their superstitio) and their most self-found traditions. If Jesus says that David did something that was not his due according to the law, Calvin knows better: he says that David did nothing against the law *). Or when Jesus says that the priests desecrate the Sabbath for the sake of the temple service, which demands work from them, Calvin says that Jesus is expressing himself improperly and is accommodating himself to the listeners **). The listeners! the opponents, to whom he should rather have opposed himself, the people whom he strikes down precisely by the bold statement that even the priests desecrate the Sabbath because of their consideration for the service of the temple!

Another interest led the more recent critics to dismiss the point of the report in the same way as the apologists did. On the one hand, they find a contradiction in the fact that Jesus is said to have risen above the positive law, while in the early days of the church people were still afraid of how to cope with the barriers of the old; on the other hand, they are still captivated by the letter, so what is written – as if it were not written in letters of iron – must be worked on until the contradiction is erased. Thus it is said *): Jesus did not rise above the Sabbath law but only above the “petty spirit” of the Pharisees, “when he heals on the Sabbath or lets his disciples pluck out ears of corn.”

*) praeter fas. Calvin shifts the point of view. The question is not only whether David can do nothing against the law according to the different reports – but whether he did what the positive law forbade. 

**) Quod dicit, Sabbatum profanari a sacerdotibus, impropria est loquutio, in qua se Christus auditoribus accommodat. As per Olshausen, I, 387.

*) e.g. Strauss, I, p59.


From the standpoint on which criticism has at present risen, the question is solved, because it is posed correctly and is no other than that of how the creative consciousness, from which the certain evangelical views have arisen, regarded the matter. If the question is put in this way, then we should think that it is clear that this effort of thought and language, this invocation of David, who did what was not his due, this bold, extraordinary expression that the priests also profane the Sabbath, this conclusion that the Son of Man is Lord over the Sabbath, this bravery of thought and this ruthlessness of language could only have been possible when it was necessary to break the barrier of the positive law. When, on the other hand, the “petty spirit” of the Pharisees is combated, the language is different and no thought is given to later regulations concerning the sanctity of the Sabbath.

The Lord is to be portrayed in the struggle with the positive law, therefore the Pharisees immediately attack him by holding him responsible for what his disciples were doing, therefore Jesus takes up the matter as his own from the beginning and closes his responsibility with the word that the Son of Man is Lord over the Sabbath, therefore – Luke did not form this report first, but altered the original report, when he does not have the Pharisees immediately attack the Lord, but says to the disciples: “what do ye that is not lawful to do on the sabbath day **)? “

**Luk 6, 2, thus the same inappropriate change that Luke allowed himself just before C. L, 30.

Matthew is also not the first to create the report. First of all, the Lord refers to the example of David, which really proves that it is a case of necessity knows no law. But when (v. 5.) the appeal to the law follows, which demands work from the priests even on the Sabbath and compels them to desecrate the Sabbath, then *) the argument has already moved further away from the question which was to be dealt with, since “there was no question of work at all, but only of work which necessity compelled.” If it had really been a question of whether work was permitted on the Sabbath, the reference to the priests’ Sabbath work would have been sufficient. But Matthew, who, as we now see, wants to exhaust everything that only serves to dialectic against the old law, goes further and lets the Lord draw the conclusion that if the temple and its higher right entitled the priests to profane the Sabbath, then here, in the one who stands here, there is in himself more than the temple; he is more, and thus has in himself the right and authority against the Sabbath. Matthew has left the disciples out of sight: he returns to them. If you knew, he lets Jesus say in v. 7, what that is, I want mercy and not sacrifice, you would not have condemned these innocents. Much too short! It should have been pointed out in more detail that the accusation of the Pharisees was not only unjust, but also harsh and unloving, and that the true law did not demand the observance of outward statutes, but love. And finally, how can that citation familiar to Matthew – compare C.9,13 – be justified by the saying: “for the Son of Man is Lord also of the Sabbath? How are the two connected? Not at all! Only in the writing of Mark does the latter saying have its connection, there it is the conclusion C. 2, 28: “Therefore the Son of man is Lord also of the Sabbath,” after it had been remarked before (v. 27.) that the Sabbath was made for man’s sake, but not man for the Sabbath’s sake – a remark which expresses the general truth which David proved in the particular case of his eating the shewbread (v. 25. 26.).

*) See Wilke, p. 350.


In short, Mark created a real connection, since he only brought the one argument that fit this particular case, the example of David, and drew from it the general truth and the application to the Son of Man. Matthew retains the structure of the argumentation, beginning and end, but sets the end as the end and in the concluding reference back to the preceding, although he has partly pushed back the preceding too far, partly – the general proposition that man was not made for the sake of the Sabbath – omitted it, and inserted new reflections that have nothing to do with the end, which nevertheless presents itself as if it were in the best agreement with them. His enrichments, which he has granted to the passage, are beautiful, are correct, but not exactly related to the occasion, nor to the sayings, which he has copied from Mark.

Luke, on the other hand, has abbreviated: after the reference from David, he immediately lets follow the saying: the Son of Man is Lord also of the Sabbath (C. 6, 3-5.). But did he ever read the sentence: that the Sabbath was made for man’s sake, not man for the Sabbath’s sake, in Mark? Wilke*) doubts it. But probably wrongly, for it would be incomprehensible how anyone, after the consideration of the Son of Man had been established, could give it up even for a moment and put the other consideration of man first. Rather could anyone feel tempted to overlook the latter and proceed at once to the more specific one, which the believer is more fond of and accustomed to; – but to form it after the only thing of interest to the believer, the thought of the Lord’s attitude to the Sabbath, had been formed and written down? Luke and Matthew have omitted the saying. Mark certainly wrote it down, and he was only able to write it down because he first formed the epigrammatic preparation of the whole saying, the reference to what David did, and because he still had to feel vividly the impropriety of immediately inferring from David the justification of the Son of Man. Between the preparation and the point of the epigram, therefore, he inserted that general saying. The fact that it is called “Therefore the Son of Man is Lord also over the Sabbath” is due to the fact that Mark was still thinking of David and his desecration of the shewbread: if David has done this, then the Son of Man is also Lord over the Sabbath.

*) p. 464


By the way, it is beyond doubt that a later clumsy hand inserted the historical error: “under Abiathar the high priest” (v.26) in an inappropriate place and thereby interrupted the context.


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