The next challenge from the Pharisees involved a comparison between the disciples of John and the Pharisees, and the disciples of Jesus. John’s disciples, and the disciples of the Pharisees, often fasted. (33) Jesus’ disciples ate and drank. No doubt, the Pharisees nodded toward the lavish table set by Matthew with plenty of food and wine.
First the Pharisees had complained that Jesus at with sinners, now they complain that Jesus’s disciples ate rather than fasted. (33)
Jesus answered them with an explanation and two parables.
The explanation was that his disciples would not fast while he was with them. But when he was taken away from them, they would fast. (35) He compared himself to a bridegroom. The wedding guests do not fast while the bridegroom is with them. This is an interesting comparison, for God, in the Old Testament, referred to himself as the husband or groom of Israel. Isaiah 54:5 says “For Your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name.” Jeremiah 31:32 says “not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord”.
Jesus told parables that represented himself as the bride groom, as with the parable of the 10 virgins. Later, the apostle Paul would make the same allusion to Christ and the church.
When Jesus spoke of being taken away from them, he was talking about his death and, ultimately his resurrection. After he was gone, his disciples would fast. Similarly, we may fast now, but the invitation of eternity is the wedding feast of the Lamb. (Revelation 19:9)
The second explanation involved two parables. In the first, Jesus said one does not put a piece from a new garment as a patch on an old garment. It will not match the old garment and it tears the new one.
When I was a young boy, my mother patched my blue jeans when I tore them, usually at the knee. She kept old pants I had outgrown and cut the material from them to make a patch. She did not cut a piece from new jeans. My old jeans would be faded from washing and the old patch would also. So, they would match. But, material from new jeans would have been darker. We did not have pre-faded jeans in those days. The new ones were always dark blue. so the patch would not match. Plus, she would have ruined the new pair of jeans by cutting the patch from them.
Jesus applied the same truth to wine skins. He said you do not put new wine in old skins because they will burst. That is because, as the wine ages and ferments, it gives off gas, causing the skins to expand. Old skins that were brittle and dry would burst. But new skins could be stretched.
Both of these parables make the point that Jesus brought a new covenant. The old rules, especially the rules made up by the Pharisees, did not apply. There is an implied criticism of the Pharisees here as well, as they opposed the coming of a new covenant and the kingdom of God with Jesus as the messiah and savior. Jesus said, having drunk the old wine, they did not want the new. (39)
It is easy to point our fingers at the Pharisees and look down on them for their theology. But, that is not the point for us. The point is to see what they did and then examine ourselves. Human beings always want to add something to the gospel. For conservative believers, it is often legalism. That is, wanting to add rules to the gospel to make people conform their behavior to the cultural norm, even if that culture is your church.
I grew up moving from town to town. We always joined a small church in the new town. Each church had its own legal code. It just varied from town to town, church to church. One church banned drinking, dancing, card playing, mixed “bathing” or swimming together, shunned the abandoned children and wife of an unfaithful man and so on. None of those rules are mentioned in the Bible. But they were rigidly enforced. Those people were Pharisees.
Jesus’s point is further made by the next two stories. These stories tell of Jesus’s actions on the Sabbath.
The Lord of the Sabbath
The first story involves Jesus and the disciples walking through a grain field. Most grains, including wheat, have a head that contains seeds. That is the edible part of the grain. Wheat seeds, for example, can be eaten raw, ground into flower, or cooked. The disciples were evidently hungry, so as they walked, they plucked the seed heads, rubbed them in their hands to separate the seeds from the chaff, and ate the seeds.
The Pharisees saw this and asked Jesus why they were doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath. It was legal for the Jews to pluck grain and eat it as they passed through a field. It was only illegal to use a knife or sickle to harvest it. That would only be done if you planned to take more than needed to satisfy your immediate hunger. (Deuteronomy 23:24-25)
So the issue for the Pharisees was not the taking of grain to eat, it was doing so on the Sabbath. The Pharisees believed that observance of the Sabbath was the most important thing in their religion. This was one of the sins the Lord condemned when he sent Israel into exile. To make sure they observed the Sabbath and did not violate the law, they created many rules about what you could not do on the Sabbath. These rules were not in the law. Again, we see their legalism in practice. They added to the law of God.
The law clearly prohibited work on the Sabbath. (Exodus 20:8-11) Work included harvesting and threshing grain. The Pharisees believed the action of the disciples in eating the grain involved harvesting and threshing. In this context, it would be like them accusing you of threshing because you unwrapped a candy bar on Sunday.
But the accusation was serious. Jesus had to keep the Sabbath to be righteous. If the disciples did not keep the Sabbath, they and Jesus would be discredited to many Jews.
Jesus responded to them with an example from the Old Testament that demonstrated their error. He reminded them that David and his men, as he fled from Saul, convinced a priest to give him the shewbread because he and his men had no food. (1 Samuel 21:1-6) The law said only priests could eat the shewbread. (Leviticus 24:5-9) David broke the law, but he did it on his authority as God’s anointed, who believed it more important to keep his men from starving than to strictly observe the law. The men were more important than the rules in this case.
In addition, Jesus said he, the “Son of Man” is “lord of the Sabbath”. (5) You might read that one sentence too quickly to realize how important Jesus’ statement is. When Jesus said he was “Son of Man”, he used the title for the Messiah in Daniel’s prophecies (Daniel 7:9-14) Jesus was a man and he was the Messiah.
Jesus also said he was “lord of the Sabbath”. Who is the lord of the Sabbath in the Old Testament? It is God. He created it. When Jesus claimed this title, he claimed to be God.
He has the right to interpret the law pertaining to the Sabbath as lord. (5) He interpreted it as better to feed the hungry men than worry about a technical violation of the Sabbath rules, not of the Law, but of the rules of the Pharisees.
Jesus was not saying the Sabbath was not important. He was saying it was important to observe it as the Lord intended. As Lord of the Sabbath, he knew what that intent was.