The episode of the disciples picking grains in a cornfield is part of the collection of Sabbath stories, where Jesus argued for a more humane interpretation of the injunction, ‘no work’ on the Sabbath.
Today we experience a sense of distance when we read these passages. So far away are we in time and mindset from the ancient world, that we cannot imagine a religious or a civic law on such an issue which would be so compulsive. And yet, the modern world has its compulsions too: non-smoking, vegetarianism, limited childbirth, the ‘right’ to abortion…are some of the areas where opinions are freely expressed and fiercely enforced, both in the media and the law courts.
In Jesus’s time the Law permitted one to pick grapes or grain while walking through a neighbour’s field, but forbade harvesting. So the disciples were really not infringing any statute. However since Jesus took a liberal view of Sabbath observance, the Pharisees and the scribes were out to harass him even on minor details.
Jesus alludes to an event in history known to his hearers: how King David and his soldiers, hungry and exhausted, entered the Sacred Shrine and partook of the Showbread, the loaves consecrated for God’s use alone. Technically, this was a sacrilegious thing to do, but genuine human need overrode liturgical privilege.
Jesus’s point: a law becomes oppressive and counterproductive if it works against human need and dignity. “The Son of Man,” he says, “is lord of the Sabbath.” The phrase, son of man, means an ‘ordinary fellow’ – thus, not just Jesus himself, but even ordinary human beings can consider themselves exempt from Sabbath norms whenever there is genuine need.
In an age rigid with religious fundamentalism, this was revolutionary indeed!