1 Samuel 21:1–6
Years ago before my brother in law married my sister his work schedule meant a lot of his household chores got done Sunday afternoon. He would do his wash and hang it on the line to dry. He’d mow the lawn and pick up around the yard. He kept his property looking very nice. His small-town Wisconsin neighbors still left him a note. The point was he shouldn’t be doing these things on a Sunday. It wasn’t a messy yard they were yelling at him for. They disagreed with the day he chose to work. There were unwritten rules about that sort of thing in that community. No work on Sundays.
In both the first lesson and the gospel it’s not even unwritten rules the people deal with. It’s rules and laws from God. How to apply them was in question. The letter of the law versus the spirit of the law. Laws seemed to overlap and conflict. It was confusing how to follow properly. David and his men in the first lesson were just doing what they needed to do. Same with the disciples in the gospel. Neither wanted to break laws, but in both situations they were hungry. Which laws they’d break and which they’d keep were far from their minds. Like working on the one day available to do yard work and not thinking which rules might be getting broken.
David was in line to be the next king. He had already been anointed, but the old king was still around and he wasn’t happy about it. So he stalked David. There was no way to find rest. No way to gather supplies or travel normally. David and his men were running. So David went to the priest, “What do you have on hand? Give me five loaves of bread, or whatever you can find. But the priest answered David, I don’t have any ordinary bread on hand; however, there is some consecrated bread here.” The priest wanted to help. But he had a problem. The consecrated bread he spoke of was actually set aside for a spiritual purpose. It was governed by the laws of God. According to them, only priests could eat the consecrated bread. It seemed the holy bread would be off-limits. But the priest decided to show mercy. He let them eat. He must have been confident his actions were the right thing to do. That somehow the needs of hungry men on the run, especially one who was the God-appointed king, made this action pleasing to God even though it seemed to break one of God’s laws.
Centuries later, the disciples were hungry. While they walked through the countryside with Jesus they picked a bit from the field. Now we might think that’s clearly breaking the law, it’s stealing. The field and grain weren’t theirs. But in this case, the law of God did allow this type of action. Travelers in those days who got hungry could pick from the fields where harvesters had purposefully left some grain behind as instructed by God.
No, the disciples were in trouble for another reason. The Pharisees were angry. These religious leaders were hyper-vigilant about the law of God. Always watching for violations, even little ones, they called out Jesus. “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” It wasn’t that the disciples were picking grain that was off-limits. The Pharisees knew the law of God well enough to know God allowed for that. The Pharisees were mad because of what day it was. God’s law did clearly state no work was to be done on a Sabbath. To hyper vigilant Pharisees, picking grain was work. Rubbing the heads together to get the kernels was work. As far as their traditions were concerned it shouldn’t be done on a Sabbath.
Jesus uses David eating the holy bread though it was forbidden, to help him clarify things for everyone. David and his men hadn’t done anything wrong when they ate the bread. The law of God didn’t stand in the way of mercy. A hungry group of men getting food, even if the only food available was typically off-limits, that was mercy. And what the Pharisees were objecting to wasn’t even off-limits according to God’s law. They were adding to God’s law and holding the disciples accountable to those traditions. Plus the Pharisees were confusing what the Sabbath was for. They didn’t allow for mercy. Jesus made room for mercy. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” Jesus clarified David didn’t sin. The disciples didn’t sin. The Lord over the Sabbath was showing mercy was most important.
God’s law does a good job of showing our sins to us. When God says he wants people to honor their father and mother, he wants it done. No exceptions. When God forbids stealing and adultery, he wants those avoided. No exceptions. What God put together in his law is good. It isn’t for us to twist, giving those places where we can find exceptions to it. It isn’t for us to ignore, like times have changed so we don’t need to follow certain parts anymore. Those are just ways of escaping the crushing guilt the law lays on us. Our sins have us guilty before God and deserving hell. No amount of trying harder to live up to the laws we think we can hit the mark on is going to make up for the ones we don’t come close on. God’s law says we’re sinful.
Seeing David as an example of someone who didn’t care what the law said because he was in need would be stretching God’s Word. There’s no good excuse for sin. Loopholes in the laws don’t allow us to take what is not ours. Being late for an appointment isn’t the excuse to speed to get there on time. The police will show no mercy and shouldn’t. Working hard to meet deadlines and accomplishing a great deal at work doesn’t mean downtime can be a mixture of whatever pleasures we can find. Being good all week doesn’t mean a weekend of sinful indulgence. We also can’t be like the Pharisees holding people to a law that isn’t even God’s law.
Like saying because we like to worship in one style means it should always be that style. That’s a law where there isn’t a law. God holds you and everyone to the same level. One you and I can’t reach. That’s why you and I need a Savior. Jesus did achieve the perfect level of obedience. He knew every law and how to keep it. Didn’t need excuses because he was living perfect. Jesus couldn’t be accused of aiding sinful behavior of the disciples while they picked grain, because he knew it wasn’t sinful. It wasn’t violating the Sabbath. There was no sin. Other times he resisted temptation. He lived exactly as you should, over and over his whole life. Never sinned once. All of that was preparation for the ultimate sacrifice. By going to the cross he showed ultimate mercy on you. Mercy in the places where you disobeyed God’s law. Mercy on those places you held someone else to a law God doesn’t. Mercy for every single sin in your life. Mercy that resulted in forgiveness.
Mercy from Jesus Christ allows you to see God’s law as a map of God’s will. The law now shows the places where you can please God by acting a certain way. It also indicates places you can show mercy to others. Jesus said the Sabbath was made for man, not the other way around. The Son of Man wasn’t changing the law, rather he knew he would be fulfilling it. His desire for your life would be living in forgiveness. That means the law of God is fulfilled. You’re not being tracked on how you’re keeping it. Because Christ kept it fully for you. Since God isn’t calling on you to keep it, by mercy from Christ, then you can show mercy. The law isn’t your ticket to heaven. When you live according to it it’s proof you’re going to heaven.
My brother in law’s neighbors were wrong to have unwritten rules about working on Sunday. Not because they were unwritten, but because they were becoming enslaved to the idea that not working on a certain day could make someone more holy. Like trying to be more holy by not eating a certain bread, or like trying to be more holy by calling out those who were gleaning a little food on what seemed like the wrong day. No action, not the closest following of the law to the letter, is going to save you. Only Christ Jesus saves you because he shows mercy. That’s what God wants. Leave room for mercy. Because that’s what God has shown in Christ. Mercy beyond measure.