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Author: Ron Graham

Upholding Law

Mistaken Identity
—Misidentifying an Act as Sin

One Sabbath day, Jesus and his disciples went walking through the grain fields. His disciples felt hungry, and began to pluck the heads of grain. They rubbed off the husks, and ate the kernels. When the Pharisees observed this, they said, "You are breaking the Sabbath!" (Luke 6:1-2)

Jesus disagreed, and as Lord of the Sabbath, judged his disciples to be innocent of the charge (Luke 6:3-5).

1 The Act was Misidentified

What was wrong with the reasoning of those Pharisees? What was their problem?

The Pharisees wrongly identified the act of plucking grain as a minor form of harvesting. That's work, the Pharisees reasoned, and work on the Sabbath is sin. (Matthew 12:1-8)

Their train of thought likely went something like the following:

The law of the Sabbath says,"For six days work may be done, but on the seventh there is a sabbath of complete rest" (Exodus 31:14-15).

Now, harvesting and gleaning is work, and that, said the Pharisees, is what these disciples of Jesus are doing. True, they are not harvesting very much, but the law does not say, "You shall not do MUCH work." It says, "You shall not do ANY."

The Pharisees reckoned that, little or much, harvesting is still work, and on the Sabbath work is sin.

On the face of it, this reasoning does not look all that bad. But when you get your mind off that train of thought, and look again at what the disciples were doing, you can see that the reasoning is faulty.

The disciples were not working. They were having a holiday just like the law commanded. They were enjoying their holiday by walking and talking, and having a nibble as they went. To identify what they were doing as work, instead of recreation, borders on the ridiculous.

2 Fussiness Wasn't the Problem

One might think that the Pharisees were overly scrupulous in observing the law, whilst Jesus and his disciples took a more relaxed view of it. Now look here, don't confuse the Pharisees' problem with fussiness. You cannot be too particular about keeping God's law. The Pharisees even tithed their kitchen herbs. They were that fussy.

Jesus told them not to neglect such details but also not to pass by weightier matters such as justice and the love of God (Luke 11:42).

No, their fault was not in being obsessed with minor matters. Rather, their fault was to reason falsely, to misidentify what the disciples were doing as work and thus unlawful on the Sabbath.

3 Human Reasoning was at Fault

The Pharisees were men of Moses’s law. But they interpreted it with faulty reasoning so as to make a tradition of rules and regulations that actually nullified God's law (Mark 7:8,13).

Human reasoning can be faulty in many ways, including the following three...

As Christians, we have many sins to contend with. We don't need people to be inventing sins by misidentifying something we do as a sin when it is not.


Jesus did not argue with the Pharisees about whether plucking grain could rightly be called "work" and "unlawful".

He preferred to addres their hypocrisy rather than their theology. So he put to them the case of David who gave his hungry soldiers and himself sacred showbread provided by Ahimelech the priest who had no common bread on hand. By law the showbread was for priests only to eat (1Samuel 21:1-6).

Jesus says that what David did was "not lawful" (Luke 6:4), and yet the Pharisees apparently excused David.

So then, if the Pharisees could excuse David and his men for unlawfully eating the sacred showbread when they were hungry, why couldn't the Pharisees likewise excuse the disciples of Jesus for plucking grain on the sacred Sabbath when they were hungry?

Copyright on print