One Sabbath, Yeshua and his disciples were passing through some grain fields. “His disciples became hungry and began to pick the heads of grain and eat. But when the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, ‘Look, your disciples do what is not lawful to do on a Sabbath’” Matt 12:1-2 NASB). Yeshua gave these Pharisees a long answer, summing it up that “the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath!” (cf. Matt 12:8; Mk 2:28; Lk 6:5).
In traditional understanding, Yeshua’s answer contains a claim to his divinity. According to this understanding, as Lord of the Sabbath, Jesus is above the Sabbath and, by association in this instance, so are his disciples. But such interpretation misses the very heart of Yeshua’s beautiful teaching about humanity. Jesus says that God’s human creation, the children of Adam, are more important than the Sabbath! The confusion arises because of the term “Son of Man” (huios tou anthropou; υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου). Yeshua frequently uses this phrase to describe himself in a messianic and apocalyptic sense (referring to Dan 7:13-14), but the title has more than one meaning. In ordinary biblical Hebrew, “son of man” (ben adam; בֶּן אָדָם) simply means a “human being” (over 90 times in Ezekiel).
Is Jesus the Lord of the Sabbath? Yes, but there is more. Mark’s Gospel gives us a hint as to why the disciples are allowed to pick grain and eat it on the Sabbath when Yeshua says, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath. So, the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” (Mk 2:27-28). The Sabbath was a reminder for Israel of God’s grace in releasing the Israelites from Egypt. Moses states, “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore, the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day” (Deut 5:15). Jesus knew that the Sabbath was a day to commemorate freedom and divine grace. God’s grace towards humanity (in this case, Jesus’ disciples) was most deeply expressed on the Sabbath and, as Lord of the Sabbath, Jesus knew this well.
Yeshua’s decision to allow his disciples to eat grain on the Sabbath coheres with the grace that God extended to Israel in setting the nation free from bondage. Thus, Jesus does not depart from the Torah’s commands regarding Sabbath, but rather highlights the gift of grace out of which the Law comes.