It’s easy to look down on the Pharisees. The way they’re portrayed in the gospels make them seem like they’re more interested in keeping every little jot and tittle of the law, down to the fine print, rather than being mediators of God’s love.
But we forget that the Pharisees were trying to hold on to a faith that was quickly disappearing. To be Jewish was to obey the Jewish law. Judaism wasn’t as much a belief system, as it was system of practices. And those practices were codified in the Law.
Take today’s reading for example. It was the sabbath and the disciples were hungry. So, they picked some grain to chew on. The Pharisees rightly noted that such behaviour was contrary to the traditional Jewish understanding of sabbath-keeping.
But Jesus took it to a new level, invoking the story of David and his friends who ate the holy bread of the “house of God” to calm their grumbling bellies. This is the story of when David (anointed by Samuel but not yet enthroned) and hiding from King Saul, and waiting for his time to come. By making this comparison, Jesus is comparing himself to David, a king whose time has not yet come.
As theologian NT Wright points out, “He therefore has the right, when he and his people are hungry, to by-pass the normal regulations. In other words, this kind of sabbath-breaking, so far from being an act of casual or wanton civil disobedience, is a deliberate sign, like the refusal to fast [see Mk 2: 18-22]: a sign that the King is here, that the kingdom is breaking in, that instead of waiting for the old creation to come to its point of rest the new creation is bursting upon the old world” (Mark for Everyone, pp. 27-28).