Jesus truly knew God's law and that other concerns (mercy, in this case; verse 7) may sometimes override the strict letter-of-the-law approach the Pharisees used. The Pharisees no doubt thought Jesus a flaming liberal, but to Jesus, He was simply working within the liberty God's law allows (see Psalm 119:45; John 8:31-32; II Corinthians 3:17; James 1:25; I Peter 2:16).
David F. Maas
Righteousness from Inside-Out
According to the Pharisees, the disciples reaped a crop. They threshed it by rubbing the berries in their hands and breaking the hulls off. Then they winnowed it by blowing the hulls away. By doing so, they were guilty of preparing a meal. This was actually a high holy day, very likely one of the holy days of the Days of Unleavened Bread.
Consider the disciples' motivation for what they did. First, they were hungry. Second, they were itinerate, using "shoe leather express," traveling with Jesus as a part of His entourage. He instructed them, giving them examples of His way of life, all along the way. He Himself said that He had no place to lay His head. They had, therefore, no place to prepare a meal. They did not have homes that they could readily return to.
These were strong, young men, probably in their twenties or early thirties (about the same age as Jesus), so they could have fasted without damage. But, because it was the Sabbath, Jesus deliberately drew attention to one of the Sabbath's main purposes: It is a day of mercy and not a day of sacrifice.
Christ's justification comes from I Samuel 21:1-6. He reasoned that, if it was all right for David to allay his hunger under an unusual circumstance by eating bread that had been consecrated for holy use, His disciples could provide for their needs in this manner. (The showbread was put into the Tabernacle on the table, and it sat there during the entire week. Then, every Sabbath it was exchanged for new bread. David ate the week-old bread that had just been exchanged for the new.)
So what is He saying? The Sabbath is a day of mercy. And if one can rightly, lawfully use "holy bread" to do something that, according to the letter of the law, was illegal, then it was also legitimate for the disciples to provide for their needs also in an unusual circumstance.
The emphasis here is on the word unusual. How frequently was David fleeing for his life and finding himself hungry? It did happen, at least this one time, but it did not happen every Sabbath. Maybe in David's lifetime something like this occurred a few times, but even for a man of war like David, it did not happen all that frequently.
The overall lesson, however, is that it is not the intention of God's law to deprive anybody of good things. The intent of God's law is to ensure life. If the need arises, one should not feel conscience-stricken to use the Sabbath in a way that would not "normally" be lawful. Christ admitted that what David did was not "normally" lawful. Neither was what the disciples were doing "normally lawful," except for the extenuating circumstance.
In this case then, they were blameless because a larger obligation overruled the letter of the law. The larger obligation was to be merciful. The letter of the law said that they could not have that bread. The larger obligation said that it was more important to eat than it was to fast (to sacrifice eating). Holy bread, or holy time (the Sabbath), can be used exceptionally in order to sustain life.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Fourth Commandment (Part 3)
Matthew 12:1-8 adds yet another example of Sabbath encounters Jesus had with the Pharisees. According to the Pharisees, the disciples reaped, threshed, and winnowed the grain; they were guilty of preparing a meal. What was the disciples' motivation? They were traveling, hungry, and had no place to prepare a meal. They were young and strong and could have fasted without harm, but because it was a Sabbath, Jesus drew attention to one of the Sabbath's main purposes. It is a day of mercy.
Christ draws His justification from I Samuel 21:1-6. He reasons that, if David under unusual circumstances could allay his hunger by eating bread consecrated for holy use, then the disciples could also legitimately provide for their needs in unusual circumstances. The emphasis here is on "unusual." How many times did David flee for his life and find himself hungry near the Tabernacle? It happened at least once, but even for a man of war like David, such situations occurred only rarely.
The overall lesson is that God does not intend His law to deprive but to ensure life. If the need arises, we should not feel conscience-stricken to use the Sabbath in a way that would not normally be lawful. Christ admits David's actions were not normally lawful, and neither were the disciples'—except for the circumstances. In this case, they were blameless BECAUSE A LARGER OBLIGATION OVERRULED THE LETTER OF THE LAW. In this circumstance, mercy is more important than sacrificing a meal. Holy bread or holy time can be used exceptionally to sustain life and serve God.
Christ takes advantage of the situation to teach another connected lesson. He draws attention to the extent of the priests' Sabbath labors in the Temple. Their work actually doubled on the Sabbath because of the number of sacrifices God required, yet they were guiltless. Why? They were involved in God's creative, redemptive work, as Christ explains in John 5, 7, and 9. They fulfilled a purpose of the Sabbath that someone had to do.
Because of the disciple's involvement in the work of God, circumstances dictated a profaning of the Sabbath. From this, we can understand that LOVING SERVICE IS GREATER THAN RITUAL FULFILLMENT. What is mercy? It is a helpful act where and when it is needed. It is an act of loving encouragement, comfort, pity, and sympathy for the distressed. It is the relieving of a burden.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Fourth Commandment (Part Two): Christ's Attitude Toward the Sabbath
Other Forerunner Commentary entries containing Matthew 12:1: