The Pharisees held a very rigid view of Sabbath observance, dealing with every minute detail that could occur in a person’s life.  To offer but one instance or their legalism, they taught that a woman should not look into a mirror on the Sabbath day, because she might see a stray hair and be tempted to fix it, which would violate the command not to labor.  This, obviously, was going beyond the intent of the commandment.  Here in our passage, we see that they were incensed that Jesus’ disciples, who were hungry, plucked the ears of grain and ate, because they had nothing else.  God had directed in the law that the poor among His people, if they passed through a field of standing grain, might take enough for their present needs, although they were forbidden to carry a basket and store away food grown on another man’s property for future necessity.  However, the Pharisees thought it was better to starve than to pluck an ear of grain on the Sabbath, considering this to be a violation of the commandment not to labor upon that day.

Christ, however, shows them that they have wrested the Sabbath commandment, and inflicted undue hardships upon the needy.  He does not dismiss the proper importance of keeping the ceremonies of the law, so long as they remained in force, but demonstrates that in times of necessity they could be broken through.  This He illustrates by the case of David, who ate the shewbread which was reserved for the priests alone.  Furthermore, the priests perform manual labors upon the Sabbath day, and are held blameless, because these are works of necessity.  We should, in short, observe the command not to labor as closely as possible, but there are certain things which cannot be put off, because of present necessities.  He shows that this is in keeping with Old Testament principles, by quoting the principle of Hosea 6:6, “I will have mercy and not sacrifice.”