A striking feature of Ben Shahn’s print, Wheat Field, is the crowded use of line. Straighter and more orderly at the bottom, the stalks of wheat become criss-crossed and entangled at the top, difficult to follow and distinguish. Colours emerge where the lines overlap. Tracing the lines with your eye in the areas around these splashes of colour gives a sense of dynamism, as if the colours are light refracted through wheat that is moving in the breeze.
In the dispute between the Pharisees and Jesus’s disciples which is described in this incident in the gospel narratives, entanglement and dynamism are at issue.
Nowadays, seeing a group of friends ambling through a cornfield one weekend, picking off the odd ear of grain, one would easily define their activity as a form of leisure, unproductive but no doubt pleasant. Yet the gospel controversy is precisely the reverse: it is centred on whether such activity constituted ‘work’, in breach of first-century religious laws on Sabbath observance.
The disciples’ actions were not prohibited by biblical law. But the Pharisees, worried they might ‘accidentally or unknowingly transgress the will of God’, supplemented this written law with many additional regulations based in oral tradition (Hooker 2001: 103). Jesus’s followers are accused of breaching these extra rules.
Jesus sought a flexibility in the application of the Jewish Law (Torah) that the gospel writers contrast with the rigidity of the Pharisees. He appeals to deeper principles to guide its use: the Law exists to enrich human life rather than diminish it—‘the sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath’ (Mark 2:27 NRSV)—and human need takes priority over ritual observance—‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice’ (Matthew 12:7; Hosea 6:6).
It should not be assumed that Jesus’s attitude here is wholly revolutionary: there is Midrashic evidence that some other Jewish rabbis may have agreed with his position (Hooker 2001: 104). But with these remarks, Jesus implies that the Pharisees, so zealous to keep the law in minute details, had overlooked its underlying rationale.
The glimpses of colour seen through the wheat of Shahn’s Wheatfield might, therefore, be compared to how his interpretations seek to return to view, through a thicket of regulations, the essential purpose of the Torah: to bring life.
Hooker, Morna. 2001. The Gospel According to St Mark (London: Continuum)
12 At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. 2But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.” 3He said to them, “Have you not read what David did, when he was hungry, and those who were with him: 4how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? 5Or have you not read in the law how on the sabbath the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are guiltless? 6I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. 7And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. 8For the Son of man is lord of the sabbath.”
23 One sabbath he was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24And the Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” 25And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: 26how he entered the house of God, when Abiʹathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?” 27And he said to them, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath; 28so the Son of man is lord even of the sabbath.”
6 On a sabbath, while he was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked and ate some heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands. 2But some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath?” 3And Jesus answered, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: 4how he entered the house of God, and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those with him?” 5And he said to them, “The Son of man is lord of the sabbath.”