Some laws are meant to be broken—at least, that’s what Jesus thought. Today’s gospel from Matthew memorably illustrates that Jesus was no rigorist, no joyless zealot of rigidity when it came to interpreting and applying the laws of his own Jewish faith. Jesus respected the laws of his religion because they provided a way to live a life that was pleasing to God, but he also knew there were times when certain laws should be set aside or ignored in order to protect something important.
In this gospel story, Jesus and his disciples are walking through a field of grain on the sabbath. The disciples are hungry, so they help themselves to some of the grain, eating it as they walk along with Jesus. Unfortunately, some Pharisees who observed this disrupt Jesus’ peaceful sabbath stroll by exclaiming: “See here! Your disciples are doing what is not permitted on the sabbath.” The irony is that they really do not see at all. They are so focused on an absolutely unbending application of the law—and on finding fault with Jesus—that they fail to see what they need to see: human beings in need. Jesus doesn’t tell them that sabbath laws don’t matter, much less that they should be carelessly or casually ignored; however, he does insist that there are times when they ought to give way for the sake of human well-being. The purpose of any law (both civil and religious) is to serve the common good by creating the conditions in which all members of a society can live well together and flourish. But nobody can flourish when they are hungry or when any other basic human needs cannot be met, and that is why Jesus says his disciples did the right thing in breaking that sabbath law.
“It is mercy I desire and not sacrifice,” Jesus tells us. If we take those words to heart, letting them inform our attitudes and actions, we won’t be so quick to judge and find fault. That’s because we will know that even though all laws matter, none matter more than the law of love.
Paul J. Wadell is Professor Emeritus of Theology and Religious Studies at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin, and a member of the Passionist family.