The Gospels are stories. They’re more than that, of course, but they do use stories to make their points. The trick for us is not to get stuck in the narrative detail but to drill through it to get to what’s behind this story. St. John writes in the conclusion of his Gospel that Jesus did so many things that no book could hold them all, and that what has been preserved is so that we “may have life in His name” (John 20:31;21:25). In short, it is the points of all these stories that are important for salvation.
Is today’s story mainly just an incident in Jesus’ ongoing conflict with the religious purists of His day, or does it tell us something about how law fits into God’s scheme for humankind? I think it’s the latter. Law is important, and we owe it respect. All social organizations require rules, some arbitrary, but nevertheless useful. We follow them not so much to avoid penalty as because of what we have already been given – by society, by the Covenant, by the Church. Much of the body of Jewish law – of which the Sabbath observance was a key feature – described how a people chosen by God should behave – not so that they would thereby earn God’s favor, but because they had already received that favor. It’s how a grateful people responds. And that’s precisely the point for us, who are the new Israel, to whom God’s Spirit has been given.
At issue in today’s Gospel is no ordinary law. “Keep holy the Sabbath” was one of the Ten Commandments. It had come straight from God. We might be tempted to think that Jesus, as God’s Son, claimed an exemption for Himself: “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath”. But St. Mark’s presentation of the story makes that unlikely. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ statement is simply “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). We see the same note struck in Jesus’ approach to another of the Big Ten: Honoring father and mother. When told His mother and brothers were outside, He didn’t tend immediately to them, but included all of His followers as family (Mark 3:31–35; Matthew 12:47–50).
Is there a parallel in our times? Perhaps there is. Think of the undocumented foreign laborers who do work most citizens wouldn’t do, who pay into our social security and income tax systems with no chance of ever getting any of it back. “But”, we say: “We’re a country of laws”. “They’re here illegally. They should follow the rules.” It takes no stretch of the imagination to hear the Pharisees telling Jesus in today’s episode: “We’re a people of the Law”, when His disciples picked that grain.
In the final analysis, and to paraphrase Mark’s account, “Law was made for humanity, not humanity for the law.” Figuring out what that means for us in our everyday lives is not easy. Remember that the call to repentance – in Jesus’ time as well as now – means reevaluating our priorities, our values, and changing them if necessary. It would seem that the one sure law that bears no exception is the law of love – of God and of neighbor (Luke 10:25–28). Recall St. Augustine’s famous phrase: “Love, and do what you will.”