Our second reading is from the Book of Matthew chapter 12, verses 1 through 8:
“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. 2 When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.” 3 He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4 He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests. 5 Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless? 6 I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. 7 But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. 8 For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.”
Let us pray. God is speaking to us through these words. When God speaks, the words are true and we can trust them. Amen.
When I was first entering the work force more than a few years ago, there was much excitement about a newfangled office gadget called the personal computer. Maybe some of you are old enough to remember that, too? Okay, maybe from a documentary on The History Channel! No one was quite sure what to expect from those little marvels, but we knew they were ushering in a new age of efficiency. Having taken computer programming classes in high school, I was eager to learn about these much smaller machines. Soon, I became sort of a “go-to guy” for folks in our offices who were just cutting their teeth on computers.
I recall one particular class I took about providing technical assistance to novices. I’m cleaning this up a little bit for church, but the instructor explained how we would want to scream out over the telephone to the frustrated and confused end-user, “RTBM,” which stood for Read The Blasted Manual!” For you see, probably 99.9% of the questions people would call about could be answered for themselves if they just read the appropriate section in the manual for the software or hardware they were working with. The instructions were right there, in black-and-white. In fact, we were told how we might even want to suggest the caller return the computer to the dealer for a refund, because they weren’t smart enough to use it!
Jump ahead a few decades to my years in college working on a degree in criminal justice. One of our instructors would have us study some of the most archaic and mind boggling statutes just to make the discussions a little more lively. For instance, one law we discussed requires all motorcycles that are being operated on a roadway to have a driver! Another made it a criminal offense for restaurants to serve margarine in place of butter without notifying the customers. That’s right, serve margarine without a sign and you could be sentenced to jail! Finally, there was the one that makes it unlawful to operate a motor vehicle without fluid in the windshield washer reservoir. You can imagine the instructor’s surprise when one of my classmates who was newly employed as a police officer actually wrote someone a ticket for that one!
We have laws on the books today that were written more than a century ago. Many of them made sense and were probably needed in their time. But when the laws don’t keep up with the times, we are often left scratching our heads in wonder. It’s not that the legislators of old were wrong or necessarily even misguided. They simply were working with what they had, and trying to make sense out of something that was new or not understood at the time. We need not see those lawmakers as mean, stupid, or spiteful in order to see new and better ways to manage our affairs today. Sometimes a law isn’t the best answer. Sometimes, too, the best of intentions are guided by a misunderstanding of what a particular law or rule means.
At a recent church event, one of our members was asking me about one or another traffic law meant. On one particular question, my “student” as it were, was convinced that I was completely wrong on my answer. So convinced, in fact, that he extended his hand and said “I’ll bet you a hundred dollars!” Not surprisingly, he began to second guess himself when I reached out to shake on the bet before he finished the sentence. I’m sure he wasn’t surprised then when he returned home to find that I had already emailed him a link to the actual statute showing that I was right!
And, so, here we have the disciples walking with Jesus. They walk through a grain field and are so hungry that they pluck heads of grain off the plants and eat them. I’ve picked wheat berries off a stalk in a field and tasted them. They are not something I would gladly have for a complete meal! I would have to be awfully hungry to eat more than one or two!
At any rate, some of the Pharisees saw this happening. Perplexed, they confronted Jesus with their concerns. Much like my friend who offered to bet me that I was wrong about the law, they recited the law as they knew it pertaining to do anything on the Sabbath day. Jesus answered them by pointing out that they perhaps misunderstood the law or, even, that the law itself was improper.
I’m sure many of us are familiar with the adage that says, “Rule #1: The boss is always right. Rule #2: If the boss is wrong, see rule number one.” And, with this scripture passage it’s easy to get lost in the words. Some of us think it’s Jesus saying that he is superseding the law. “Something greater than the temple is here,” Jesus says. This harkens us back to that old rule #2. “For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” Isn’t Jesus saying, “I can dispense with any rule or law that I see fit, because I am lord of the Sabbath.”
I don’t think so. I don’t know of any passage in the Bible where Jesus says it’s okay to break or disregard a law. He insists that we follow the Commandments. He demands obedience to God. No, he’s not saying, “it’s okay to break this rule this day because I say it’s okay.” He’s not saying, “Don’t tell me how to do my job!”
Instead, what I see Jesus saying is that the law itself is misunderstood. The real point of the law governing the Sabbath isn’t that we do nothing on that day but, rather, that we show kindness especially on that day. “But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.” He’s not pardoning their wrong, because they have done no wrong. They are guiltless. Just as guiltless as David when he asked for the bread of the Presence back in the reading Mary gave us from 1st Samuel. When people are hungry, we feed them. When people are hurting, we help them. When people are homeless, we make a room for them. Mercy, Jesus tells us, is above any law. If we interpret a law in such a way as it precludes mercy, then we have misinterpreted that law.
Think about the current situation in hurricane-ravaged Texas. Hundreds of thousands – if not millions - of people have been displaced…they’ve lost everything. Or, how about the factories and plants that have been affected? We’ve no doubt seen the images of the chemical plant that is suffering fire and explosions. But there are others in dangerous situations we have not heard about. Do we ignore those perils this day, because it is the Sabbath? Do firefighters and paramedics and police officers, and electrical crews and plant technicians refuse to work because this is the day that God set aside for rest? Do priests and pastors take Sundays off (in some cases Saturdays), because that is what the law says? Or, as with Samuel, do we refuse to feed the hungry with our sacramental bread, simply because it is our sacramental bread?
Jesus answer to the Pharisees when they question him about the law is simple and straightforward. “I desire mercy and not sacrifice. These disciples of mine are guiltless for nourishing themselves.” We need not see the Pharisees here as mean or evil. Jesus indicates nothing of the sort. He simply points out that they have misunderstood what the law means. But it’s all they know. They were raised with this law and only have tradition to work from. Just as my friend had been taught his whole life that “Pedestrians always have the right-of-way,” the Pharisees were never told that “always” does have limitations.
Mercy, not sacrifice, is paramount. When we err on the side of being merciful and kind toward others, our work honors the Sabbath. How can we violate God’s law when our efforts are merciful to God’s people and the whole of God’s creation?