On Friday, July 17, the Gospel Reading for Mass was the familiar story from the Gospel of Matthew about the Disciples walking through a field of grain on the Sabbath. They were hungry and decided to pluck some of the heads off the grain and eat it. Even that was considered to be in violation of the Sabbath laws as some of the Pharisees quickly pointed out to Jesus that his disciples were doing what was not permitted on the Sabbath. (read Matthew 12:1-8) Of course those who confronted Jesus simply wanted to discredit him and his disciples. In their view, Jesus and his disciples could not possibly be people of God and violate the Sabbath laws at the same time. Yet the response Jesus gives should cause us to think. It would seem that Jesus not only dismissed the complaints but also offered examples that would counteract their harsh views. Jesus reminded them that David entered the House of God when he was hungry and ate the bread of offering – something that was not permitted. Jesus also used the example of priests who served in the Temple, if they were to perform their ministry, they were breaking the Sabbath Law. This amounts to Jesus saying that the needs of the children of God takes precedence over everything else – even the Commandments. To understand this, we have to understand that we are talking about needs, not wants or desires or conveniences or anything else – Jesus talks about real needs. Being hungry presents a real need – to be fed. Jesus makes it pretty clear that God cares, first and foremost, about our real needs being taken care of.
When we ponder this Gospel passage, hopefully, we come to a greater appreciation of what God desires for us – not from us, but for us. No matter what, God wants to meet our needs. But perhaps this Gospel passage should also help us to have a better appreciation of the Commandments of God. The Commandments were not given to us to control us, make life difficult or set up rigid limitations on our lives. God gave them to us to guide us, help us and protect us from bad choices that can limit us or even harm us. At least some of the Pharisees of Jesus’ day could only see the Commandments as rigid rules that had better not be violated – at any cost. The disciples of Jesus were hungry – it was a real need – they needed food. Jesus knew that God would not want God’s children to be hungry – what loving parent would ever want that? Jesus reminded those who were condemning the actions of his disciples that they needed to better comprehend the fact that God desires mercy, not sacrifice.
Even today there are far too many people who consider themselves Christian who want to treat the Commandments as though they are rigid rules that cannot be violated – no matter what the situation is. But we have to ask ourselves if that is really what God wanted to do – control us at any cost. The words of Jesus certainly seem to contradict such a notion. This Gospel passage, along with many others in the Gospels, give hard and fast proof that the only absolute about everything in our faith is that God desires mercy. If God wants this for us, shouldn’t we want that for both ourselves and for others? Should we not, as Church; as followers of Jesus; as children of God, imitate God’s desire to have our needs met? Shouldn’t we start to appreciate that in God’s mercy God gave us the Commandments to protect us rather than control us? This would mean that when we encounter someone who seems to be in violation of one of the Commandments that we must be willing to forego condemnation and instead show mercy – after all, who knows what their needs are.
Yes, I realize that there are some who would abuse such an approach by using it as a copout to excuse whatever they are doing, but in the end, this comes down to something between that individual and God. I was talking to someone recently who said she did not go to Mass sometimes because she is out partying with friends and needs her sleep, and that God would not want her to be tired. Yes, it is a feeble attempt to justify an action and there are many such attempts. But I don’t think that this can justify use of the Commandments as a rigid rule that God has given us so that God can trap us in a wrongdoing. Instead, we must be willing to see the Commandments as God’s way of protecting us from such behaviors that can eventually hurt us and can prevent us from ever coming to an appreciation of what God offers us.
I am praying that the Year of Mercy that Pope Francis has proclaimed for this Fall will allow us to be more focused on the mercy that God has for us and that it will help to imitate God’s mercy.