Matthew 12: 1-8

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. When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.” He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 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.

Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.”

New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989, by the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. USCCB approved

The Spirit of the Law

The Bible is full of surprises! And so is Jesus.

Like the disciples and early Christian communities, we sometimes wrestle with—even break into different camps over—teachings and rules. Often, however, when we think we’ve got it all figured out, Jesus throws a curve ball and we have to reconsider everything.

In today’s Gospel, the Pharisees cry foul when they observe the disciples plucking grain on the Sabbath. It’s easy to dismiss the Pharisees as being too legalistic, but are we really all that different? Even those who claim to be “spiritual but not religious” need—even want—rules. Rules help level the playing field.

But Jesus cautions us not to be too myopic, not to miss the beauty of the game for the rules.

And in case you’re keeping score, Jesus not only refocuses attention on what really matters, he also wins the debate about the rules!

Jesus is not anti-Torah or anti-sabbath; he’s against overdeveloping legislation to the point that it becomes anti-human. The Son of Man is the lord of the Sabbath and greater than the temple. And what he desires is mercy not sacrifice.

In what ways are we too legalistic? Or, too loose with the rules? How can we “keep holy the Sabbath” through observance and mercy?

—Jeremy Langford, Director of Communications for the Chicago-Detroit Province Jesuits and author of Seeds of Faith: Practices to Grow a Healthy Spiritual Life ©2007 Paraclete Press, Brewster, MA.


Lord, with profound gratitude we thank you for God’s laws that ensure forgiveness and a chance to start again. For whether we experience triumph or disaster, your faithfulness is ever present moment by moment in our journey. And one divine law that gives us most hope is the promise that absolutely nothing can separate us from you. In our darkest times, we cling to that truth – whether we feel it or not.

—The Jesuit Prayer Team