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.