“Have you never read this?” There is a touch of irony in Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel as he responded to the Pharisees who rebuked his disciples for plucking grain on the Sabbath. Jesus began his response to the Pharisees with the words “Have you never read this?” precisely because these leaders prided themselves upon their knowledge of the Scriptures.
“Have you never read this?” They had read, Jesus intimated, but had not read to understand. They had not read with soft hearts. They, perhaps unconsciously, had read to verify their own positions, their already determined conclusions. They had understood, or misunderstood, the Word of the Lord to confirm their own word to their own benefit.
How many times Jesus could say these words to me, “Kathryn, have you never read this? Have you not yet understood my heart? Are you still so undiscerning of what truly gives me joy, what pleases me the most?”
I remember as a young sister that being on time for meals, which meant arriving early and waiting prayerfully to say the meal blessing, was an important custom and expectation in our community. There are many values enshrined in this practice: respect for the community, obedience to the will of God as indicated by the schedule, taking one’s rest prayerfully. However, one day on my way to dinner I noticed a sister forty years my senior unloading a car by herself. I hesitated because to assist her would mean that I would arrive late to dinner. Making a quick decision, I stopped to assist her. There were two goods, two values at stake: punctual obedience and generous service. I chose the value of generous service at that moment, regardless of what others would think of my walking in late to dinner.
This certainly was a decision of little consequence, and doubtless you have been faced with many situations of more grave import in your own life. But this Gospel helps us sift through our options more selflessly, honestly, obediently.
Let’s look more closely at the Gospel. The Pharisees objected to Jesus that his disciples by plucking the grain were “working,” a kind of reaping, and therefore it should be avoided as it was considered working on the sabbath day. Jesus responded to the Pharisees: Have you not read how David and his followers went to the tabernacle at Nob near Jerusalem and asked bread of the priests there. There was no bread available there except for the twelve old loaves of showbread which were prescribed to be eaten only by the priests. The priests, in mercy, gave this bread to the hungry men, as Jesus himself in his mercy did not stop his disciples from plucking the grain along the side of the path. And have you not read, Jesus continues, that on the Sabbath, the busiest day in the week for the priests, they themselves break the rules of the Sabbath in order to carry out the functions of worship in the Temple. The commandment of God to keep holy the Sabbath didn’t refer to all work universally, Jesus intimated, but work for worldly gain.
“I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” Jesus says at the end of this reading. In this Gospel passage today it is clear that Jesus was not using this phrase to justify behavior that was wrong. Instead he used Scripture itself to show the Pharisees how their understanding of the Law in its more complex and cohesive sense was inadequate. He called them to a greater and more inward sense and assimilation of the heart of the Law not to a lesser one. And, indeed, he called his own disciples to such higher standards in the Sermon on the Mount. “You have heard it said…but I say to you.”
Jesus makes clear that he didn’t come to relax the commandments of the Law, to negate them in favor of something new that would make it easier for his disciples. Rather, he pointed out on a number of occasions that the teachers of the Law had missed the point. And that is what we need to be attentive to. Often the phrase “it is mercy God desires, not sacrifice” is thrown out in a conversation to justify not keeping God’s law. God understands and has mercy. He doesn’t really expect us to keep his law. After all, he is so merciful…. So let’s not expect someone to obey the call to discipleship with all its consequences. That clearly is not what God in his mercy expects of us. That, however, is clearly not what Jesus was saying in the context of this Gospel passage. Jesus loved each one who came to him, with great patience and mercy, and at the same time invited them to become “perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48).
“Have you never read this?” Or if you have, have you missed the point? We don’t want to miss the point. Going back to my example above, communion of life and charity is the point of community life. At that moment, communion and charity was greater served by my stopping to help a sister unload a car than by my walking past her to be with my sisters at prayer before the meal. Though I “broke,” so to speak, one rule, I lived it inwardly in my service to the sister who needed assistance. If instead, I had stopped to offer assistance because I thought it was stupid to have to keep rules and I had been looking for a chance to act as a free agent and to cherish my own self-importance or greater enlightenment, even if I had justified my action with the words of the Lord himself: “it is mercy I desire and not sacrifice,” I would have missed the point. I would have misused the words of Wisdom itself to justify my own selfish autonomy and resistance to authority. And in the end, it would be I myself who would have suffered from my own self-will, my hardened positions, even if justified by the words of the Lord himself.
Image Credit: Loli Casaux via Cathopic