“Why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” (Matt 2:24).
The importance of observing the sabbath was built into the foundation of the Law as recognition of the centrality of God and the importance of social justice. As God rested on the seventh day after creating the universe, so his people rested to reflect the Creator’s sovereignty. A day of rest also protected laborers from overwork. The code of righteousness in Exodus also called for a fallow time every seven years to let the land rest and to rebalance any income gap that had grown up between rich and poor because of land ownership. The jubilee year was proposed every 49 years (7X7), again to restore basic human equality through debt forgiveness.
By the time of Jesus, the double purpose of the sabbath had been superseded by concerns for legal purity. The Pharisees, eager to find reason to criticize Jesus, frequently cited him for healing people on the sabbath. In today’s Gospel, they point to the illegal practice of his disciples pulling and rubbing heads of grain in their hands to eat as they passed through a field. Jesus defends them by asserting that hunger is more urgent than legal purity. They are gleaning, something allowed to the poor by the law. The Gospel writers, keen to defend Jesus from later accusations that he was a lawbreaker, cite examples from Scripture to justify his teaching that the sabbath is for people, not the other way round. But the scene also reveals something about discipleship.
The passage offers us a view of the disciples as God’s anawim -- little ones -- because of their decision to follow Jesus. They are living the beatitudes. They have become like the birds that the heavenly Father feeds. It is this freedom based on love that the Pharisees really object to. Jesus is starting a revolution by reducing the entire Law and its 613 specific rules to the single commandment of love of God and neighbor. If this is the case, then the scribes and Pharisees are out of a job. Ordinary people can take up the challenge of love and find a life without fear and guilt simply because God loves them. Compassion for others, especially the poor and the hungry, will follow and always be more important than literal observance of rules for their own sake.
We share the freedom of disciples who strive each day to be loving. It is often more difficult than keeping a set of rules, but the proof that it fulfills rather than breaks the law is that we experience joy and peace.