At that time Jesus went through the cornfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. 2When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, ‘Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.’ 3He said to them, ‘Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4He 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. 5Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless? 6I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. 7But if you had known what this means, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice”, you would not have condemned the guiltless. 8For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.’ (Matthew 12:1-8, NRSV)
In our life together we are so often bound by the traditions, rules and regulations of our own creation. Traditions that shape our familial practice, careers, and religious practices all shape our life. After all, these traditions can help to keep us grounded and focused when the vicissitudes of life keep us in flux. Our morning routines, the rules we follow on our jobs, the expectations and standards that we promote in our lives all serve to create consistency that we rely on in the day-to-day moments of existence. But what happens when those rules that guide become ties that bind? When do our traditions and experiences that so helpfully regulate our lives, become limiting and restrictive to the life?
There are times when our expectations and life traditions do in fact hinder us. The rules we make around dating and relationships, what we will and won’t do, and the circumstances by which we would perform and extraordinary task all have the dangerous propensity for limiting life as much as they define it. I have talked with people who have grown old and bitter because of the rules they have made for themselves. They didn’t get married because they wanted a particular type of spouse. They didn’t work in the field of their heart’s desire because of the traditions that their family assumed about being a musician or artist or teacher. They have limited their lives because of the rules and ideologies they made for themselves.
Such is the case in the New Testament with respect to the rules and traditions of religious practice. Jesus is born into a religious context that has long been shaped by thousands of years of religious tradition and interpretation. The laws and regulations that shape Jewish religiosity are strict and specifically enforced by the Pharisees. Despite the intense regulation of obedience to the laws (and the traditions), Jesus is countercultural in nearly every respect of those very traditions.
In the above passage, Jesus has finished providing instructions and teaching to the disciples. After he concludes they begin their journey to a new town. Nothing wrong in this except that their travel begins and continues on the sabbath. Traveling on the Sabbath means that he is already in violation of the laws concerning work for Jews during this period. Worse yet, in the middle of the journey, the disciples get hungry and instead of stopping and resting, they decide to keep walking through a grain field and pick off the heads of grains. All is well until the disciples gets caught by the Pharisees.
The interchange that takes place between Jesus and the Pharisees is one in which Jesus critiques the understanding of the purpose of the law and not just a general interpretation. By challenging the very notion of the function of tradition, Jesus exposes the risk of strict adherence to the rules. Rules can be dangerously limiting and deny life when you focus on the rule and not the purpose of the rule. Jesus reminds the Pharisees that rules exist for a reason and to ignore the reason and keep the rules makes the rules irrelevant and legalistic.
The truth of the matter is that we too, build fortresses of rules and traditions and hide inside. We often forget why we create these rules and what purpose they served in our life. Instead we cling to the rules blindly and watch happiness in life pass us by. Jesus in the passage reminds us that rules have a purpose. Once the purpose has changed, the rules need to be changed (or maybe even omitted). Our hypocrisy, contortions of belief and the undermining of relational happiness emanate from blind allegiance to the rules.
Life is happening all around us. Life is engaging and changing in the brief moments of love, charity and interaction. Traditions are important to shaping and defining life for each one of us. Traditions do not, however, bring life, they merely maintain the status quo. Doing what you always have done because it’s what has been done, is never good enough and will never yield life. Being responsive to the needs of life and the needs you have means sometimes changing (or breaking) the rules. It’s not the end of the world, but the promise of life. After all, the visions of truth only come outside of the rule box!