17 Jan 2017
“The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.” That’s like saying “The law and tradition were made for man, not man for the law and tradition.” In other words, religious practice is supposed to be a help to humanity, and humanity was not made to be a slave to religious practice.
And so, it’s easy to why the Pharisees got so bent out of shape: they were slaves to their law and tradition—and happily so. And then along comes Jesus and says, “You’re doing it wrong!” Jesus gives more weight to the spirit of the Third Commandment (to keep holy the sabbath) than the letter of the law. That’s why his disciples were out there picking grain on the sabbath—if they’d followed the letter of the law (that is, the Pharisee’s interpretation of the law), they would’ve starved. And that’s not what God wants.
Sometimes in the confessional I’ll hear that someone missed Mass on Sunday because they were sick, or because they were traveling and tried to find a Mass somewhere, but couldn’t. And I ask, “Did you spend any time in prayer that day?” Because that’s what the Lord’s Day is meant for: to take time out of our busy week to get reoriented again to God; to spend some time with him, to worship him and give thanks. That’s what our “Sunday obligation” is. Our obligation isn’t to keep a pew warm for an hour; our obligation is to engage God in the act of worship. Our obligation is to rest in God.
Law and tradition aren’t given to us as shackles, as a form into which we must fit. Instead, they’re handed to us as trustworthy guides along the way of holiness. They’re instruments of the Holy Spirit. And they should help us get in sync with God. And that’s why Jesus says so clearly, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.”
It’s not about the letter of the law; it’s about the spirit of the law. Or, as Jesus would say, “The law is the spirit. Follow the spirit, and you’ll be following the law.”