Homily for Sept. 6th, 2014: Luke 6:1-5.
“Remember to keep holy the sabbath day,” is the third of the Ten Commandments. We find the Commandments twice in the Old Testament: in the 20th chapter of Exodus, and in the 5th chapter of Deuteronomy. Both versions say that we keep the sabbath holy by refraining from work. Exodus says that the sabbath rest commemorates God’s resting on the seventh day after creating the world and everything in it in six days. Deuteronomy doesn’t mention God resting; but it spells out in greater detail what Exodus says more briefly: that the sabbath rest is for all, domestic animals as well as humans, masters and slaves alike: “for you were once slaves in Egypt.”
By Jesus’ day there was an enormous collection of rabbinical interpretation of this commandment, distinguishing between forms of work that were lawful on the sabbath, and those which were unlawful. The controversy continues in Judaism today. Orthodox Jews walk to the synagogue because they consider driving a car a form of work. Reform Jews reject this rigorism.
In today’s gospel reading some rigorists criticize Jesus’ disciples for picking heads of grain on the Sabbath, rubbing them in their hands, and eating them. Jesus appeals to a precedent in the Jewish Scriptures, when David took bread offered to God in the Temple and which only Jewish priests might eat, and both eating it himself and offering it to his companions. The precedent was weak: David had not violated the sabbath rest, though what he had done was illegal.
Crucial is the final sentence of our reading: “The Son of Man [a title for Jesus himself] is lord of the sabbath.” Jesus never abrogated any of God’s laws. But he made charity the highest law of all. That is why he healed on the sabbath, for instance. And that is why Pope Francis, celebrating the Mass of the Lord’s Supper in a prison on the first Holy Thursday after his election disregarded the liturgical law which says that only the feet of baptized men should be washed, in order to wash also the feet of some Muslim women. The highest law of all is charity.