John Lilburne's journal about Jesus and the law.



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1309 L Tue 22 Jan 2002

The Gospel reading for Mass today is from Mark 2:23-28. It is a challenging one regarding lawful behaviour:

One sabbath day Jesus happened to be taking a walk through the cornfields, and his disciples began to pick ears of corn as they went along. And the Pharisees said to him. "Look, why are they doing something on the sabbath day that is forbidden?" And he replied, "Do you never read what David did in his time of need when he and his followers were hungry -- how he went into the house of God when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the loaves of offering which only the priests are allowed to eat, and how he also gave some to the men with him?"

And he said to them, "The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is master even of the Sabbath."

What were they doing that was forbidden? Today we may say stealing corn. But this seems to have been permissible, from Deuteronomy 23:25:

"If you go through your neighbour's standing corn, you may pick the ears with your hand, but you must not put a sickle into your neighbour's corn."

The forbidden thing was doing it on the Sabbath, from Exodus 34:21 "For six days you shall labour, but on the seventh day you shall rest, even at ploughing time and harvest."

A more obvious response from Jesus may have been: "That's a crazy interpretation of the law, what they are doing is not labour, they are not harvesting with a sickle, they are simply picking ears of corn." Instead there is an expression of the authority of Jesus.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has a section on "Jesus and the Law" which includes the following in CCC 582:

In presenting with divine authority the definitive interpretation of the Law, Jesus found himself confronted by certain teachers of the Law who did not accept his interpretation of the Law, guaranteed though it was by the divine signs that accompanied it. This was the case especially with the sabbath laws, for he recalls often with rabbinical arguments, that the sabbath rest is not violated by serving God and neighbor, which his own healings did.

Another part of this section quotes Matthew 5:17, where Jesus says "Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have not come to abolish but to complete them."

Tensions about rules and laws are well known. The 1973 World Book Encyclopedia has an entry on Law by Erwin N. Griswold. Here are some extracts:

Wherever men have lived together, they have found it necessary to develop rules of conduct. ... If there were no law, every man could do just as he pleased. With law, the people in a community know that the government will enforce rules that will make it possible for them to live together without conflict. ...

How Laws Change

In a Democracy, the people have the power to determine the rules under which they live. ... Sometimes courts or legislatures have established a rule which most of the people have disagreed. When this happens, and when the rule concerns something important, some fo the legislators who passed the law may be defeated in elections. Other men will be elected who promise to change the rule. Or the rule simply may not be enforced. ...

In a Dictatorship, the people have no peaceful way to bring pressure on the government to change the law. ... The only way the people can change the law under a dictatorship is by overthrowing the government by revolution.

I find them challenging issues. I think the movie High Noon also deals with them well, with Gary Cooper having problems getting deputies. One cynical character says:

People gotta talk themselves into law and order before they do anything about it. Maybe because down deep they don't care. They just don't care.

Copyright J.R. Lilburne, 22 January 2002.

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