From the Center for Social Ministry’s blog, Building Bridges, Building Hope – 

Mark 2:23-3:6

In this past weekend’s Gospel reading, we find Jesus in trouble with the Pharisees (again). In the reading from Mark, Jesus defends working and healing on the Sabbath and responds to the Pharisees with the line, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.”

As I read this scripture passage, I found myself reflecting on three different take-aways that seem to be embedded in Jesus’ response to the Pharisees.

The first, and most common, take-away is this: the “spirit of the law” is always more important than the “letter of the law.” Or, said more plainly: people are always more important than the laws concerning them.

Years ago I worked as a pastoral minister in a Roman Catholic Church and was the staff liaison for the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA); the process by which adults become members of the Roman Catholic Church. Many of the Catechumens or Candidates would ask random things like: “If someone gets hit by a car and there is no priest around, can anyone give Last Rites or perform the Anointing of the Sick? If today’s scripture is our guide – Jesus’ answer to this question might be, “Why in the world wouldn’t you pray over/anoint a dying person?” Jesus’ response to the Pharisees in no way diminished Sabbath law; he simply put the law in the context of our humanity.

The second take-away I have for this particular Gospel reading is: what was in question was acceptable Sabbath practices, NOT whether or not we are supposed to honor the Sabbath. The Dalai Lama once said, “Know the rules well, so you can effectively break them.” Jesus knew the Sabbath laws very well. This particular exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees does not question whether or not we are called to set aside regular time for prayer and rest. Jesus’ exchange with the Pharisees does not question whether or not we are called to live in such a way that all have equal access to basic human necessities and basic human dignity, all the time; or whether or not we are called to allow our land to lie fallow from time to time in order that it can be restored. None of these Sabbath principles are ever in question. What Jesus questions is adhering to the law at the expense of actually living into these Sabbath principles.

Fifteen years ago, I participated in “JustFaith”; a program that invites people of faith to embrace Sabbath principles; to learn more about our current political, economic, and social systems and structures and to learn what it takes to restore and rejuvenate ourselves, God’s people and God’s planet. JustFaith was one of the top three most transformative experiences in my adult life; taking a back seat only to my children and my marriage. Like Jesus’ example in this scripture passage and many others in the Gospels, my JustFaith experience moved me to place a biblical sense of compassion over any secular law that does not protect our God-given sense of dignity and the basic human rights that come with that God-given dignity.

The third and last take-away I have from this Gospel message is: The Pharisees’ biggest problem with Jesus isn’t necessarily what he is doing or even what he says, but rather, by whose authority he is doing it. In other words, in this passage the Pharisees seem to be asking: “Who is this guy?!” “Who gave him permission to make any kind of determination about Sabbath law?”

In the words of the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the U.S., Bishop Michael Curry, “If it’s not about love, then it’s not about God.” Jesus’ acts of feeding hungry people and healing those in need of healing on the Sabbath were acts of love. If the Pharisees’ minds and hearts would have been open to the fullness of his message, they would have known that he was acting directly on God’s behalf. Only Love can effectively break all the rules, when God’s people are suffering or in need.


Susie Tierney is the Director of Organizing for JustFaith Ministries and the Executive Director of the Center for Social Ministry in Des Moines, Iowa.