Picking Grain (or Eating Pancakes) on the Sabbath

Today’s Gospel finds the Pharisees criticizing Jesus because his hungry disciples picked some heads of grain on the Sabbath and ate them. Jesus responds by referring to David and his companions eating the bread of offering in the temple when they were hungry, telling the Pharisees that he desires mercy, not sacrifice, and ending by reminding them that “the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”

Reflecting on this passage always brings to mind an incident I may have shared once before that occurred some years ago, when my daughter was about barely 10 and just starting to cook. One of her first specialties was pancakes – and she learned to make really good pancakes!

When I was a child we still had to fast at least three hours before receiving Eucharist, and so (old habits dying hard) I tended to take seriously the more current “rule” to fast at least one hour before receiving. On this particular morning, I was on the way out the door to a weekday mass and so had not eaten breakfast. As I was going out, Elena, who had just made pancakes proudly encouraged me to taste her product before I left. I declined, but as I passed her she held the fork to my mouth making it difficult for me to avoid taking a bite. I left the house with the intention of taking the food out of my mouth as soon as I got outside.

As I closed the door behind me and started to put my hand to my mouth, I stopped, struck by the absurdity of my intention. Could it really be that God was honored more by my spitting out a piece of pancake into the hedges than by my eating the bite of pancake my daughter prepared with her hands and delighted in having me taste? Asking the question was enough to answer it.

I am not suggesting there is no value to rules; rules have their place. But we ought to take seriously Jesus’ admonition to the Pharisees. There clearly are situations where one has to question whether the rule in a particular situation really works to the greater glory of God. No work on the Sabbath is surely a good rule as a general matter, but to have the rule prevent hungry disciples from eating is no act of reverence toward God. Likewise with fasting before communion.

Of course, this is not always an easy thing for people to see. We know that admonitions such as that given by Jesus to the Pharisees contributed to people wanting to put him to death. While no one is threatening to put most of us to death, we also know that there are some people so adamant about the specifics of a rule that they forget who it is that is Lord of the Sabbath


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