Some things we cannot say about this passage from the Gospel according to Matthew.
- We cannot say that Jesus and his disciples, walking through grainfields, was in any way wrong, like they should have taken the road and not disturbed the crops. In Palestine, in Jesus’ day, fields of corn and grain were sowed in long narrow strips, and the land between these rows was always a right-of-way for persons on foot.
- There’s no question whether Jesus’ disciples were stealing. The Jewish Law, in the Book of Deuteronomy, explicitly said that a hungry traveler had the right to do exactly what the disciples were doing: to pluck ears of grain by hand.
- Nor is there no precedence for what Jesus’ disciples are doing on the sabbath. There’s probably endless precedence; however Jesus recalls here how David and his hungry companions had done something parallel on the sabbath.
- Nor can we say that the disciples’ action on the sabbath would have been universally condemned by their fellow Jews. Quite to the contrary, the Mishnah, a collection of Jewish authoritative commentary published about 200 c.e., does not list such “plucking” as unlawful on the sabbath. Jewish opinion, even in Jesus’ own day, would have been quite mixed about the rightness or wrongness of what the disciples did on the sabbath.
What we can say is that Jesus here appeals to mercy, “mercy, not sacrifice,” which is to say the preferential option of kindness, care, a generous response to human need, tender-loving help taking precedence when the alternative is resorting to some kind of literalistic, fundamentalistic, legalistic interpretation of some moral code.
Mercy is at the very heart of Jesus’ Gospel. Mercy does not mean that any behavior by any person for any reason is always okay. No. We are accountable for our actions, absolutely. But I’m distinguishing here between the actions and essence of a person. However virtuous or appalling a person’s actions may be, we are talking about a person – a child of God – whom Jesus has every intention to save, with whom Jesus plans to share eternity. That is what Jesus is up to on the cross. Jesus’ judges with mercy. That is how Jesus operates; we need to co-operate with Jesus: his tender-loving mercy for all, especially for the poor, the hungry, the needy. Everyone is poor, everyone is hungry, everyone is needy, in one way or another.
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