In Sunday's Gospel (Mk 2:23-3:6), Jesus demonstrates one of five characteristics which distinguish true prophets from false prophets: He forces people to go back to the beginnings of their faith.

Throughout both the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus and His followers are often accused of breaking laws. Though we're certain of their "lawless" behavior, we rarely read the pertinent passages carefully enough to appreciate the reasons they give for such actions, especially when their law-breaking revolves around the Sabbath.

Sabbath regulations were important for the Jews of Jesus' day. They helped give the Chosen People their unique identity. Sabbath observance was an especially distinguishing mark during the Babylonian Exile. Scripture scholar Hans Walter Wolff once remarked, "Every Saturday, all the Jews in Babylon went on strike." On at least one day of the week, there was an obvious distinction between Israelites and Babylonian.

Purpose of law

Yet, as frequently happens when one group follows laws which no one else keeps, that group can get so hung up on the identity dimension that it forgets the law's original purpose.

Fortunately, we hear the Sabbath's initial intent in the first reading (Dt 5:12-15): "Six days you may labor and do all your work; but the seventh day is the Sabbath of Yahweh, your God....For remember that you were once a slave in Egypt, and Yahweh, your God, brought you from there with a strong hand and outstretched arm. That is why Yahweh, your God, has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day."

Yahweh's people are not to work one day of the week to remind them that Yahweh has made them a free people. While others labor all seven days, Jews deliberately refrain from labor (and its profits) as a reminder that they're free, even when they've been conquered by other nations.

But it's clear from the Christian Scriptures that some of Jesus' fellow Israelites have stopped reveling in Sabbath freedom. Through the years, they've actually become slaves to a multitude of minute Sabbath laws. In the Gospel, these fanatic Sabbath observers want Jesus' disciples to stop stripping heads of grain and popping kernels in their mouth as they walk along, and even object when Jesus restores movement to a man's withered hand.

Jesus' response in the latter situation is a classic Christian rejoinder to anyone who objects to someone breaking a law in the process of helping others. "Is it lawful," Jesus asks angrily, "to do good on the Sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?" In other words, "No law should ever stop a follower of Jesus from doing good or improving someone's life."

Laws and us

Yet the zinger is in the preceding narrative. Jesus not only reminds His critics that some famous Jews broke laws, but also makes them deal with the basic issue which lurks behind all laws. God didn't first create laws, then create people to obey them. According to Jesus, God initially created people, then created laws for their benefit. How can someone enforce any law which isn't for the good of people?

Paul's words to the Corinthian community fit perfectly into this discussion of law (2 Cor 4:6-11). He insists that we always carry about in our body the dying of Jesus, "so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body." Nothing is more important for followers of Jesus than to manifest the life of Jesus in their "mortal flesh."

We constantly need to be reminded to die to the laws in which we place our security and be alive to the people those laws should benefit. Those who obey laws just because they're laws have turned into modern Pharisees -- individuals who, under the guise of religion, actually stop the life of Jesus from reaching those for whom He died and rose.