“Which of you will have an ox or an ass
fall into a pit on the Sabbath and not immediately draw it out?”
Today's Gospel finds our Lord at
dinner with the chief Pharisees. And we know that the Pharisees were the
descendants of the Maccabees—those Jews who were so very zealous for the
keeping of the Law of Moses that they drove the foreign invaders out of
Israel just a few hundred years before Christ. These Pharisees, then, were
people whose close ancestors had literally died—given their lives for the
right to keep the Mosaic Law.
Unfortunately, as we see in many
similar Gospel passages, they had become obsessed with the Law for the Law's
sake, and had forgotten that the Law was intended for the honor of God, and
for the well-being and salvation of men. As we might say in modern terms,
they were more concerned with the “letter of the law than with the spirit
of the law.” They were more concerned with its outward observance than
with the reasons for the law.
You can just imagine, then, the
uproar that our Lord's behavior must have caused. Here he was healing
people on the Sabbath—a day on which no one was supposed to do any work!
And, of course, as we learn from the Gospels, this was not an isolated
incident. Our Lord is recorded as healing others on the Sabbath as well;
and even picking grain so that His disciples might have something to eat on
What our Lord is expressing here is
very important. By healing people, and by providing for them, and,
especially, by forgiving their sins on the Sabbath, He is telling us that
the most important law is the salvation of souls. It would be wrong to
avoid doing some necessary good for someone because of some accident of the
law. He is telling us that even though the Law comes from God, it was not
the intent of the Lawgiver to make the Law an obstacle to physical or
spiritual well-being. God desires that men and women be brought to Him, not
kept away by some quirk of law.
St. Paul speaks about this quite
often in his Epistles. The Christian is no longer bound by all of the
ritual prescriptions of the Old Law. Instead, the Christian is called to
know and love God with all of his being. As he tells the Ephesians today,
he is begging God that we “might be strengthened according to the inner man”
so that “Christ can dwell in our hearts,” and we can know “the love of God,
which surpasses even the knowledge of God.”
You can almost hear the fire in his
voice as you read Paul's words! And, of course, Paul spent more than words
in this connection. He literally spent his life for the salvation of
souls. He was afraid of no one. He even rebuked Peter, the first Pope,
when Peter refused to eat with the Christians of Antioch who had been
baptized without first receiving the Jewish ritual of circumcision. (Gal. 2)
These readings today, then, ought to
fill us with a similar zeal for souls; first and foremost for the salvation
of our own soul, and then also for the salvation of those around us.
Nothing else is more important. Nothing can legitimately keep us from
working for salvation. For our Lord is telling us that any law on earth
that keeps us from our salvation is contrary to what God the Father, the
Supreme Lawgiver, wants for us. No politician; no churchman may make laws
to keep God's people away from Him.
Having said that, we must remember
that our Lord said: “Do not think that I am come to destroy the law, or
the prophets. I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.”
The Commandments are still very much with us—although, in many cases, with a
more merciful interpretation—adultery is still wrong, but Christians do not
stone adulterers to death! We are still bound by the third Commandment to “Keep
holy the Lord’s day.” So perhaps we ought to discuss just what that
requires under the Christian dispensation.
To begin with, the Lord’s days of
the Church are all the Sundays of the year, and a number of Holy Days, at
most ten in some places. This corresponds to the Jewish keeping holy all
the Saturdays and a few other holy days. By the authority of the Apostles,
the Christian observance of the Sabbath was moved to Sunday, sometimes
called “the eighth day,” the day on which Christ rose from the dead. We see
this in the Bible and in writings of the very early Church.
On Sundays and the few Holy Days of
Obligation (Opportunity!) Catholics are normally required to assist at Holy
Mass. One ought to arrive before Mass starts and remain for a few moments
of prayer when it has concluded. Deliberately to miss any portion of the
Mass would be sinful, and to miss a significant portion of the Mass would
hardly differ from not coming at all. We usually say that absolute
minimum attendance at Mass requires arrival before the Offertory, and
departure after the priest has received Holy Communion. Attendance in such
an abbreviated fashion should be with good reason—perhaps to get to
(necessary) work on a Holy Day, or to relieve someone who is caring for the
sick so that they may attend an earlier or later Mass.
One must be physically present at
Mass, although in a very crowded church it would suffice to be where one
could see or hear the Mass—perhaps outside an open window. There must be
the intention of taking part in the worship of God in the Mass—this is a
minimum, and hopefully our people will follow the Mass from memory or with a
printed text, and make the responses assigned to them.
The Church does not expect them
impossible or even the very inconvenient. The need to care for the sick,
the requirement to work, or a lengthy or hazardous journey are just reasons
for not coming to Mass—although we should do whatever we can to overcome
them. Additionally, your confessor can excuse you from the obligation to
attend Mass when an occasional, specific, and weighty need arises.
You cannot just transfer your Mass attendance to another day of the week,
but it does seem laudable to attend Mass another day if you are unable to
attend on Sunday or other Day of Obligation.
In addition to attending Sunday
Mass, we are encouraged to add more prayer and spiritual reading to our
normal schedules. Family prayer is particularly encouraged.
On Sundays and Days of Obligation we
are required to abstain from commercial and servile physical work. Some
people will have to work—the cops, the firemen, the gas station attendants,
the restaurateurs, to name a few—but we ought not patronize establishments
that can be visited during the week, unless there is an urgent necessity.
We should not be responsible for other people having to work on Sundays when
it is not essential to society.
Recreational and cultural activities
are permitted, particularly those that are conducive to relaxation and
bodily restoration or rejuvenation. Cutting the grass or chopping down
trees seems to me to be a little too physical for Sunday gardening.
Keeping holy the Lord’s day means
worshipping God in the way He has chosen to be worshipped—in the Holy
Sacrifice of the Mass. It also means emulating God, who rested after He
accomplished His work of creation
“The sabbath was made for man, and
not man for the sabbath.”
As the Latin phrase has it: Lex suprema, salus animarum—the supreme
law is the good of souls.