Two thousand years ago, when God poured out the Holy Spirit on that first Pentecost, it was to empower the disciples and equip the Church with all the gifts they needed to proclaim the Gospel in such a way as to convert the hearts of those who heard the Good News. These gifts were abundant, including the seven traditional gifts of power and light we receive in confirmation — power (experienced as fortitude, piety and fear of the Lord) and light (experienced as wisdom, understanding, counsel and knowledge.)
If embraced, these seven gifts of the Spirit lead to the nine fruits of the Spirit mentioned by St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians. These nine fruits of the Spirit are the attributes of persons and communities that live in accord with the Holy Spirit, namely: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
Having given birth to the Church that first Pentecost, the Holy Spirit has continued to accompany the Church through all the ups and downs of history, inspiring people to holiness and providing the Church with the spiritual resources needed to address the changing challenges of each succeeding age. By the way, did you ever wonder why the Vatican flag is white and yellow? It is to remind us that we are to be the salt of the earth — the white — and the light of the world — the yellow.
Now, how to unpack the Gospel you just heard where Jesus reminds us that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”? Let’s start by noting that there is a big difference between the English Common Law system on which our American legal system is based and the Roman Law system on which Church law and the legal system in a lot of other countries is based.
Our law states the minimum, below which you are in violation of the law. It does not recognize a higher law — even though we describe ourselves as a nation under God, our legal system doesn’t act that way. Roman law describes the way things ought to be, below which you are in non-compliance with the law. Even the words, violation and non-compliance reflect different legal cultures and the practical consequences are enormous. For instance, in America running a red light is a punishable traffic violation, even if there are no cars around. Italians think that is crazy. They stop, look to see if any other cars are coming, and then if not, they might go ahead and proceed through the intersection even while the light is still red. They are focused on the purpose of the law, in this case preventing accidents and satisfied themselves with the knowledge that no other cars were coming.
We have a similar clash between two legal cultures in today’s Gospel. The Pharisees are like us Americans: they understood the law to state the minimum, below which you are in violation of the law. So, when they see Jesus’ disciples picking heads of grain to eat, they accuse them of violating the law forbidding work on the Sabbath.
By contrast, Jesus insists that achieving the law’s purpose is more important than the letter of the law. Notice the working of the Holy Spirit in this discernment? The purpose of the Sabbath was to prevent exploitation of workers and self-imposed workaholism by making everyone take a day off and to remind us that we belong to God (who deserves our worship) and not to our boss (who does not deserve our worship).
So when Jesus says that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath, what he means is that in this case, his disciples did not violate the purpose of the Sabbath even when doing something that was technically forbidden on the Sabbath. The Pharisees say, in effect, but “it’s the Law, it’s the Law, it’s the Law!” These disciples were in no danger of becoming workaholics (they were unemployed) nor of forgetting that they were God’s servants — after all, they were following Jesus. Jesus describes his approach elsewhere as obeying the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law. In other words, there is a higher law before which human laws ultimately lose their binding force and Roman law takes this into account. In the case of rushing a bleeding child to the hospital, even we Americans know to obey a higher law — saving lives — and go through the red light in violation of a merely man-made law.
That case is obvious, but there are many more cases where the same principle applies, for example on the controversial topic of unauthorized immigration. Some Americans cry “It is the law, it is the law, it is the law” forgetting that there is a higher law before which unjust laws lose their binding force.
Parents have a God-given obligation to protect and provide for their children, and if they cannot do so in their place of origin, they have a God-given right — even obligation — to migrate to some place where they are able to do so.
Church teaching is that beyond a certain point, laws which unjustly to prevent people from exercising their God-given rights eventually lose their binding force. Kind of like the case of those disciples in the small matter of Sabbath observance in today’s Gospel. Why? Because there is a higher law. Think of all those people, children and adults, at our southern border who came here to get their family out of desperate circumstances. Much like many of our own immigrant ancestors in the past.
We have the right to regulate the migration of people for the common good, facilitating migration and protecting migrants from those who would exploit them, but the bottom line is that we do not have the right to prevent people from exercising their God-given right to migrate when desperate circumstances so require. As we read in today’s Gospel, “the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath,” and as we read elsewhere, “the Sabbath” — or any other law — "was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
Two thousand years ago, when God poured out the Holy Spirit on that first Pentecost, it was to empower the disciples and equip the Church with all the gifts they needed to proclaim the Gospel in such a way as to convert the hearts of those who heard the Good News. In today’s Gospel we see that there is a higher law before which all human laws must give way.
Bishop Anthony B. Taylor delivered this homily July 21 for the opening Mass for the Arkansas Catholic Charismatic Conference.
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