Today's Gospel recounts an exchange between the Pharisees and Our Lord which has a lot more to do with the heart of the men involved than with the heads of grain they were picking. A closer -- and more compassionate -- look at the Pharisees may help us to mine a spiritual lesson from the account. It is easy to dismiss the Pharisees we encounter in the Gospel as being obsessed with the details of Jewish law.
Consider, for a moment, the track record of the chosen people. A cursory check of the Old Testament reveals a pattern of broken promises. Each generation had its own struggle being faithful to the covenant with Yahweh. In the second century BC a group of men known to us as the Maccabees rebelled against what had a become a "watered down" expression of the Jewish religion. Part of their zeal manifested itself in a return to a faithful observance of the customs of their religion. They felt keenly the many infidelities of their ancestors (and their contemporaries) and they sought to reclaim the practices of their faith. If one were to consider the Pharisees to be the spiritual descendants of these courageous men we meet in the Old Testament, their fixation with a painstaking observance of the letter of the law becomes more understandable. Understandable: yes. Appropriate: no.
How often can we slip into the mindset of the Pharisees? Perhaps we do so inadvertently because we are of a temperament which has a proclivity for being rule-oriented or perhaps we do so because we are seeking to avoid a more appropriate -- but sometimes difficult or inconvenient -- response in a given situation. Most of us understand that it is disrespectful to talk in Church. By our body language and posture, we may communicate that we are preparing ourselves while we wait for Mass to begin. A neighbor whose company we find tiresome approaches us and makes light conversation. On the one hand, we may know that it is disrespectful to talk in Church; on the other hand, however, if we really examine our hearts, the respect that we may strive to show to the presence of Christ reserved in the Blessed Sacrament is the same respect that we owe to his little one who has approached us for a word of comfort or welcome. It may be "right" to refrain from talking in Church but, in this case, it is "wrong" to ignore the child of God who is at our side.
The Pharisees were so focused on the letter of the law that they overlooked the spirit in which it was written. Let us not make the same mistake. Rather than seeing this as an invitation not to follow civil or religious laws, we can see this as an invitation to follow the Lord and to understand spirit behind the law. A loving response toward that irksome neighbor who approaches us in Church would fulfill the law ... to overflowing; it would fulfill the law with a response worthy of the One who poured Himself out for us. A cold response -- as we seek a perfect posture of solemnity in Church -- would find us a seat among the Pharisees: perfect in observance but lacking in love. Let it never be that our following of the law allows us to stray from the path of following the Lord.
"The supreme law of the Church is the salvation of souls."