A fight to the death. The healing of the sick. Today’s readings are about as disparate as imaginable. Sure, there’s an overarching idea about the power of God to do the impossible . . . but my prayerful reflection has led to look for something more.
So what’s going on? In the Gospel selection from Mark, Jesus commits a crime in the eyes of the Pharisees, by healing a crippled man on the Sabbath. What is that saying about our relationship with the Ten Commandments? Jesus isn’t tossing the one about keeping holy the Sabbath out the window, is he?
Not really. Elsewhere, Jesus makes clear that the old rules of morality are still in place. In other words, just because Jesus came into the world, we still need to honor our parents, tell the truth, avoid lusting that which we don’t have, and avoid taking life.
But, with today’s Gospel selection, Jesus reminds us why these rules are in place. They are not an end unto themselves, as the Pharisees believed. They are designed to help us fulfill a higher purpose: doing good, and bringing us closer to God.
As a minor example, we know that we shouldn’t lie to our parents, right? But what if we’re planning a surprise birthday party for a parent, who asks, “What are you doing this weekend?” You can’t reveal the truth; it’d give away the surprise! But a nonchalant “Oh, I’m not doing much of anything” — while technically a lie — serves the greater good of loving and respecting your parents.
Or, as a more serious example, let’s look at war. The Catechism of the Catholic Church goes into great detail on war. I heartily recommend reading all of paragraphs 2302-2317 for more insight into the “just war” doctrine, which states where and how nations may defend themselves.
Reading over that section, I can’t help but come away with a sense that war is one of the most serious endeavors humanity can engage in (obviously), and should never be entered into lightly. More importantly, if the decision is made to enter into war, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good; just that it’s necessary to prevent further evil.
Thus, in the first reading about the encounter between David and Goliath, where David slays the mighty Philistine through the power of his belief, I don’t think we’re supposed to come away from that with a jubilant “rah rah!” attitude. Sure, there’s some excitement and relief that David was able to save his people, yet I can’t help but feel a sadness that one human took another’s life.
Looking at the Gospel again, I’m sure that Jesus wants us to continue to honor the Sabbath. That commandment isn’t there for God’s needs; as I’ve noted before, God doesn’t require our prayers for his power or position. Rather, it’s for our benefit; we should take at least one day a week to devote ourselves to Godly pursuits: worship, rest, time with our families, and the like. But for the greater good, it is sometimes necessary to work on the Sabbath. This doesn’t mean the decision should be entered into lightly, nor should it justify other transgressions. (It’s a short but incorrect moral leap from healing on the Sabbath to “Oh, I’ll just work like normal on this day, because I’m bringing money in to my family, which is a greater good.”)
Similarly, just because a nation may defend itself against some great evil in the world, that doesn’t justify all future acts of military adventure. Even if a war is just, it behooves us to consider with prayerful reflection how the fallen state of humanity brought the world to conflict. Like the slippery slope that lets someone work on the Sabbath because they think it’s doing a larger good for their family, thinking of our own peacekeeping forces as unerringly “the good guys” risks letting them undertake missions that fall outside the moral purview of just force.
Our culture celebrates death: bad guys getting killed, buildings blowing up, raging infernos smiting enemies. Triumphant music swells as heavily armored heroes step into the frame. But that’s not an ideal realization of God’s plan; it is, at most, making the best of a bad situation. Jesus notes in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.” If we feel pride in our armed forces, we should also feel humility in how they uphold their duties, and pray for a day when armed conflict is a relic of the past. And we should always, always follow the example of Christ and strive to put doing true good above the demands of the world around us.