This passage exemplifies to me both the difference between Jewish and Christian Sabbath traditions as well as the overall approach of Jesus in eschewing tradition in order to do good. In the first section of the passage, Jesus disputes with the Pharisees about the meaning of the Sabbath. When Jesus’ disciples pick corn on a Sabbath, which is not approved of by religious law, the Pharisees confront them. However, he rebuts them with an example from the old testament and with his own philosophical view that “the Sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the Sabbath.” In this case, while religious traditions such as the Sabbath generally benefit people, this does not mean that they have to be followed even in cases where it is harmful. They are a tool to help mankind rather than a proscription against what can be done.
This is even more clear in the second part of the passage when Jesus chooses to heal a man on the Sabbath. The Pharisees refuse to acknowledge that he has a right to heal the man. This is symbolic for the larger conflict between following religious traditions and attempting to do greater good.
Pope Francis is such a popular pope because he too is focusing less on tradition and more on good deeds. Overall, while religious laws are certainly intended to be followed, the point Jesus makes is that is not why they were made. The laws were made by God in order to help people, not just in order to be followed, and this should always be kept in mind when applying the law. This is not moral relativism but instead just looking at the individual moral rules in the context of overall absolute morality. Jesus shows it is best to apply the laws so that they will do the greatest good, above all focusing on helping people, not just obeying. If one must choose between healing the sick and using a justification to do nothing, one should do as Jesus does, and heal the sick.
God, let us have the courage to do good rather than do nothing. Amen.