"You can't see the forest for the trees". We pretty much know what we mean, but it's confusing to try to explain. After all, the forest IS the trees, and the trees ARE the forest. And if somehow we parse out what we're trying to say--that we miss something if we're too focused on something else--then we can get stuck with figuring out what is more important, the thing we're focused on, or the thing we're missing.
This is very much the dilemma in this passage from Mark 2:23-3:6. Jesus and the religious leaders seem to have differing perspectives on what matters. Some explanatory background might be helpful. In the Jewish religion of that time (and pretty much all times), the sabbath is a holy day every week. Since Genesis says that God created the world in six days and rested--and did no work--on the seventh day of the week, their faith practice was/is that the seventh day of the week was/is the sabbath. On the sabbath, you rested and did not do any work. There were pretty specific guidelines about what "work" meant--only so much weight could be lifted or it was considered "work" and breaking the sabbath, for example. These specific guidelines were adhered to pretty closely by these religious leaders, who understood the holiness of the sabbath and how important it was to stick with it--to "keep" the sabbath.
Jesus and his disciples pluck some of the grains in a field as they walk along on the sabbath, which according to the religious leaders is working on the sabbath. Jesus responds with a story from the past about how King David took specially consecrated bread, which only priests were allowed to eat, and ate it, and gave some to others (and none of them were priests), in a time of hunger for all of them. Their need was more important than the "specialness" of the bread. Jesus then goes to the synagogue, their place of worship, and sees a man with a withered hand. It is the sabbath, and to heal the man's hand would be "working"--and Jesus heals him anyhow, since the guy will be better off with a hand that actually works. The religious leaders not only found this objectionable, and a violation of sabbath-keeping, it says they "went out and immediately conspired . . . against him, how to destroy him". Destroy him? DESTROY him? Clearly keeping the sabbath is a pretty crucial thing in their eyes.
It's not an insignificant thing in Jesus's eyes, though. Jesus values keeping the sabbath--but he says "The sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the sabbath". Not to heal someone may be keeping the rules, but it is not in the spirit of the God who desires wholeness. Not to eat of the grain might be keeping the rules, but the hungry need to eat.
Who can't see the forest for the trees?
We can do this too. It has been said that the "Seven Last Words" of the church are "we never did it like that before". Sometimes we get caught up in our customs, our traditions, our doing things "just right"--and we miss the needs of people we should care about. Sometimes we get caught up in "right behavior" (not that we should celebrate "wrong behavior") that means we don't see what is really going on. A child who is disruptive may not be behaving as we wish that child would--but WHY is that child behaving that way? We can get so caught up in the behavior we are frustrated with and lose sight of the reasons for the behavior.
Jesus reminds us that the people matter, that the rules shouldn't get in the way of the people who need love and care. The sabbath was made for us, not us for the sabbath.
GOSPEL Mark 2:23-3:6
23One sabbath he was going through the cornfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24The Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?’25And he said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? 26He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.’ 27Then he said to them, ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; 28so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.’
1Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. 2They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3And he said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Come forward.’ 4Then he said to them, ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent. 5He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. 6The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.