...is not always what the law actually means.
That idea might sound like doublethink at first, but it's a basic principle of every legal system and there are several very valid reasons for this.
First: A simple, mechanical reading of law can run counter to what the law was actually intended to accomplish. Here's a simple example to illustrate this:
There are certain plants in the American southwest that are protected by law. These plants may not be moved or transported without a permit. Okay, let's assume you're walking your dog around a construction site after hours one evening and you see a young saguaro cactus that has been toppled by a bulldozer and then rolled into a trash heap. The saguaro is one of these protected plants. Let's further assume that you're outraged by this and you put this doomed saguaro in your truck and take it miles and miles out into the desert and replant it. Have you broken the law? Based on the facial evidence, a police officer might think so, but if you can clearly document what you did, (Pictures would be a good idea) it's doubtful if a judge would ever agree with him. The purpose of the law is to protect that plant and in this hypothetical situation that is exactly what you did. A police officer knows what the law says. A police officer does not necessarily know what the law means.
Second: A law may be applied to a situation beyond its intended limits. Let's take another example:
Suppose that a backpacker is stranded in a remote area by an unexpected blizzard. He breaks into an unoccupied cabin and waits for two days until the storm abates and he may safely leave. During this time, he consumes his unknown benefactor’s food, burns his wood to keep warm, and even sleeps in his bed. While we would recognize that this individual would be obligated to monetarily compensate the owner of the cabin, he would not automatically be adjudged as a thief. American law, through such rulings as Vincent v. Lake Erie Transportation Co. and Ploof v. Putnam has long recognized that laws whose purpose is to protect property are not intended to do so at the expense of life.
Mechanical application of law is a fallacy of accidence known as dicto sipliciter. This logical fallacy is sometimes committed unknowingly by laymen, but is more often committed by moralists and legalists who try to decide every legal question by a reflexive application of a single rule. This approach is not only logically flawed, it also leads to serious miscarriages of justice. One of the most extreme examples is depicted in Les Miserables when Jean Valjeans, the principal protagonist takes a loaf of bread to save the life of a starving child and for this, receives a lengthy prison sentence and is stigmatized for life.
Unfortunately, this fallacy is committed regularly and often when people comment on Jewish Law.
For example, the Israelites were explicitly forbidden from performing all manner of work on the Sabbath. If a person were to consider Sabbath law as independent of all other requirements and considerations, they would have to conclude that this injunction would apply just as much to a Jewish midwife in the performance of her duties as it would to a Jewish tailor, which would be absurd. Therefore the important difference between what the law says versus what the law actually means certainly existed in Jewish law as well.
Does a midwife break the Sabbath via her occupation? Absolutely not. In Jewish law, the circumstances of the situation can either make the Sabbath hutra (abrogated) or dechuya. (suspended) When the Sabbath is abrogated, it is as if it does not exist at all in regard to the entire situation. When the Sabbath is suspended, a person must limit themselves to only the exempt activity. In medical care, there is no practical difference between hutra and dechuya today, but examples of the latter can be seen in other situations. For example, if an occupied building collapses on the Sabbath people must work to clear the rubble and rescue survivors. But if it becomes 100% clear that there are no survivors, then the work must stop.
With all this in mind, did Jesus break the Sabbath? I've lost count of the number of times I've heard people make that claim. The only possible place in the Gospels where anybody could ever get that impression is here:
"..The man went away and told the Jews it was Jesus that made him sound in health. So on this account the Jews went persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things during Sabbath. But he answered them: "My Father has kept working until now, and I keep working." On this account, indeed, the Jews began seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath but he was also calling God his own Father, making himself equal to God..."(John 5:15-17)
From a Jewish perspective this is beyond absurd, (It was actually the Pharisees that developed the principles of legal interpretation that I've described above) but even from a Christian perspective, the conclusion that Jesus broke the Sabbath doesn't hold water. In the passage above, is the idea that Jesus broke the Sabbath stated as the opinion of either Jesus or the Gospel writer? Or is the writer simply relaying what was said by Jesus' enemies and accusers? Is the perspective of Jesus' accusers the correct one? If so, why?
Note that Jesus’ basic argument was not that it’s okay to break the Sabbath.
"All considered, of how much more worth is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do a fine thing on the Sabbath." (Matthew 12:12)
Jesus’ argument was that healing did not break the Sabbath. --Big, big difference. The most you could possibly accuse Jesus of is encouraging someone else to break the Sabbath by telling the man to pick up his bedding and walk (verse 8) But even that is dubious because first the command is too closely tied to the cure to separate the two and second, what legitimately constitutes a burden on the Sabbath was in this instance a matter of Rabbinical interpretation.
Finally, stop and think about what it does to Christian theology when you attribute situational ethics to Jesus. Is he still sinless? Is he still perfectly truthful when he says things like this:
"I have kept my Father's commandments" (John 15:10)
"Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5:19)
"Do not think I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I came, not to destroy, but to fulfill." (Matthew 5:17)