Jesus had regular run-ins with people who affirmed the importance of the letter of the law. They were legalistic literalists. One of the more frequent disagreements revolved around the Law of the Sabbath. Jesus set this law aside time after time after time. The law was pretty clear: “Remember the sabbath day , and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work. . . ” (Exodus 20:8-10, emphasis mine)
One sabbath, Jesus allowed his disciples to pluck heads of grain to eat. They weren’t starving. They could have fasted. Also, Jesus occasionally worked healings on the sabbath day. Generally, these people were not in crisis. He could have waited a day.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke clearly as one who would not be a literalist. In Matthew 5 he rejected three laws: 1) the specific law concerning divorce that had been handed down in the Mosaic code; 2) the law giving permission to make vows; 3) the law of retribution, i.e. an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
Jesus was not a literalist. He was an essentialist. He was interested not in the letter of the law, but the essence of the law. He declared both in word and deed that the essence of the law was to love God and to love one’s ‘neighbor’. No law could be used to override or ignore the absolute law of love.