Condemning the guiltless


One of my Lenten disciplines this year is to read all four gospels during the 40 days of Lent. This may sound a hefty task to take on but in reality it is about 10 minutes a day. The plan I am using is the “Biblegateway” one and you can access it through the internet. You even get one day a week rest day – the Sabbath – Sunday!

It is really good to read a chunk of the bible through every day and many of us do so through reading plans or the daily office but to get a run at the gospels is a real gift. I am experiencing two contrasting things. First, a sense of familiarity and comfort from words I have lived with most of my life (certainly my adult life) and secondly surprise as I see things I have never noticed before. So the familiar is full of the unfamiliar. The God of Surprises keeps tapping me on the shoulder.

One such moment happened last week when I was reading Matthew 12 and the story of the disciples picking the ears of corn to eat as they walked through a field on the Sabbath, “because they were hungry.” The ever watchful Pharisees immediately jumped on the event complaining to Jesus that his disciples were breaking the Sabbath law about work (not about eating someone else’s wheat, you notice!) In verse 7, Jesus replies,

But if you had known what this means, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice”, you would not have condemned the guiltless. 8For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.’

The words that jumped out at me were, “you would not have condemned the guiltless.” I had never really seen them before with such clarity. I know how often I condemn the guiltless in my thoughts, if not in my words and actions. If there is someone whom I am having difficulty with I am just as likely as the Pharisees to search for something that I see as wrong in the other person and jump on that, condemning people who may well be truly guiltless, but if they are not who deserve a little more understanding and compassion from me then I am willing to give them.

The chapter continues with two more illustrations of the Pharisees condemning Jesus who is guiltless. The first is when he heals the man with the withered hand, again condemned because this act of mercy is on the Sabbath; the second when he heals a blind-mute man. On that occasion Jesus is accused of being able to do what he does do through an association with Beelzebub, the devil!

The chapter is a vivid indictment of the human inclination to condemn the guiltless, not only personally but within society as well. In the UK we have always been very good at blaming people who are poor for being poor, for example, instead of really looking at the root causes of poverty and addressing them. Some of our media make matters worse by talking of people on benefits as “scroungers” whereas we know that many people are working in low paid jobs, are elderly or disabled. And this is just one example of our condemning the guiltless or at least not treating them with mercy.

I wonder what Jesus would say to us?