Have you ever confided a struggle to someone, only to have them use it against you later? Have you ever done something good, a work that God led you to and helped you perform, only to find out later that someone criticized your work?
I found it interesting this morning, that this is exactly what the Pharisees did to Jesus and his disciples in Matt. 12. It was the Sabbath, and Jesus and his disciples were walking through the corn and they were hungry, so they plucked ears of corn to eat them.
Seems innocent enough, but pharisees always look to criticize and they basically accused the men of harvesting corn, which was akin to work, which was a big no-no in their book, and therefore a very big deal.
Thus is the heart of the pharisee: watchful of others, suspect, accusing, condemning.
The Pharisees scold,
“Behold, thy disciples do that which is not lawful to do on the Sabbath day.”
The pharisees missed that these men were hungry. They missed mercy.
Who cares that you were hungry. You broke our law and we are so glad we were there to catch you!
I love Jesus response, and I think it’s worth noting:
“But if ye had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would have not condemned the guiltless.”
I love this for several reasons, but especially because it contrasts the heart of a pharisee with the heart of the gospel.
Jesus calls them out on their lack of knowledge. They prided themselves in being the repository of knowledge when it came to spiritual things. And they were famous for either interpreting the law too loosely (Jesus clears this up for them in Matt 5) or in this case, too strictly.
Matthew Henry says this of the pharisee mindset:
“It is common for men of corrupt minds, by their zeal in rituals, and the externals of religion, to think to atone for the looseness of their morals.”
“It is no new thing for the most harmless and innocent actions of Christ’s disciples to be evil spoken of, and reflected upon as unlawful, especially by those who are zealous for their own inventions and impositions.”
“They are no friends to Christ and his disciples, who make that to be unlawful which God has not made to be so.”
The Pharisees didn’t know God, so they didn’t reflect His goodness, mercy or kindness to others. No, their hallmark quality was their lack of mercy.
Instead of seeing hungry men, they see lawbreakers.
Instead of seeing the Lord of Glory, the Lord of the Sabbath, they nitpicked and tried to spiritually “one up” Christ.
How sad that these were the religious leaders of the day.
Imagine being with them? You go to church or deal with them in the streets, only to be condemned: “Cursed, accused, sinner, lawbreaker…you have no hope of ever being accepted by God.”
And how refreshing must have been the message of Christ, in His famous sermon on the mount, when the first words out of His mouth were “Blessed….”
The crowds must have thought, “What? We can be blessed? We have hope? We can breathe? There is grace?”
I came across this piece from a Peter Marshall sermon “Letters in the Sand” and it illustrates beautifully the heart of the gospel in sharp contrast with the heart of a pharisee. It’s a little long, but so lovely. (I’ve edited it a bit to make it readable.) I hope it encourages you to “do justly, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.”
The woman lies before Christ in a huddled heap,
trembling in her shame
shivering as she listens to the indictment.
Her head is bowed; her face covered with her hands…
Her disheveled hair falls over her face. Her dress is torn and stained with the dust of the city streets along which she has been dragged.
His disciples look into the face of Christ and see in His eyes an infinite sadness, as if the load of all the sin since the world began has already been laid on Him.
His steady eyes take in the situation at a glance.
He sees what they try to hide from Him-
the hard faces that have no pity or mercy in them,
the looks of satisfaction and self-righteousness with which they finger the stones they have picked up.
Every hand holds a stone and clutching fingers run along the sharp edges with malicious satisfaction.
Their shouting ceases as the piercing look of Christ travels round the circle questioningly, and they fall to muttering, as one of their group shouts out the accusation again.
The woman has been caught in the very act of adultery. It seems to His disciples that Christ does not look at her at all. He is watching those men who try to hide the stones they carry in their hands.
They are ready-
her self-appointed judges-
to throw them at the poor defenseless creature on the ground, for it is the law- the sacred law of Moses-
that such shall be stoned to death.
The circle of bearded men wait impatiently for his answer.
Will His verdict be justice-or mercy?
It is a clever trap. Surely the Nazarene can find no way out of this one! He does not speak. Stooping down, He slowly, deliberately begins to write in the dust at His feet. This is the only time we know of His writing anything, and no one knows what He wrote.
Some ancient scholars believe that He traced there in the dust a catalog of human sin. Perhaps He looks up at a tall man, with graying hair and piercing blue eyes, and traces the word “Extortioner”- and the man turns and flees into the crowd.
Christ looks up into the faces of the men standing in the circle, and steadily-with eyes that never blink-he speaks to them:
“He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” (John 8:7-)
His keen glance rests upon the woman’s accusers one by one. Then He writes in the sand at their feet-letter after letter. They watch His finger-fascinated, as it travels up and down, up and down.
They cannot watch without trembling. The group is thinning now. They think of the recording angel. They think of judgment. They have howled for it. Now it has descended on them.
Looking into their faces, Christ sees into the yesterdays that lie deep in the pools of memory and conscience. He sees into their very hearts, and that moving finger writes on …
There is the thud of stone after stone failing on the pavement. Not many of the Pharisees are left.
One by one, they creep away-like animals slinking into the shadows … shuffling off into the crowded streets to lose themselves in the multitudes.
“He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”
But no stones have been thrown. They lie around the woman on the pavement. They have dropped them where they stood, and now she is left alone at the feet of Christ.
Only her sobbing breaks the stillness. She still has not lifted her head . . . And now Christ looks at her. He does not speak for a long moment. Then, with eyes full of understanding, He says softly: “Woman, where are those thine accusers? Hath no man condemned thee?” (John 8:10) And she answers, “No man, Lord.”
That is all the woman says from beginning to end. She has no excuse for her conduct. She makes no attempt to justify what she has done. And Christ looking at her, seeing the tear-stained cheeks and her eyes red with weeping, seeing further into her heart, seeing the contrition there, says to her:
“Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.” (John 8:11)
What He here says is – Not that He acquits the woman, but that He forgives her. Not that He absolves her from blame, but that He absolves her from guilt. Not that He condones the act, but that He does not condemn her for it-He forgives her instead.
Perhaps He smiles upon her, as she slowly raises her eyes,
a slow, sad smile of one Who knew that He Himself has to pay the price of that absolution.
She has looked into the eyes of Christ.
She has seen God.
She has been accused, convicted, judged, but not condemned.
She has been forgiven!