Appearances and Judgment Calls

Jesus answered them, ‘I performed one work, and all of you are astonished. Moses gave you circumcision (it is, of course, not from Moses, but from the patriarchs), and you circumcise a man on the sabbath. If a man receives circumcision on the sabbath in order that the law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with me because I healed a man’s whole body on the sabbath? Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgement.’ — John 7:21-24

I remember Sundays as a kid: church in the morning, usually a round of visiting relatives for lunch or an afternoon visit, home for supper and then, usually, church again before coming home and going to bed. The only permissible work on Sunday was cooking and cleaning up (aside from feeding the animals and perhaps helping a stranded neighbor). They worked hard all week and Sundays were for sitting down, chatting about family and friends and whatever else they felt like discussing. It was their way of keeping the Sabbath. Someone who mowed their lawn on Sunday was judged a non-Christian or at least non-churchgoing person, no matter how many good deeds or charitable acts they performed during the week. Resting on Sunday was the rule and people were supposed to abide by them, whether or not it was of their tradition or not.

The Torah spelled out a list of permissible actions for the Sabbath including how far a person could travel from home and what things were permitted to be done, including circumcision (except for certain very specific instances). God rested on the seventh day of creation and, by heaven, people were expected to do the same. It was a novel concept back in the time of Moses; other cultures did not observe a day of rest but worked seven days a week and only took off for really big religious or political holidays. The Israelites and their descendants had a mandate from God, though, to work six days and rest on the seventh. Woe be to anyone who disregarded that rule that was written into the commandments God gave Moses on Mt. Sinai. When the crowd saw and heard of Jesus healing a man on the Sabbath, well, that was work and he was breaking the law of God! He must be punished! Many of them even thought death would be a proper punishment for his audacity and his claims of being sent by God and doing God’s will.

Here’s where the passage takes a turn: “Do not judge by appearances but judge with right judgement.” What appeared to the Pharisees and the crowd as law-breaking was, in Jesus’ eyes life-saving. It was a matter of perspective. Jesus was doing what he was here to do, to heal both the body and the spirit as well as point the way to God, and if it was something that needed to be done on the Sabbath, then that’s how it was.

One evening our Education for Ministry (EfM) group had a theological reflection on a photograph of the back of a very expensive sports car with a vanity plate that read “Drunk.” To the side and a bit further away there was a man sitting on the side of the street holding a sign that read “Hungry.” It was hard not to judge the driver of the sports car and the presence of that particular vanity plate. Were they proud of being a drunk? Was it a figurative thumbing of the nose? Was it some sort of court-ordered mandate? Did the driver even notice the guy on the street with the sign? What about him? Was he too lazy to work? A scammer? A guy who didn’t know where to go for help? We ranged through so many possibilities of what it might mean. When it came to implications of our discussion, I think most of us realized that we had to judge whether we wanted to (a) give the hungry man a meal at McDonald’s or at least a couple of bucks to get something for himself or (b) drive on by and not chance giving money to an unworthy person. It would be a judgement call based on appearances and how our hearts responded.

If Jesus had done his healings by appearances, probably only the very presentable would have been the recipients of his help. Jarius’ daughter and Peter’s mother-in-law would have passed the test of presentableness but the lepers on the side of the road or the blind man at the Pool of Siloam? I doubt it. The crowd based their judgement on how someone appeared; if the person were dressed well, looked prosperous, not even really sick or maimed or injured, they were seen with approval. Any deviation, like dirty or tattered clothes (or even no clothes like the Gerasene Demoniac), an obvious defect or deformity, anything that would label them as “not like us” was judged as unacceptable, unclean, being punished for something and therefore not really worthy of notice much less help.

The man on the side of the road in our TR image didn’t look particularly hungry. He was well-fleshed, looked reasonably clean, clothes appeared intact with no rips or tears or obvious dirt, so why was he holding a sign announcing he was hungry? Again, we judged based on our inclinations but also on our attention being called to the image and the things our reactions said about us. It’s something we all do every day, making judgements about what we see rather than what is real or knowable. God doesn’t work that way, though, and Jesus didn’t either.

Today’s challenge is to stop looking at the sports cars with the vanity plates and see the guy on the side of the road. It is to look beyond dirty faces and tattered clothes to see the real needs of people in trouble and respond to it. It is to look beyond Gucci handbags and Brooks Brothers suits and see the hurt and loneliness that lie underneath. Most of all, it is to look with eyes of compassion and God-sight to see what is truly there and what need requires filling, including within ourselves.

Linda Ryan co-mentors 2 EfM Online groups and keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter . She lives in the Diocese of Arizona and is proud to be part of the Church of the Nativity in North Scottsdale.

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