On a Sabbath, while he was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked and ate some heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands. 2 But some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath?” 3 And Jesus answered them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: 4 how he entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those with him?” 5 And he said to them, “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”
6 On another Sabbath, he entered the synagogue and was teaching, and a man was there whose right hand was withered. 7 And the scribes and the Pharisees watched him, to see whether he would heal on the Sabbath, so that they might find a reason to accuse him. 8 But he knew their thoughts, and he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come and stand here.” And he rose and stood there. 9 And Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?” 10 And after looking around at them all he said to him, “Stretch out your hand. ”And he did so, and his hand was restored. 11 But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus. – Luke 6:1-11 [ESV]
Liberal theologians has posited something called Situational Ethics. Since ‘circumstances alter cases’, they argue, situationism holds that in practice what in some times and places we call right is in other times and places wrong… For example, lying is ordinarily not in the best interest of interpersonal communication and social integrity, but is justifiable nevertheless in certain situations.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer did not finish book, Ethics, before he died. It was published following his death. He argued that the foundation of ethical behaviour lay in how the reality of the world and the reality of God were reconciled in the reality of Christ. Both in his thinking and in his life, ethics were centered on the demand for action by responsible men and women in the face of evil. Certainly that thinking went into his decision to participate in the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.
On a very small level we probably invoke such an approach to difficult situations. The classical question comes to mind: “Does this dress make me look fat?” How do you answer that? Or, what do you say when an angry husband bangs on your door asking whether you know where his wife is? Whether she’s hiding in your bedroom or you’ve taken her to a hotel, do you tell him?
There are situations when whatever you choose to do, you will sin. In those cases, the advice of my seminary professor comes to mind: If you have to sin, sin on the side of love. “Love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 5:8) afterall. So if you must sin – if either choice you make will result in sin, choose the one that expresses love for God and for your brother or sister. I don’t always get that right. But that’s where I seek to go.
Jesus always got it right. That’s mainly because as God in the flesh, he is the final arbiter of good and evil. I’m not sure he justified David’s actions when he brought that example to the Pharisees’ attention. But he declared for sure that his disciples were not sinning when they plucked the grain on the sabbath. Much less when he healed the man with the withered hand.
More often we might be inclined not to act for fear of breaking some command of God. Whether it is helping someone in desperate need, speaking up for someone who is an obvious scoundrel, or failing to step forward when it’s time to bring Jesus into the picture. God help us! And if we must sin, let love for God and love for neighbor chart our course. I think that’s a life-long pursuit. And I’m not sure I’ll ever get it 100% right.