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Over the past two weeks the letters columns of the newspapers and the blogger-sphere have been inundated with views about the scandal involving phone-hacking, the News of the World, and the police. The blame game has been played out with relish and vigour. Every pundit, every politician, every commentator think they know who's to blame and at whom to point the finger. So much so that I have found myself, in spite of the seriousness of what has happened, feeling sympathy for the journalistic profession faced with this tide of righteous indignation and moral posturing.
In fact the Gospel reading this morning couldn't be more timely.
24Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field:
25But while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way.
26But when the blade was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also.
27So the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? from whence then hath it tares?
28He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. The servants said unto him, Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up?
29But he said, Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them.
30Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn.
It is the parable of the Wheat and the Tares, or the Wheat and the Weeds. Jesus was putting before his listeners the conundrum facing any farmer of his time. You sow good seed on your field and when it comes up there is a whole lot of weeds mixed up in it. Where did they come from? You would really like to pull them up and be rid of them, but you know that if you go through the field pulling up the weeds, you're going to uproot the crop as well. You have to let them grow together until the harvest and then sort them out.
Jesus used this homely illustration as a picture of God's Kingdom now. He was saying in effect - there are good people and bad people and we're in no position to sort out which is which. We have to leave that to God. So the moral of the story is - don't judge other people. Judging human beings is God's job, not ours. Our blame-focused culture could well do with hearing that message. In any given situation do we really know all the circumstances that contribute to a particular outcome?
Can we really read the motives and look into the hearts of others? Being judgemental, and casting blame, is the comfortable option. It makes us feel morally superior and absolves us from complicity in any given situation.
Over the last two weeks a number of troubling things have been revealed about the way newspapers operate in order to get stories. The public are outraged, and rightly so because they believe a moral line has been crossed. And it's been very easy to identify the villains of the story - the journalists, the private investigators, the executives the senior police officers, even the politicians. We can name them and shame them and feel morally superior. But let's not forget two things:
Many major scoops of the past 100 years have involved some dodgy practices - bribery, phone-tapping etc. The Watergate Scandal is perhaps the best 20th century example. Without illegal taping and hacking we would never have known what went on behind the scenes under the Nixon administration.
Like it or not, if the phone-hacking that we have been hearing about had uncovered a major terrorist plot, or institutional corruption or industrial espionage - something really important - wouldn't we all have swallowed our moral scruples and applauded the press?
Although it's easy to point the finger at certain people, it's wrong if they become the scapegoats for the rest of us. Because we are all complicit in a way - politicians who for years happily colluded with the press: the police who must have been taking backhanders from journalists for the last 100 years: and we the public who buy the papers - 6 million who read the News of the World and the many other millions of readers of the Mail, Sunday Times, Mirror, Express etc. If we didn't buy the papers, or rose up and said we don't want certain things in our papers - the papers would change. And that ought to make all of us feel a little uncomfortable.
I'm deliberately playing devil's advocate here to point out that these issues are not always as straightforward as they are sometimes painted.
I don't think in all this sorry business there is any room for moral superiority or a rush to judgement. The Gospel reading - the parable of the Wheat and the Weeds - with its deliberately oversimplified story line and stark categories of good and bad, righteous and sinners - reminds us that in our lives there are choices to be made, and challenges us that God's judgement might not be as straightforward as we think.
In human life there are sometimes issues that are black and white, but there are also lots of shades of grey. We are called to navigate our way through these moral ambiguities, using our faith and the wisdom of others as our guide, and when things do go wrong we are to acknowledge that and put things right, as best we can; but we are to leave the ultimate judgement to God.