(Festus said:)16 “I told them that it is not the Roman custom to hand over anyone before they have faced their accusers and have had an opportunity to defend themselves against the charges. 17 When they came here with me, I did not delay the case, but convened the court the next day and ordered the man to be brought in. 18 When his accusers got up to speak, they did not charge him with any of the crimes I had expected. 19 Instead, they had some points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive. 20 I was at a loss how to investigate such matters; so I asked if he would be willing to go to Jerusalem and stand trial there on these charges. 21 But when Paul made his appeal to be held over for the Emperor’s decision, I ordered him held until I could send him to Caesar.”
22 Then Agrippa said to Festus, “I would like to hear this man myself.”
He replied, “Tomorrow you will hear him.”
23 The next day Agrippa and Bernice came with great pomp and entered the audience room with the high-ranking military officers and the prominent men of the city. At the command of Festus, Paul was brought in. 24 Festus said: “King Agrippa, and all who are present with us, you see this man! The whole Jewish community has petitioned me about him in Jerusalem and here in Caesarea, shouting that he ought not to live any longer. 25 I found he had done nothing deserving of death, but because he made his appeal to the Emperor I decided to send him to Rome. 26 But I have nothing definite to write to His Majesty about him. Therefore I have brought him before all of you, and especially before you, King Agrippa, so that as a result of this investigation I may have something to write. 27 For I think it is unreasonable to send a prisoner on to Rome without specifying the charges against him.”
26:1Then Agrippa said to Paul, “You have permission to speak for yourself.”
What struck me today is Festus’ insistence that it would not be right to hand Paul over without giving him an opportunity to defend himself. This was an important custom of Roman legal practice, and as a Roman citizen, Paul was certainly entitled to such treatment. This principle has become part of the legal code in numerous cultures and countries since then, and is part of our legal practice today.
But do we allow people that right in the court of public opinion? In the court of parking lot gossip? In the court of social media? My thoughts this morning went from legal practice to gossip. There are ways in which people may be “handed over” that have nothing to do with the courts, but rather simply the way people talk and pass on what they have heard.
When I hear a negative story about someone, do I allow them the chance to defend themselves before forming a judgment? There is something in us (must be related to the old sinful nature) that likes to believe bad of others. Probably has something to do with making us feel better about ourselves in comparison. And so bad gossip spreads faster than good gossip. Scandal spreads faster than commendations.
Do I assume the worst about people? Or do I assume there is a good explanation for the negative story I heard? In my experience, I had found that latter to be the case more often than not. There is always more to the story, and therefore an opportunity to defend is important before forming judgment.
In Luther’s Small Catechism, in his explanation of the commandment about not bearing false witness against our neighbor, he encourages us to “put the best construction on everything.” Assume the best in people until proven otherwise. In other words, put into practice another principle that’s part of our legal tradition today: Innocent until proven guilty.
So my prayer is that I may be led by God to put the best construction on what I may hear, to be slow to judgment and condemn. I pray that God keep before the truth that His love is for all, and I am called to live that love in my words, my deeds, and my thoughts.
What is the Word leading you to pray about today?
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 The New International Version. (2011). (Ac 25:16–26:1). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.