Friday, May 06, 2005

Judgment - Part 1

I've been thinking about judgment lately. Many people I know put a lot of stock in 'judge not, or you will be judged.' This text speaks more about hypocrisy than anything else, i.e., 'Don't judge UNLESS you're prepared to be judged yourself.' But really, I've been thinking more about God's judgment.

'You judge people and nations by your righteous will declared through prophets and apostles.' This is the line from the UCC Statement of Faith. The Apostle's Creed includes the line that 'he will come again to judge the living and the dead.' What sort of a God is that, I ask myself. Can judgment get thrown out with a Jesus who proclaims forgiveness (and repentence, ahem)? There's a place for judgment, of course there is. One of my foundational texts is Matthew 25 ('when you did it to the least of these, you did it to me'), but I admit more difficulty when fessing up that 1) it's in the context of a judgment scene and 2) there's a downside portrayed in the story. I'll forego historical-critical speculation for just a moment, as there is something else I really want to address.

Here's why an inordinate amount of time on God's judgment is a bad thing: it frames God, first of all, as primarily in the reward and punishment business. As a result, actions by us are framed more in terms of what I get out of it. What I do becomes a matter of heaven and hell and not about love.

Jesus is asked in Luke, 'What must I do to inherit eternal life?' He answers with the two greatest commandments: love God and love neighbor. BUT....keeping these commandments so I can get to heaven makes it about me, not God or neighbor. It's the antithesis of what the commandments are about. Suddenly Jesus' message of regarding others has been shifted, thanks to theology that is dangerously over-fascinated with heaven and hell, onto me. It's love God and neighbor AS yourself, not love yourself, so you better love God and neighbor too.

I'm moving on, else I let a full-blown rant emerge. So what's the purpose of judgment? The Israelites on numerous occasions, are judged. Their enemies prevail over them almost every other week in the Hebrew scriptures (love hyperbole as yourself), only to be renewed. They return to God after a time, more committed than they were before. But at the same time, it's not really until the book of Daniel that we get any sort of allusion to heavenly judgment. And then this heavenly scenario is played out occasionally in the Gospels, in Paul, and in Revelation. But for the most part we have an Old Testament devoid of any sort of heavenly throne where God whips out a list of who's been naughty and nice (Jews don't really have that concept in their belief system). Instead, it gets played out on earth through the exodus scenario and Sinai, the judges (whodda thunkit), and the exile. We need to deal with the New Testament texts of heavenly judgment because they're there, even if it is a more Hellenistic concept.

What I've settled on is the idea that god's grace and love is a judgment of sorts. We stand convicted of God's love for us and realize how much better we can be. We can be renewed and transformed. Such judgment can serve to discipline and purify us. To one who believes that Jesus was serious about what he taught regarding the two greatest commandments, it makes sense to think that God takes our actions seriously as well.

'Judge not, or you will be judged.' Our actions are counted one way or another. But I don't know what that really means in an eternal sense. And if I take my own words seriously about not making it about me, I don't really have to.


Vitaly Kartsev said...

I have a hard time seeing the Romans text as implying we just have to stand ready to be judged before we start judging others. The incident of Jesus and the adulteress suggests that's an incorrect reading—he doesn't say, "Let he who is willing to have his sins judged this instant cast the first stone," he said, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." Implying that it's not for humans to judge.

This is borne out by a lot of stuff in the Gospels and Paul. We turn away from people when they are inhospitable. And we shake the dust off our sandals as a witness. We don't go in and cite chapter and verse on why they're wrong. All those verses about the least of these I take as applying to ourselves, a self-criticism, not as a text explaining how to judge others.

Even still, I'll admit this radical non-judgmentalism seems pretty toothless. I have a hard time figuring out what to do. There's a sense in which I can read the Gospel in which merely bearing truthful witness about something bad is acceptable and also socially powerful. That's the message of Howard Thurman's Jesus and the Disinherited that I've been reading lately, too. The civil rights movement suggests this kind of non-judgmental but prophetic truth-telling can be immensely powerful.

Jeff Nelson said...

Chris, I've read over your comments a couple times and I've gotta say I'm a little confused.

First, what Romans text? Perhaps you read my earlier entry about the May 29 lectionary? If that's the case, I agree, there's nothing there about judging. Now if you meant the Matthew text in which Jesus says, 'Judge not or you will be judged,' I'm not much for trying to square the Gospel accounts with one another. Different communities telling different stories and all that. So if there ends up being a discrepancy between Matthew and John, then that's what it is.

However, perhaps I did not emphasize enough that the Matthew text is chiefly about hypocrisy. Who ARE you to judge, Jesus asks. Are YOU ready to be judged? Not coincidentally, we read of taking the speck out of our eye right after. There is a message not only of not judging but also of not being a hypocrite.

Second, I agree that Matthew 25 is not a text explaining how to judge others. I don't see where I've suggested that and I hope I haven't implied that. What I am more interested in (and troubled by) in the context of this post is that such a foundational text for me and for others takes place in a judgment scene. I and others tend to focus on the first part with little attention to the second. What is the meaning of the text when not only are we charged with tending to the least of these but those who do not are portrayed as rejected?

What I struggle with the most and will continue to struggle with is the concept of God's judgment. If 1) it is not for humans to judge and thus 2) it IS for God to judge, what sort of God am I serving and what sort of implications does that have for prophetic truth-telling? I appreciate what you're trying to get at with non-judgmental truth-telling. If some sort of divine judgment is afoot, what implications does that have for such truth-telling? Is there more at stake than the least of these? What about the oppressor?

That's why I see grace as judgment as helpful. The thought that God can and does transform people in the here and now (as well as whatever happens next) is consistent with Jesus who proclaims, 'repent and believe the good news' in Mark 1.

Jeff Nelson said...

P.S. I think that including the text from Matthew 7 was a mistake on my part. It really has no immediate bearing on the overall focus of this post and casts it in a light that I did not intend. At this point I leave it in in the hope that a more solid connection might emerge and because the comments already left provide for a good starting point for further discussion if one so desires.