Who are you to pass judgment?

September 17, 2017

Proper 19, Year A
 

 

If you're at all like me, you must have been very surprised when you first looked at Romans and realized there were more than two verses to it; that Paul wrote more than Chapter 1:26-27 - the verses some quote as being dispositive evidence that being gay is hateful in God's eyes. But then, because there indeed IS more to Romans, Paul asks: Who are you to pass judgment?

 

In fact, Paul immediately poses this question in the first four verses of Chapter 2: “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You say, ‘We know that God's judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.’ Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? How Jesus like, no? "Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” (Matt. 7:1-2)

 

You see, Romans was written as a caution to Christians who thought themselves superior to the Jews - Christians who believed themselves to be God's surrogates – forgetting, as Paul reminds them, God's words to Moses: "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." (Rom. 9:15)

Peter came and said to Jesus, "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?" Jesus said to him, "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times." In my mind at least, there is a direct correlation between taking on the mantle of being God's earthly representative on the judgment seat and refusing to extend forgiveness.

 

From 1948 to 1994, a period of more than 50 years, the law of apartheid codified the oppression of non-whites by the small minority of white citizens in South Africa. It is reported that some 21,000 people died in the struggle against apartheid. Now some might say that this isn't such a huge number over the course of 54 years until you realize that 14,000 of those deaths occurred during the period of 1990-94. When apartheid finally was brought to its knees and the apartheid government relinquished power, rather than engage in a Nuremburg- type criminal prosecution, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established. Chaired by Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a name I am sure most of you recognize, the Commission was a court-like restorative justice body-it had no power to punish. Witnesses identified as victims of gross human rights violations were invited to give statements about their experiences, and some were selected for public hearings. But the most awe-inspiring aspect of what took place before the commission was this: perpetrators of violence could also give testimony of their crimes and request amnesty from both civil and criminal prosecution. Although there is debate as to the Commission's effectiveness, it provided a model for the international community.

 

Over a period of 100 days in 1994, Rwandan Hutus killed Rwandan Tutsies at a rate of more than 10,000 per day, often raping and torturing before actually killing. In 2009, for a period of 100 days, a similar truth and reconciliation commission was established in Rwanda, again chaired by an Anglican Bishop -- John Rucyahana. The Bishop's own niece was killed during the rampage, but not just killed: they peeled the flesh off her arms to the wrist, and they left bare bones, and they gang-raped her and then they killed her. The Bishop is quoted as saying: “I knew I was not going to get the gun and go on a rampage and shoot people as a bishop or as a clergyman. But I was bitter. I was seeking a bitter judgment on them." And then he remembered: "You know, when Jesus Christ was still hanging on the tree nails were still into his palms and feet, and he was naked, and he was being mocked by Pharisees underneath the cross, he did not wait for the pain to subside. He cried to the Father, ‘Forgive them for they don't know what they are doing.’ The fact that Jesus called within the pain is a guide and a teaching for us to forgive."

 

On October 2, 2009, a milk truck driver named Charles Roberts walked into an Amish school in rural Pennsylvania, sent the teachers and boys outside and opened fire on the girts, killing three of them and wounding seven before he turned the gun on himself, ending his life. Over the next few days, 2 more girls died. A grandfather of one of the murdered Amish girls said of the killer on the day of the murder: "We must not think evil of this man." Another member of the Amish community told the press: “I do not think there's anybody here that wants to do anything but forgive and not only reach out to those who have suffered a loss in that way but to reach out to the family of the man who committed these acts.” An Amish neighbor of one the dead girls comforted the Roberts family hours after the shooting and extended forgiveness to them. Dozens of Amish neighbors attended Charles Roberts' funeral.

 

Peter came and said to Jesus, "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?" Jesus said to him, "Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times.”

 

The pursuit of unlimited forgiveness requires a definitive break from the judgments that govern everyday life, whether ancient or modern. The parable of the unforgiving servant serves as a sharp warning to those who might think forgiveness is possible on limited terms. Because of the social construct of a patriarch's home, the king's stupendous act of mercy in Jesus' parable is neither a private matter nor an act with consequences for this slave alone. Wiping this debt off the books has implications for everyone down the pyramid, a fact certainly noted by all the clients of this servant. The king effectively inaugurates a regime of financial amnesty, a jubilee, not only for one slave, but for everyone in his debt. A regime of paying amnesty forward.

 

The economic revolution, however, makes it not much further than the door. The forgiven slave's immediate encounter with one of his client-slaves, someone with a much smaller obligation, demonstrates that the forgiven slave intends to revert to business as usual. He gives no heed to the second stave's appeal, although it is nearly identical to the one he had just given the king. His failure to carry on the forgiveness the king granted him not only halts the spread of financial amnesty in its tracks, it also mocks and dishonors the king himself. The king cannot ignore such an affront. The unforgiving slave binds himself not to the king's mercy, but to the old system of wealth extraction and violence. He thus binds the king in turn to deal with him once again within the confines of that system.

 

In this parable, Jesus seems to tell us that God’s forgiveness has necessary limits, but perhaps these are the limits we set. The unforgiving slave brings judgment on himself by treating his own forgiveness as a license to execute judgment on others. He thus transforms a merciful king into a vengeful judge. The problem lies not with the king, or even by analogy with God, but with the world the slave insists on constructing for himself, under which terms his fate is now set

 

Hear Paull's words: “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written, ‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.’ So then" each of us will be accountable to God.”

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