On Making Judgments 1) The Ultimate Judgment


The Rev. Dr. Richard W. Reifsnyder
1st Presbyterian Church
Winchester, VA
August 4, 2013
And all the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people
                                one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

                                                                                                                Matthew 25:32


Pope Francis made quite a stir this week with his comments to reporters about judging. “Who am I to judge?” he said when queried about gay priests. “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”  He was simply reflecting the words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount, of course,  “judge not, lest you be judged,” yet the tone he set seemed different from the official teaching of the church.

It’s a tough topic, this business of judgment.  Because this matter of judgment has been a source of perplexity in our Disciple Bible study classes and because of numerous conversations I’ve had and because of the complexity of this topic, I decided to explore it in a two part sermon.   Jesus may say “judge not,” but there is plenty of judging going on.  We live in an American idol culture in which judging is celebrated and judges are celebrities.  The harsher, even crueler the judging –think Simon Cowell–the higher the judge’s profile. America’s got talent—only some of you apparently. “So you think you can dance?”  “You’re voted off.” “Celebrity apprentice? You’re fired.”   “Survivor, no, you’re thrown off the island.”  Budding chef. “You’re chopped.”   People have even been known—believe it or not– to judge Sunday morning worship.   Oh, that sermon today didn’t do much to awaken the dead, did it?”  Can you believe we had to sing THAT unsingable hymn?—6 verses of it? Who picked that one?

Human judgment is part of life, a necessary part to some degree.  We make judgments about who is the best hire for this job and what candidate is right for the office. Every organization from our Garden Club to the Scouts makes some judgments about what the standards of its membership shall be.  Next week, we’ll explore how human judgments fit in with the admonition “judge not.”   But it may not be human judgments which bother us so much, as the description of God as judge.  Yes God, is merciful and kind, but there is also the God who divides the sheep and the goats.  The biblical witness is not all rosy and upbeat.   There is some tension in Scripture’s witness and certainly we see that in Matthew’s parable of the Last Judgment.  We love this parable; it’s challenging words to be about the business of feeding the hungry and visiting the prisoner and healing the sick.   We take great comfort in the assurance that in showing compassion to the least of our brothers and sisters we are doing it to Christ.  But I’ll bet a lot of us would like to stop halfway through.  Because then there’s this warning about those who fail to do good which is jarring, troubling. Those who do it not to the least of these….will send to outer darkness with gnashing of teeth.   When Todd asked me what he might do for the children’s message with the text, I told him “good luck” and admitted I must be crazy to tackle this kind of stuff. With passages like this is tempting to take Jefferson’s approach to just cut out of the Bible what he didn’t like.

But I have discovered through the years that it is the whole witness of Scripture which is God’s word to me—and hanging with those portions I don’t understand or like sometimes yield surprising insight.

Because we can so easily get it wrong, any human judgment we make must be understood in the context of what Jesus tells us about the nature of God.  My primary interpretative principle is to approach those tough passages of scripture through the lens of what we know about Jesus—what do we know about his overall character, his big picture insight into the nature of God. Remove the discussion of judging from the standard of knowing it is  Jesus Christ who is  judge and redeemer and we’ll get it wrong every time.

Some of you remember Dana Carvey’s churchlady on Saturday Night Live, who when people stumbled, was gleeful in telling them that God was going to get them.   Lest we think that kind of warped theology that God’s fundamental character is that of a punisher, has disappeared, let me ask “how many times have you found others, or perhaps yourself, saying when some misfortune hits, “God must be punishing me.  What is it I’ve done so wrong.”  Only the most narcissistic of us would fail to come up  with something that we haven’t done right….if it’s only, according to Matthew 25 we haven’t fed the hungry or visited the sick or welcomed the stranger sufficiently.   The implication is that God operates in an immediate cause and effect fashion, and stands ready to “get us” if we slip up.   If I do something wrong—God has to punish me immediately and therefore if something bad happened to me it must be God judging.  Now the God of Scripture expects obedience. But it is erroneous to lock God into a wooden legalistic pattern of cause and effect.   It doesn’t ring true that life operates that way.

My favorite Woody Allen movie is Crimes and Misdemeanors.  The main character is an eye doctor named Judah who, on the verge of having his adulterous relationship revealed by his mistress, arranges to have her murdered—and then waits to be discovered.  He is sure God has seen his crime and will bring about the requisite punishment.   But day after day, month after month, nothing happens, and he finally realizes he not been caught, he’s gotten away with it, and he begins living again without the sense of God the judge watching over him.

Increasingly the fear of divine judgment is weakening its hold as a deterrent to behavior.  Certainly we experience and the Bible acknowledges that it is not always so that the righteous prosper and the wicked suffer.  And while we may be tempted to think, just wait, God will have his day and will right the score, such an attitude may reflect a desire to settle scores more than Christian love, or a proper understanding of the purpose of judgment in God’s economy.

I find it impossible to adopt a theology which says God loves us, and wants us to be the best we can, by his grace, but if we don’t follow in a certain way, then we’re sent away by God forever to some eternal condemnation.  And certainly  not because we don’t feed the hungry or visit the sick enough,  as if there is no grace, it is all about works, which I know I fall short of doing.    The God of love I know doesn’t seem like that kind of God—.  We are inheritors of a theology of grace, not works.   But still, there is that nagging word of judgment, there is some kind of accounting. Scripture is clear.

I wonder if there isn’t another way of looking at judgment, which is to say God has so structured the world that the actions we take inevitably have consequences.  When our behavior conforms to God’s intentions, things are more likely to go well than when we don’t.  Under these circumstances, God’s judgment may be akin to “whatever we sow, so shall we reap.”  If we structure our family so there is no discipline for children or conversely if we are too harsh or unrealistic in our demands of them, or we give things to them, but not really of ourselves, there are consequences.  If we spend beyond our means, then we better realize we have no justification to bellyache when we are behind the eight ball financially.   Judgment flows out of our whole approach to life.  Lincoln reflected this perspective when he suggested in his 2nd inaugural that the continuing of the awful civil war might be a natural expression of judgment on the evils of slavery.

if God wills that it (war) continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of  unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”


Not God up there dishing out punishment, but judgment flowing out of the natural consequences of living outside God’s will.

We can only make sense of judgment by trying to understand God’s purpose.  What is the purpose of having a system of laws, and courtrooms and judges?   The goal is not to maximize punishment is it?   The purpose of laws and justice is to call citizens to their best, to provide for the well being of the society, though failure to live up to expected standards may necessitate judgment.  God is a judge in the sense of having a standard by which our behavior is evaluated.  John the Evangelist uses the image of light to explain judgment. “This is judgment that the light (that is Jesus) has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light…people do not come to the light so their deeds might not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light so that it can be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God”

God exposes us, and those who know themselves exposed may be judged by turning from the light with consequences which may extend beyond this life—separation from the light and wholeness and warmth of God—or we who are exposed may know that we’re judged as  faithful, responsive to God and recipients of grace and love and joy.

Popular theologian Rob Bell deals with this subject in a fascinating book with the provocative title, Love Wins.A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.   In the end, love wins–that is what Jesus tells us.  God’s purpose of redeeming the world through his love and grace and mercy cannot be thwarted.  How God sorts out our individual lives before him and exercises his judgment as it relates to us personally, who’s in, who’s out, is beyond my pay grade to determine.   It is not for us to usurp the place of God and presume to know how God judges each person.  In the end, love wins.

Certainly we are not given a parable like that of the Great Judgment to use as a way of judging other— “you’re not doing  enough to care for the needy, to feed the hungry, to visit the prisoner”—according to Matthew 25 it looks like you’re going “you know where.”   He does give us this parable to wake us up to know that how we live our lives either connects us to God or separates us from God; how we behave and believe either draws into fellowship with the living Lord—even when we’re unselfconscious that it’s him, or isolates us, separates of from the God who is present in the faces of the neediest.  Judgment is taking place as we respond right now, and this judgment has implications beyond our life on earth.

Redemption is God’s plan; Love winning and God’s bringing all humanity into his fold is that toward which all moves. And this happens through grace, not our achieving moral accomplishment and perfection.  Matthew 25 might be seen in light of that.  I find I’m much taken by CS Lewis’s suggestion of a Protestant purgatory in his book The Great Divorce.  He asserts that though we are saved by grace, imperfection can not immediately come face to face with perfection.  Therefore, he postulate the possibility that there may be a time of purgation and perfection as we prepare to enter into the presence of the holy other.   God’s judgment for Lewis may  involve not so much punishing as pruning and perfecting us—a process that begins now but perhaps extends beyond the grave.

God’s character, according to Romans is 9 is to “have mercy on who God will have mercy, compassion on who God will have compassion.”  That is not so much an expression of the arbitrariness of God as it is a promise that God’s mercy is greater than we can fathom. Whereas our human conception of justice and judgment requires punishment, this passage suggests God’s mercy and compassion can go beyond anything I can imagine.

My purpose is not to offer false comfort for those who don’t take seriously God’s expectations, who treat the call of Christ cavalierly, or who think they” be able to reason themselves out of hot water on judgment day.  But I do want to be clear that the unifying theme of the Bible is the love of God found in Jesus Christ.   God intends to redeem the world, to bring people into the kingdom.   As Ezekiel put it, “God has no pleasure in the death of anyone.” (Ez 18:32) God is love. God’s judgment must reflect that grand purpose, the light of judgment is so that we might be healed, restored, forgiven.

This context of God’s mercy overshadowing and encompassing judgment must set the tone for our handling of judgments within the church.  The human judgments we are called upon to make are never done with haughty superiority, usurping God’s prerogative, but with the intent of restoring, and redeeming, calling people to the obligation to love God and serve neighbor.   Tune in next week for that part of the story.