In one way or another, the readings for this Sunday are about tolerance, forgiveness and judgment. In the contemporary liberal democratic world, tolerance is lauded, officially at any rate, while being 'judgmental' is among the worst of sins. That explains why most mainline Christian denominations have been so anxious to cast off the Church’s historical reputation as ‘judgmental’, and keen embrace a non-judgmental inclusiveness instead. This reflects, they think, what they see to be God's unconditional love in Christ. God loves you whoever, and whatever, you are.
More conservative Christians sometimes condemn this as a willingness to abandon a Gospel that preaches sin and salvation, in the interests of appeasing the secular world. Yet, the passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans that serves as this week's epistle, does provide biblical support for non-judgmentalism. The disagreement Paul writes about – whether or not to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols -- is of no concern to us today. But the advice he bases upon it has much wider application. Though we ought to be firm in our own convictions, he tells us, we ought not to pass judgment on, still less despise, those who disagree with us. The Gospel passage puts the same thought in the wider context of those who harm us. Forgiveness is ‘seventy times seven’ more important than retribution, however natural the desire for this may be. Here we have a truth that everyone has reason to welcome, if we are not to fall into the rank hypocrisy of the indebted slave in the parable that Jesus goes on to tell.
To this extent then, biblical teaching coincides with contemporary liberal opinion. At the same time, the wholesale rejection of ‘judgmentalism’ conflicts with another key element in these readings. Human beings, they all tell us, are indeed under judgment, both for what they believe and for what they do.
This comes out very clearly in the Old Testament lesson. When Jacob dies, his sons are understandably afraid that Joseph will now feel free to avenge himself for the cruelty they showed him all those years before when they sold him into slavery. They know full well that what they did was wrong. That is why they lied to their father about it at the time. When they approach Joseph, possibly with another lie about Jacob’s dying words, his response is so gracious that it brings them to tears. “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good”. Joseph forgives them, but he does not in any way discount what they did. Rather, he turns from away from his own feelings and towards the ultimate judgment that must fall upon them, at the hands of God.
No one really thinks non-judgmentally. Even the most liberal person holds that racist beliefs, for example, are invariably rooted in falsehoods, and that their fruits, especially when sincerely held, are inevitably evil. Paul's point, though, is that Christians – even in this kind of case -- ought to be very careful that they are not trying to pre-empt God’s judgment. ‘Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister?” he cautions his readers. So while he takes his stand against human judgmentalism, he immediately places it in a larger theological context: “For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God”.
The Gospel story of the hypocritical slave, let it be noted, ends with his being “tortured” as an act of justice. In the past, Christians have been very ready to usurp God’s justice and do the torturing themselves. Nowadays, perhaps, they are more likely to make the opposite mistake -- presuming upon God’s mercy and doing the forgiving themselves. The difficult thing is to witness to the solemn truth that “each of us will be accountable to God”, and at the same time do so in a spirit of love rather than loathing.
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