Advent 3a 2013 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors.
Last week we continued our journey through this Advent season in which we look forward to welcoming the Christ child at Christmas, and Christ himself at his coming. We reflected on the virtue of hospitality — an essential element in welcome. This week we turn to a related concern, this time raised by the Apostle James the brother of the Lord in his general epistle. Although elsewhere in the epistle he is concerned with how people regard the outsider or the visitor — the words about hospitality — in today’s passage he is more concerned about how the members of the church treat each other. In addition to counseling patience, James urges his congregation not to grumble against each other, not to judge each other, for the true Judge is standing at the doors and ready to appear upon the scene.
Of course, the problem is not with judgment itself, but with a particular kind of judgment, the kind that leads to grumbling — and that is negative judgment, judgment that finds fault, judgment that convicts by finding guilty rather than acquitting and finding innocent. For just as we hope that the everlasting Lord, when he comes in glory to judge and rule the world, will acquit and forgive us all of our faults, so too when make decisions in our lives — and surely we must make decisions from time to time — pray that we judge graciously and generously, acquitting and forgiving rather than convicting. In fact we are reminded in the oldest prayer in our tradition — the one that Jesus gave his disciples when they asked him to teach them how to pray — that we are to forgive others who trespass against us even as we ask God to forgive us our trespasses.
So the problem is not with judgment itself, but with harsh judgment, negative judgment, or judgment that is based on the wrong evidence. To quote the great Martin Luther King Jr, the wrong kind of judgment is that which judges people on the color of their skin rather than on the content of their character. This is precisely the kind of grumbling judgment and prejudice about which James warns his congregation. Do not judge on the basis of superficiality, or outward appearances — for God himself does not judge that way; God looks to the heart, and even there forgives rather than condemning. As Jesus himself said, when he was confronted for healing a man on the Sabbath, “Do not judge by outward appearances, but judge with right judgment.”(Jn 7:24)
The problem is that those who opposed Jesus only saw his action in terms of when it took place — on the Sabbath — rather than on what it was in itself, the miraculous healing of a man, a thing that is good whatever day it is done on, and a sign not only of goodness but of grace, evidence of the power of God.
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And it is to examine such evidence that we turn to our gospel reading. John the Baptist has heard in prison of the wonders that Jesus has performed, and he sends messengers to him, to ask if he is the one for whom John has been waiting, for whom he has served as the forerunner. Rather than answering with a simple yes or no, Jesus instead lays out the evidence. In a sense he puts the ball back into John’s court, leaving it to John and his disciples to make a decision about who Jesus is on the basis of the things Jesus has done. He lays the evidence before him, and allows him to make the judgment. He gives John and his disciples the opportunity to make a right judgment, based on the very same evidence which has led others to condemn Jesus: again, because rather than looking at the evidence itself — the what, the actions of healing and the restored lives — they are caught up in the circumstances of when and where.
But Jesus focuses on the miracles themselves: “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” To which he adds, because he knows that so many have already taken offense at him, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
Now it will not have escaped your attention that in our first reading today from Isaiah a number of promises were made concerning the kind of evidence that would attest to the arrival of God’s kingdom, coming in glory and majesty. And among those promises are exactly those sorts of miracles that Jesus performs: “The eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.” The tragic irony is that in spite of this checklist of signs to indicate the arrival of the Lord, there are still some who judge wrongly; there are still some who utterly miss the point — thinking that the day on which the healing happens is more important than the healing itself. Yet Isaiah promises these signs as indications of the Lord’s day in a cosmic sense — the day of the Lord’s coming. What could be more appropriate to do on the weekly Lord’s day — the Sabbath — than the Lord’s work promised for the day of the Lord’s coming at the end of time — the universal Sabbath? And who more appropriate to do the Lord’s work on the Sabbath than the Lord of the Sabbath himself?
So Jesus presents the evidence of his actions, leaving it to John the Baptist, and to John’s and his own disciples, and even to those opposed to him, to judge whether he is the promised one — or not. The evidence is there; the promises have been kept. It is as plain as the nose on my face — and that’s pretty plain! To note another portion of Isaiah’s prophecy, it is as plain and clear as that great highway through the wilderness — clear and broad and easy to follow, free from bumps and beasts; so smooth and clear that no traveler, not even a foolish one, will go astray.
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Yet, sad to say, there are some who take offense, who go astray; there are some who can not or will not accept this evidence, the fulfillment of the promise so long awaited. Like those who judge wrongly on the basis of their prejudice, looking at the color of skin rather than the character and actions of those whose skin it is; like those obsessed with things being done just the right way, or at the right time by the “right” people, rather than on the results; like those who see the healing of the blind and the lame and can only be bothered by the fact that it was done on the weekend rather than on a weekday; like those who grumble against their fellow Christians for whatever superficial reason, neglecting to appreciate that they too stand under the everlasting judgment — like all of these, are those who judge wrongly.
You might say it would be better not to judge at all — and I think our Lord had a word or two to say on that — and if the judgment is going to be negative it is surely true. But if we can judge only with the loving and forgiving mind of Christ, the open mind that looks to the evidence of goodness, and if it finds faults, forgives the faults and the shortcomings — of which we all know we have plenty ourselves; if we approach each other with the judgment of the mind of Christ, the mind that loves and forgive others even when offense is given — for surely each of us from time to time has given offense, even if it is by accident — then the mind of Christ will be ours indeed. After all, there is no sure way for me never to give offense — but I can hope to have the strength never to take offense. It is beyond my human power never to make a mistake or do wrong, but it is always within my power to forgive when a wrong is done against me.
And so my sisters and brothers in Christ, let us always look for the good and forgive the bad. As James wrote to his congregation, “Be patient, beloved, until the coming of the Lord.” He is the judge, and he will judge rightly, and forgive us even as — but only as — we have forgiven others.+