Why I Need the Terrible Judgment of God

 

Proper 25: Year C

Joel 2:23-32; Psalm 65; Luke 18:9-14; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

I knew what I was supposed to say. I was supposed to say, “Sure. Of course I will meet to work out our difficulties, listen to his complaints.” But the words stuck in my throat. You see, I knew that I was more in the right than he. In truth, I couldn’t see how I had done anything worthy of this person’s mean and petty actions. A mutual friend was offering to mediate between us. In our phone conversation, she noted how the other party felt hurt, needed to be cared for, experienced abandonment, etc. The friend insisted that this other person had gifts to offer and had to be set free to do so. Internally, I balked. You gotta be kidding me, I thought to myself. I have been kicked around publicly and privately; I am not the one in the wrong here. I don’t want to care; I want them to acknowledge my pain, not attend to theirs. And to be honest, I don’t want to accept their offerings of talent or resources for the community, not until they act like a grown-up, own up to their faults, and stop hurting others.

When I am obviously in the wrong – for example, I blow a gasket in anger at my children or husband – I feel ashamed. Crippling shame presents its own unique challenge for being in communion with others. But while I profess forgiveness of enemies and want to participate in the ministry of reconciliation with those who have wronged me, in this case I slammed up against not my sense of shame but rather my sense of honest justice. I want to be seen as the one who has been mistreated; particularly if their violence toward me has been public, I crave judgment of the others’ actions.

And isn’t that Christian? Isn’t God’s judgment always truthful? Herein lies the snag for many of us, I suspect. Indeed, people should be held accountable for their wrongs, so that they might be healed. In Scripture as opposed to our popular culture, God’s judgment is actually a necessary and terrible thing. Joel’s text reminds us of this vividly. Following the opening lament with its painful and poignant poetry of loss and devastation, Joel speaks of a time when the goodness of God arrives like a violent force. The Spirit remakes and renews the world so that food flowers forth from a ravaged earth and social barriers of gender, age, and socio-economic status no longer bar communion with one another, God, and nature.

Called to be the people of this God, we tune our lives to this “righteousness” – this vision of the world rectified, rightly-ordered in ways that assume the generosity of the One who created it. But rejoicing in God’s judgment of the world is not the same thing as perseverating on our own rightness, on the ways we participate in justice, artfully proclaim it, or actively press against systems of oppression that resist God’s grace. As the psalmist begins, so, too, do we at our best: We rejoice that God offers us forgiveness; we applaud the primary Actor in the drama of salvation, ever aware that each of us must open ourselves to word of judgment so that we can be healed.

Initially the Timothy text seems to contradict this. Paul states that he is indeed righteous, while others have deserted him – he has been wronged. But then he comments, “May it not be counted against them!” That same merciful judgment, received by Paul on the Damascus road, has like leaven worked its way throughout his life, so that by its end he is not interested in others’ “just desserts.” Even his own ability to resist evil has come from the Lord. He hopes for others to receive mercy so that they, too, might receive the Spirit and be transformed. Whatever else one might say of him, Paul never shies away from the hard reality of God’s justice; rather, in its light he sees the deepest reality of his own dependence on Christ’s kindness and power to redeem.

The parable Jesus tells of the Pharisee and the tax collector lacks subtly; one might well wonder about his kindness in telling it to and about religious leaders. Our cultural distance and well-worn habits of caricaturing these first century protagonists persists, and the story functions all too easily in the opposite direction: how good that we are no longer like those proud Pharisees but rather like those who beat their breasts among the self-aware!

But if we are willing, these texts beckon us into the light of God’s judgment, to place ourselves in unwavering gaze of God. I know I am called to follow Christ and ultimately answerable to him alone, but like the Pharisee, my head turns away from God’s face even when pursuing “Christian” acts like reconciliation. I want to know how I compare with other people, how my faithfulness might render me worthy of something more than mercy. Like the Pharisee, I once responded to judgment by receiving God’s gift of salvation; thus I should be as free as the psalmist and as Paul to let go of offenses. What good news “Let God be my judge” remains to anyone who knows the LORD’s promiscuous lovingkindness!

Yet still this gospel offends me, and I yearn for a different sort of judgment. In my daily grind of living in community, I remain more like that Pharisee than I want to admit. I am not satisfied with living toward God’s gaze, open-handedly expectant of honest grace. When others offend me – and when this costs me something emotionally, economically, psychologically, or professionally – I compare my actions to theirs. And honestly, sometimes I come out looking pretty darn good.

But in the conversation the other night, my friend judged me by the light of our merciful and terrible God. By pressing me to be open in conversation to an annoying and hurtful person, they invited me to admit unintended offenses and extend Christ’s love. Like the Pharisee of the parable, I had poised my hands so that they were no longer pleading openhandedly before God but rather now pointed at another merely human, faulty creature. I had dangerously indulged in comparison from my perspective, as if we were competing for grace. And while mercy triumphs over judgment, even God will not pry my hands from pointing to pleading nor coerce me to receive mercy.

As Joel and the psalmist portray, God poises with abundance over all creation, so that for those who unclench their fists and call upon God, these gifts flow freely out to us, into our communities and for creation. Ordinary church practices (hospitality, sharing of resources, interdependence across social barriers, etc.) witness to the obnoxious graciousness of God’s righting of the world. Comparing ourselves to one another with shame, arrogance or competiveness rather than receiving the (sometimes difficult) gift we are to one another: these are the ways of the world that the Spirit judges. In our prayers and in our communal life, may these texts refocus us on the One whose judgment alone refreshes, renews, and restores us. May we see afresh ways we must be judged like the Pharisee, so that we might become free to participate in a world unexpectedly remade by grace.

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