Saying Yes to Judgment
“Someone in the crowd said to Jesus…”
Someone in the crowd. That’s our first indication that things are not off to a great start in our passage from Luke today.
Throughout the gospels, “the crowd” is often a code word that stands for “people who don’t get it.”
(I would love to teach a class that traces the experience of “the crowd” through the entire gospel narrative, right up to Palm Sunday and beyond.)
But anyway, we know from the beginning that this person who is questioning Jesus is probably going to be off track. And he is.
Following up on our sibling rivalry conversation from a couple of weeks ago, we have a person angry with his brother. “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”
But Jesus is not having it.
“Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?”
Now this is one of the most fascinating of the Questions of Jesus, another really interesting way to trace our way through the gospels. Jesus asks 307 questions and only answers 3. It’s worth wondering what he’s asking you, today.
But this question in particular, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” puts a major chunk of Christian orthodoxy in a bit of a pickle.
It is a foundation stone of orthodox theology all the way back to Nicaea and beyond that Christ is our Eternal Judge.
At the Last Day we will stand before him and be divided as sheep and goats if the Church Fathers are to be believed.
And to be fair, there is ample scriptural evidence for Christ as Judge.
But here Jesus tells us directly that he is not here to judge us.
It takes my mind over to John 3:17, lesser known cousin to John 3:16. John 3:17 says, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
We in the Episcopal Church pride ourselves on not being judgmental, or at least aspiring to that.
Many of us have found our way to this church specifically because we were wounded and stunted in our spiritual growth in previous churches by images of a judgmental God of hell and damnation.
But the reality is that we are eager to have someone else make the decisions, to have someone else be in charge, to have someone powerful tell us we are right and all those people we don’t like are wrong.
We want Jesus to be a judge and arbitrator as much as the man in our gospel does.
Jesus does make judgments in the gospels, actually, and rather frequently.
But they are a very specific kind of judgment. He will not intervene in this specific property dispute between this person in the crowd and his brother.
He consistently throughout the gospels refuses to let himself or his authority be used for anyone else’s selfish or manipulative purposes.
But Jesus does judge in the gospels.
“Blessed are you who are poor… woe to you who are rich now,” he says Luke 6.
That’s a judgment. That is an evaluation of one group as better and another as found wanting.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now…woe to you who are full now. Blessed are you who weep now…woe to you who are laughing now.”
The Episcopal Church in America has a deep legacy of wealth and power. We still look back in pride at how many of the founders of our nation were also founders of our church.
These were wealthy white men, exclusively, and many of them were slaveholders.
We are only now beginning to grapple with the double burden of sin that is a deep strand of our legacy as Episcopalians.
Wealth and racism overlaid with a thin sheen of the gospel caused a lot of damage to a lot of people at the hands of the Episcopal Church in America.
And I think that is the hidden trap of our love for a non-judgmental Jesus.
The bright side of it is an honest and sincere desire to quit pigeonholing people, to quit condemning others for difference, to live truly free of imposing labels on others and build relationships across divides.
But the dark side of our fleeing from judgment is that we’re afraid that we’re going to be judged and found wanting.
Because the way Jesus judges in the gospels is so clear.
And it is very much about wealth versus poverty.
It is very much about the elite versus the powerless.
And we as affluent, predominantly white Episcopalians in Webster Groves end up on the wrong side of that question almost every single time.
And I do feel powerless to grapple with my own power.
I do feel poor in my ability to address my own wealth.
Jesus’ economic teachings pierce my heart more than almost anything else he teaches, because I know and understand that I am not his audience when he says “Blessed are you who are poor.”
I am his audience when he says “Woe to you who are rich.”
I know he’s talking to me in our gospel today when he says, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
So what are we to do? We who are rich in so many ways and feel our conscience pricked as we search for ways to use our wealth in ways that honor God and serve the poor?
Jesus clearly wants us to know that the rich man in his story got it wrong.
At first that’s surprising. The landowner seems on the surface to be exercising responsible stewardship.
He’s saving for a rainy day. What could be wrong with that?
But one commentator I read this week asks us to pay attention to the word the rich man uses more than any other as Jesus quotes him.
And what word is that? The word “I.”
“He thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, `Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’”
I, I, I. The man’s sin is not responsible stewardship. His sin is self-centeredness.
His only concern is for himself and how to make sure his wealth stays hoarded only to himself.
It is so tempting to hoard our wealth, both as individuals and as a church, because that’s the “responsible” thing to do.
But as St. Augustine says about this passage, “The bellies of the poor are much safer storerooms than our barns.”
The most responsible thing to do with our wealth is to use it as it is needed, to care for our family.
And our family is the whole human race.
The basic point of this story is that you can’t take it with you.
We try to make the best decisions we can with the gifts we are given, but the material part of those gifts stays behind when our earthly life ends.
Jesus is asking us to look that in the face.
And his words take on an even more haunting tone in light of the horrific violence that has marred the last 24 hours with mass shootings in two major U.S. cities.
“This very night your life is being demanded of you,” Jesus says.
We think of the families buying school supplies at the Walmart in El Paso and the groups of friends out for an evening of socializing in Dayton.
How were they supposed to know that that very night their lives were being demanded of them?
And not by God, but by someone driven by hate or mental illness or both.
It’s not fair. It’s not fair, and it hurts, and it’s wrong.
So where is our hope?
Where is the Good News of Jesus Christ when our scriptures lead us through a confrontation with our wealth and our news bulletins lead us through a confrontation with ever escalating violence?
Oddly enough, it is Christ our Judge who gives me hope.
Jesus asks, “Friend, who set me to be judge or arbitrator over you?”
And we are the ones who have set Jesus to judge us.
Why? Because we know we will only be judged with love and forgiveness.
There is no safer place in the world, no more comforting place, no place more certain of compassion and welcome and peace, than in the hands of Christ our Judge.
Jesus has very clear and firm judgments in the gospels, about wealth and power, about excluding people, about the egalitarian extravagance of God’s healing and feeding.
And I’ll speak for myself, I know I have a long way to go before I understand and am able to live out Jesus’ economic teachings as he would call me to do.
But I need Jesus’ judgment, because I need to have clear direction for how he is asking me to grow.
And I do not fear Jesus’ judgment, because I know it will only and always end in love, compassion, and forgiveness.
And the way I hear the grace and promise of Jesus’s judgment in this scripture today galvanizes me with hope and energy.
He says, “This very night your life is being demanded of you.”
For the people in Dayton and El Paso, that was true in a very literal sense, and we grieve and lament that together.
But for us here today, it’s true in a different way.
In the end, Jesus doesn’t want our money or our good intentions or even our repentance.
Jesus wants us.
This day your life is being demanded of you.
This day my life is being demanded of me.
The only way to live the fullness of God’s grace and abundance is to sell out completely to God.
Give it all up. Let it all go. Surrender completely to the wonder of trusting and serving God.
Then the burdens of class and wealth and historic injustice slide off our shoulders.
It doesn’t mean we don’t still have work to do to redress them, but we are free from the inner imprisonment that makes us cling so closely to our privilege.
What does it feel like to stand before the great judgment seat of Christ?
It is a place of radical love—not sentimental love, but radical love, a love that demands everything of us.
We do not face condemnation or damnation.
We face compassion, forgiveness, and a Jesus who will not settle for anything less than our entire hearts given to him fully.
“This night your life is being demanded of you.”
Give it all up to God.
Be judged, and know yourself to be set free.
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