How hard our righteous sense of judgment dies.
After another wild and intense Bible Study tonight, I drove home just now thinking to write about one of the guys who attends who is steeped in fundamentalist rhetoric. At times, he is so judgmental that it irritates many of the others. (He has been fed at a different theological trough, so to speak, for most of his life, and can quote Scripture—or at least approximate it—freely and frequently. But it seems that he has concentrated his search of the Scriptures on what is the most judgmental.
We get 12 to 15 people each week for food, prayer and study, and right now we’re working through Paul’s Letter to the Romans—a very intense and heavy book for after-dinner conversation. But hey, somebody else suggested it!
Several weeks ago, we got heated over whether —even with God’s divine forbearance and love— we can be certain that some people are going to burn in hell. Hey, I didn’t bring that up either, he did! The phrases “get to heaven” and “go to hell” seem to be a constant staple in his faith diet.
So over and over (and tonight was no exception) I keep bringing up illustrations of God’s awesome grace to fill in the heart and the soul of Paul’s more juridical arguments about justification. One of my favorites is the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15), where the Father figure treats both sons generously—both the one who was long on obedience but short on tolerance, and the younger one who has foolhardy and then sorrowful when he came to his senses out of sheer desperation.
Another favorite is the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20), who work varying lengths of the day from as much as 12 hours down to merely 1 hour, but all receive the same wage from the landowner. When there is grumbling, the employer (the God figure) says to those grumblers who worked through the heat of the day, “Do you begrudge my generosity?”
These are both illustrations of God’s grace, but they also bring to light the fundamental human trait of resentment. Scholar are quick to tell us that both parables have a deeper level of interpretation as contrasting the Jews (long obedient and faithful) and the Gentiles (lawless johnny-come-lateleys).
So in the Bible Study, even as I try to affirm what people are saying and thinking, I am always seeking ways to re-channel fundamentalist judgmentalism that wants to be certain God is sending disobedient sinners to eternal damnation. After all, they say, its right here in black and white in the Bible.
As if the parables Jesus told are not also “in black and white”? What is it about our righteous sense of judgment that we will go to great lengths to track down and then lift up the judgmental stuff in the Bible, and then soft-pedal the forgiving, grace-filled forbearance of God? Do we have some profoundly human need, in comparing ourselves against others, to put them down (condemn to hell) in order to lift ourselves up?
Tonight, Mr. Fundamentalist quarreled a little against the parable of the laborers by insisting that in heaven different people would get bigger or smaller rewards based on their deeds in this life. The immediate outcry and groaning from others surprised even me! “Oh brother! No, you’ve got it wrong. That’s irrelevant! Where does it say that? For pity’s sake!”
Christian entitlement fits hand-in-glove with Christian judgmentalism. Both are stuck in the idea that God’s grace is scarce, limited, and that in order for “good” people to receive it, it must be withheld from “bad” people.
Both the parables I mentioned say otherwise. Before the thundering waterfall of God’s gracious and generous love I stand with open hands. I will not receive much if I make my hands into fists. I must have open hands. And I will not receive more by shoving my brother or sister aside. In fact, we are never justified in trying to keep one another away from this constant, bountiful supply of God’s grace. Paul says in Romans that we are justified entirely and only as a gift, received by faith. It is not a reward, but a gift. there is no deserving, no entitlement, no wages at the end of the day. And those who receive the most are probably the most aware of this flood of grace.
But those who think they have earned it, and that it is due them and not to others, have probably received the least. For when our hearts close against others, it is as if we were trying to capture the whole of the waterfall with our fists.
—Pastor Dan Hooper