The gospel reading today is from Luke chapter 13 – which is basically all about judging.
I’ve been reading a colleague’s sabbatical study on the spiritualities of the Coptic and the Celtic churches – which among other things shared the idea of a Rule of Life that centres on
- ·Gender equality
- the importance of the Created order its care
- Communal activity
All of these areas of life call for judgement of some kind.
Life is full of judgements isn’t it? –
Ø Egypt and the conflict between a regime acting on the will of millions of people to topple a seemingly corrupt leadership – and a political group whose democratically elected leader has been summarily arrested and imprisoned…
Ø The partner of the Guardian correspondent who was held for nine hours at Heathrow airport under terrorist legislation without charge or arrest…
Ø The cull of badgers – unnecessary wiping out of innocent defenceless creatures, or essential protection dairy herds…
Judgement always has two parts – our words and actions in expressing judgement (including sometimes saying and doing things we don’t realise give away what we really think, feel, believe) – and the judgements we hold in our minds and hearts.
Sometimes these two don’t match as neatly as we’d like them to… especially in those judgements that affect us more personally; think for a moment. In your dealings with each other and with other people, what are the things that determine your judgements – your intentions, words and actions?
Because among the many gifts that nature in her wisdom has given each of us, is a very strong instinct for survival and this often leads us into conflict, doesn’t it… conflict between our wants and what we know from our discipleship of Jesus the Christ and following his Way, are his wants for us.
In the news over the past couple of days was the story of the British soldier, a bomb-disposal expert, the first foreigner ever to be honoured by the Danish government. This was for an incident that happened in Afghanistan when the soldier shielded his Danish colleague with his own body.
I wonder what went through his mind in the second or so he had to make a decision about preserving his own life or potentially saving the life of another? Maybe you think that that kind of incident is far from your life and the judgements you need to make day by day – But I would argue that it’s precisely this kind of thinking that has to rule everything we do. We Christians talk about the Way of Christ; in our welcome at the start of our Sunday services we often use the words, “Everyone is welcome to receive communion – all we ask is a heart open to God and a respect for the Way of Jesus”… Well we’ve already made a judgement about who can have communion (everyone) – but we also judge that a heart open to God and a respect for the way of Jesus is more deserving than perhaps a tortured heart that knows nothing of God and has never even heard of the way of Jesus…
Judgements – more tricky than perhaps we sometimes think!!
So it was for the poor leader of the synagogue in today’s reading from the gospel of Luke. He obviously had something against the woman who Jesus healed, or maybe he even had a thing about women in general? Or perhaps he was just a mean-spirited man who you just want to slap?
He was evidently defending (rather too hard, you might think) his received religious instruction to keep the Sabbath, and that meant no work of any kind – which for him and many others included healing, As our Old testament reading says:
If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath,
from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the Sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the Lord honourable;
if you honour it, not going your own ways,
serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;*
14 then you shall take delight in the Lord…
Maybe there is a point here that we miss at our peril: could the leader of the synagogue have been genuinely, even faithfully according to the received teaching, exhorting people to put even their need for healing (or their desire to heal?) secondary to the importance of keeping Sabbath – focussing totally on the things of God to the exclusion of all else? His fervour does seem genuine…
15But the Lord answered him and said, ‘You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?’ 17When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.
There always seem to be winners and losers when we get involved in judging … in Keith Hebden’s book ‘”SEEKING JUSTICE”, in writing about our response to people we judge to be wrong-doers and how justice and forgiveness are always personal, he says this:
“Finding a way to forgive an offender is often challenging. We have been taught to believe that the natural human response to being offended against is to seek retribution” – There has to be payback, punishment, JUSTICE!!
The leader of the synagogue in our gospel reading is a good example of this. It seems to me that Jesus’ compassion for the woman is paramount and rightly so, but what about the man?
What is your response to him? What does the way of Jesus say about how we ought to treat him?
On Jesus’ response to the man’s complaints, the gospel says, “all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.”
Well hooray for our side! Jesus is the winner and this horrible man and people like him are all losers.
But let’s look at that again:
When Jesus replies 15But the Lord answered him and said, ‘You hypocrites (PLURAL!)
And then goes on to suggest something positive – “…ought not this woman be set free on the Sabbath?”
Two points here: firstly, you might say the leader of the synagogue is wrong and needs to be castigated in some way; made to feel shame for his thoughtless and uncaring attitude…
But wait – the Old Testament reading (Isaiah 58. 9 & 10):
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10 if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
you shall be called the repairer of the breach!
So if you were to offer the ‘food’ of your compassion to this evidently spiritually hungry man you might say he is just a poor individual whose religious fervour and devotion have led him to make a wrong judgement. So when Jesus replies in the plural, could it be that he is not having a go at this one man in a condemnatory way but is actually talking to a whole Community about getting the right message about making judgements?
Keith Hebden echoes this in his chapter on ‘Making Community Personal’ when he distinguishes between an individualistic outlook on the one hand – and a personal world-view on the other. With Individualism the individual strives to be materially and emotionally self-sustaining; in other words it is based on a selfishness that serves to divide communities and make us dependent on a system that is beyond individual control. Personalism assumes that we have collective needs and an ability to express a consensus; and that this can only be done as we learn to meet one another with personal responsibility. Individualism makes the needs of others less important than our own needs and manufactured wants. Personalism seeks to hear the needs of others and find ways to communicate our own real needs.
And the second point, Jesus asks a really powerful rhetorical question that is designed to help people, (the leader of the synagogue included) to reach the right conclusion about judging between our conditioned responses, and the Way of Jesus… “…ought not this woman be set free on the Sabbath?”
Whenever we make judgements: whether we are judging others or ourselves, or we are seeking justice for ourselves or others, this question of Jesus’ is the kind of powerful question that challenges our conditioning when we’re tempted to choose habitual practice over what our heart tells us is right… as such it is also the kind of powerful question that is designed to invite us to listen more closely to what actually is there, deep in our hearts… it’s the kind of powerful question that encourages us into a way of being where justice and mercy, in the words of psalm 85 ‘kiss each other’… it’s the kind of powerful question that warmly beckons us to the Way of Jesus.