The Dangers of Premature Judgment
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
November 30, 2008
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Matthew 13: 24-34
“Let both grow together until the harvest….” — Matthew 13:30
Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning again of the Christian year. In our liturgical imagination we place ourselves in the time just before the coming of Christ, and since he is the one who in the end will judge the world, we imagine his coming as, amongst other things, a preliminary judgment. As our children left High School to go on to university they took tests called the Scholarly Aptitude Tests (SAT), but before they took those they took preliminary tests, (PSAT), to limber up, as it were. I don’t know if these customs are still in place, but they are still a good example of the point I am trying to make, Advent is like the PSAT’s. Therefore, we take the four weeks of the advent season to prepare to face our final judge.
Judgment is clearly not the only element of Advent; before condemnation we expect salvation. His very name, Jeshua (Jesus), means “God Saves” so salvation is primary, but there cannot be salvation without judgment, or healing without hurting, as we deal with the negative things that imprison us and sicken us in the first place. As in Advent we place ourselves in the realm of time before the first coming of Christ so also we place ourselves in the mood of the expectation of his final coming to heal, to save and to judge.
Now there is in the NT, especially in John’s Gospel, the idea that when we finally commit ourselves in faith to follow Christ we experience the final judgment, already and in the midst of time, before the end. There is a final end for the world and there is a different final end for us as individuals. Coming to faith in Christ is coming to the ultimate reality and entering the realm than which there is no greater. To put your faith in Christ is to enter heaven. The individual can experience heaven at any time, the world as a whole must wait the pleasure of God who created it and restores it on-goingly in Jesus and climactically one day soon. So we get ready for Christ’s coming to us and our own going to him.
This is our hope as Christians, and it is not rational, linear or common sense. Linearly speaking this kind of expectation is bizarre and unhealthy. There are many examples in history of groups and their prophets who anticipate the end of the world imminently and live on the cusp of an urgent expectation. Up to now history has made fools of them all. Earliest Christianity was in some quarters such a millenarian cult, and good scholars argue that Jesus himself was such a prophet of the end. He was, in fact, a prophet of the end, but not a calculator of the calendar. Is end is the one I have just described, Christ’s final coming to us, and our perpetual going to him.
In trying to understand these phenomena of the end times better we should be careful to maintain the distinction between the end of the world and the end of our world. Jesus prophesied the end of his world, and it followed promptly and gradually, Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 ad, and a new civilization was born that is even now triumphing over all the world (cf. The displays of Western expertise and culture at the Beijing games, especially the closing ceremonies, where the favorite Chinese singer was indistinguishable from Paula Abdul, and the music straight from some Hard Rock café. The Chinese seem to be better at being Western than we are). Presently, a world era (saeculum) is coming to an end; we see the collapse of a world of commerce built on trust before the waves of distrust, which are themselves rational reactions to the dishonesty of the players in the game of exchange. We see national and cultural boundaries fading and beginning to disappear. (I feel no cultural shift from Paris, to Palo Alto, to Honk Kong, to mention only my experiences of the current three month period.
Our 20th century makeshift culture, hastily chucked together and stuck up on the horizon of the accumulated debris of two world wars, three or four minor wars, five major genocides, and a commercial community of make believe and criminal fraud, this world is coming to an end. Currently, we breathe the poison of anxiety and refuse to face ourselves by pretending that we do not understand what is going on in the commercial meltdown. The experts claim not to know simply to shield themselves from the judgment that justly falls on their dishonesty, recklessness and criminal incompetence (cf. The experts themselves, and I talk to them often, admit that very, very few of them understand the math underlying the derivatives they buy and sell. I regard this as a criminal dereliction of duty, as if a physician should prescribe drugs he does not understand, or a lawyer try cases where the law is beyond his competence, or the clergy teach false doctrine).
Our individual worlds are also coming to an end as every day we draw nearer to the day of our death. This is not a contingent fact like the passing of the public world; thus it is and has always been; so we are always preparing to meet our judge, and that keeps us morally alert. I am not complacently clear about the doctrine of Hell, but I do believe that this order of being in which we live and die as individuals is a moral order in which we do not escape the consequences of what we do and who we have become. I think that the judgment entails at least the demand to face ones real self, and that that is hellish for people who have lived a life of denial and self-deception. I also believe that because this is a moral order no one “gets away with anything.” The thieves whose selfishness plunges old folk into penury, imprisons younger folk in poverty and pushes their own wealth up into the stratosphere will have to come to terms with this greed, somewhere, sometime, sooner or later, and on average at about age 85.
Now to our parables for the day: They are three, but I want to draw attention to only one, the first one. Having so far spoken only my jeremiad you might think that I am appointing myself judge and jury and excluding myself from the prophetic accusation. Therefore, I call Jesus to the witness box, and this is how I understand his testimony: I sound like the servants in the parable who want to appear to their boss to be conscientious; “Shall we clean things up master?” they ask. “Shall we pull out the weeds right now, tie them in bundles, and burn them; and then there will be only good and pleasing wheat in your field, and all of us will feel good.”
The master’s answer is:
Leave them be because you may hurt the good along with the bad, and because your judgment is not reliably accurate, and because in any case you are not the appointed judges.
So as the world changes, as one world is pushed aside by another and “the old order changeth, yielding place to new… lest one good custom should corrupt the world (Tennyson, In Memoriam, on the death of Queen Victoria),” we must remember that we are not appointed to judge in this final sense. We can of course exercise judgment in our operations in this life, but no fellow human being is ours to condemn finally.
If we remember this we might be delivered from the zeal that needs to put the other “right” or failing that, “put the other out,” and construct the infamous division between the in and out groups, between “that one”(John Mc Cain referring to Barack Obama) and us here warmly together. Remember you might be one of the weeds, needing more time to get it together.
“O God you are the Creator of all the human race, and my creator. As you created us to love us, so make your love real in us and among us, so that even we weeds might praise your just judgment and live together patiently in your good time.