The grace, mercy, and peace of Christ Jesus rest upon each and every one of you this day.
Today’s Gospel lesson is one of the most misquoted, wrongly understood, and wrongly applied texts in all of Scripture. I know that sounds like a bit of an overstatement, but it’s not. The words and meaning of this text is butchered, time and time again. For starters, these words are part of a much larger context; a lengthy discourse known as “the Sermon on the Plain.” Yes, it’s very similar to the Sermon on the Mount recorded in Matthew, BUT…it’s not the same sermon. It’s not the same exact words, and it wasn’t spoken at the same time, although it was spoken to many of the same people. There is no error in recording here. I know it may sound hard to believe, but Jesus actually taught the same thing to people more than once. If you’ve ever been around kids, you’ll understand. You do need to say things more than once.
These words that comprise our Gospel lesson for today are just a snippet of that great sermon. You know as well as I do that when you pluck a few words or a few phrases out of context, things go bad quickly. This is often the case with these particular words of Christ. In fact, we can get so myopic and tunnel-visioned in our reading/hearing of Scripture, that even in the case of these six verses, we only really tend to focus on the two words, “Judge not.” We can quote those two words perfectly, especially when we’re feeling challenged or oppressed or demonized for our personal choices and behaviors. Everything else in the text is a blur. It’s like the rest of the words aren’t even there. “Judge not.” That’s all we know. That’s all we need to know. More importantly, that’s all everyone else needs to know.
Folks: I know this may surprise some of you, but those words don’t mean what you think they do. They certainly don’t mean what most everyone else thinks they do. Those words do not mean that we are prohibited from distinguishing /judging between what is good and what is evil; between goodness and sinfulness. So often today people say “You can’t judge me! You can’t tell me that my behavior is bad. How dare you! Judge not, lest ye be judged!” (It is amazing how EVERYONE can quote Scripture when it suits them, right?) Guys: This is NOT the meaning of this text. The Lord is referring here to a critical attitude, one that despises others, saying "I am holier than you. I am better than you. I am above you.” That’s not an attitude of gracious forgiveness and mercy. That’s an attitude of condemnation. That’s a pietistic, Pharisaical attitude that only seeks to condemn and lord over others. “Be merciful, just as/even as your Father is merciful.” How often we forget that. How often we don’t even hear that part…even though they’re the FIRST words of the text! Guys: That’s the whole key to understanding and making sense of this text! Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
When there is a conflict between ourselves and others, what is our desire? Maybe that’s the wrong question. What should be our desire? What ought to be our desire? As a baptized, redeemed, and completely forgiven child of the heavenly Father, our desire should NOT be to punish them or make them suffer because they’ve made us suffer in some way, shape, or form. Why? Why does the Christian NOT desire the pound of flesh from his/her neighbor, even though they deserve it? Well…for starters the Christian knows and believes what God says about vengeance. “Vengeance is Mine, so sayeth the Lord.” There’s also the fact that the faithful Christian knows their own reality corum Deo; that is, before God. The Christian knows that they’ve done bad and evil things against God, and He hasn’t ever dealt with us in this way; the same way that we dare to deal with others.
Think about that. Let that sink in. God, who is just and righteous and without sin, has every right to punish us and condemn us to eternal, hellish death and damnation. But…that’s not how our God and Father deals with us, is it? What does God do for us? Answer: He sent His only-begotten Son to perfectly fulfill the Law in our place—the perfect Law of God that we cannot and do not fulfill—suffering our justly-deserved punishment and death on the cross. He sent His only-begotten Son die and to be resurrected on the third day in order to gain eternal life for us. He was merciful to us; merciful to us through Christ and because of Christ.
“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” This same mercy that God has so unconditionally shown to us must be reflected in our lives. Yes, I said “MUST.” I know that sounds very law-oriented, but it’s not. I’m not saying that you must to do your part in order to be saved. No! But…to not show mercy is to not be of the Father. It’s not Christian. When the world sees you or hears you, they should see and hear Christ. Do they? As a redeemed child of God—a child of mercy—when someone does wrong against us, our will and desire MUST be to forgive them, and if possible, restore a good relationship between them and us. This does NOT mean that we shouldn’t call sin “sin.” We MUST treat others with humility, love and mercy (just like the Father treats us), but we must also declare the Truth of God’s Word.
Indeed, this proclamation and confession of God’s holy Truth—full Law and full Gospel—is all part of Christian love. It’s love in action; God’s love in action, in us and through us. I know our culture disagrees, but it is our God-given baptismal responsibility to confront others with their sins, not to condemn them, but to call them to repentance and salvation. If your friend is heading towards a cliff, in what does love consist? If a friend or loved one is getting ready to dive into deceptively shallow, rock-filled water, in what does love consist? If you see a child wandering towards a busy street, in what does love consist? If the doctor knows it’s cancer, in what does love consist? To not do or say anything? We don’t want to judge, do we? No! Love warns of the danger! Well…the same goes for when a loved one (or even a complete stranger whom Christ loved enough to die for) walks in sin. Love says to that person, “You are in danger. Turn around. Return to the Way of the Lord.”
Now, we must not be hypocritical in these cases. The Lord says, “First remove the log from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck that is in your brother's eye.” We should not apply to others expectations that we do not apply to ourselves. “Do as I say, but not as I do” NEVER works! “You need to go to Church. I’m going golfing.” Yeah…that’s not going to work. We must seek the forgiveness of God for our own sins before declaring the Law to others. Hypocrisy is a terrible teacher, but repentant faith in action can work miracles; miracles of repentance, life, and faith. “Learn from me. Don’t do what I’ve done. Been there, done that. It doesn’t work. It doesn’t turn out well. Trust me. I love you enough to tell you the Truth. I’m not judging you. I’m loving you…just as I’ve been loved.”
And keep in mind here that all this talk of judgment and hypocrisy is not like a contract. It’s not like if we don’t judge others, then God won’t judge us. Problem solved. No, no, no…. On the contrary, because of God's mercy to us, mercy is the fruit of the Holy Spirit that we bear in our daily lives. It’s a very natural, effortless thing. Good fruit trees naturally bear good fruit, right? We’ve been engrafted to the Vine of Life that is Jesus. We’ve been engrafted to His cross; His tree of Life. The fruit that we, as baptized and redeemed children of grace, naturally bear is the cruciform, blood-stained fruit of Christ’s unconditional love and mercy. Christian love—true Christian love—wants to help others in their need and call the lost to the right path. Christian love gets it. We know the love shown to us. We know the hellish alternative.
“Be merciful, just as your heavenly Father is merciful”…to you. If there’s one thing you take away from today, I pray that this is it. If there’s one thing you want to focus on today, focus on God’s mercy and love to you. Focus on Christ; the very epitome of God’s mercy and love for you; God’s mercy and love for you in the flesh and in your very presence right here and right now.
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ: Let us go forth and deal with each other and with all the other people God brings us into contact with in the love and mercy that God has so unconditionally and fully shown to us in Christ Jesus. Let us go forth and live in the mercy and peace that passes and surpasses all understanding.
Feel free to use any or all of this sermon for the edification of God's people.
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