Judgment

Christ the King Sunday marks the end of the annual cycle of Christian feasts and holy days; it features scripture readings that call us to contemplate the end of time. The prophet Ezekiel and the disciple Matthew each direct our attention to a shepherd-king who is the chief character in the end-time drama. The “king” label tells us he is the ultimate authority over his people; the “shepherd” label means he has a personal interest in guarding the well-being of his people. At the end of time, the shepherd-king displays a curious compulsion to divide others into groups: fat sheep here, lean sheep there; goats to the left, sheep to the right.

Remember the Harry Potter stories, and the Sorting Hat?[1] The rest of my family is far more expert in Harry Potter stories than me, but I do remember the Sorting Hat, not just any hat, but a sort of living, talking being that took a place on each new student’s head as he or she entered Hogwarts Academy. The job of the Sorting Hat was to decide which of four houses each student was destined to occupy. There was some mystery about the work of the Sorting Hat, who has a particularly difficult time placing Harry Potter. Should Harry go to Griffindor, or should he be chosen for Slytherin? Can the Sorting Hat make mistakes, and can its decisions be reversed? The scripture lessons about end-time judging are a little like the Sorting Hat episodes, reflecting a mysterious fixation on judging and sorting according to standards not completely understood.

These sorting-judging texts are not my favorites. I don’t mind hearing stories about the judgment of a Sorting Hat in a popular children’s book. But when I hear about God acting as judge of human decisions and actions, then sorting humans into groups in favor, and those out of favor, I feel uncomfortable. It’s not my preferred topic for thought or conversation. My reluctance to talk about judgment contrasts so sharply with scripture that is raises for me a question: WHY were the ancients so fascinated with sorting and judging?

The answer grows clearer when we examine the context for each passage.

The prophet Ezekiel was born and raised in Jerusalem during the final years of an independent nation. In adulthood, he witnessed Judah defeated in war, and eventually was one of the people led as captives to Babylon. In a sense, his whole book is about judgment: first, of his nation for its unbelief and idolatry, and consequent weakness; second, of the competing nations that have worked against God’s people and purposes. Ezekiel’s world had gone from good to bad, and he longed for a reversal of fortune.

As Jesus’ ministry draws toward a close, Matthew’s version of events records four parables in quick succession. Each one paints a contrast:

  • between faithful and wicked slaves,
  • between wise and foolish bridesmaids,
  • between good, trustworthy stewards who invest talents and wicked, lazy stewards who bury them, and, finally,
  • between those who live out God’s call in active service, and those who do not.

Jesus speaks these parables during Holy Week; his arrest, trial, and execution are imminent. It’s a time of heightened tension between good and evil, and Jesus fervently wants his disciples to know that the good will prevail.

Preceding each text is a complex web of antagonistic relationships and destructive actions that has led to a bad state of affairs. It is impossible for any one human being to correct what has happened, or even to understand who is at fault. In a setting like that, God’s judgment is good news. For those who bear the consequences of harmful actions, it is good news to hear that a time is coming when justice will be realized. For those who feel the burden of poor decisions, it is good news to hear that a Shepherd-King is coming who will judge between the fat and the lean, the sheep and the goats, who will judge and sort in perfect wisdom and with perfect fairness. For the people of God to whom they were addressed, these texts represented a hope for justice, a belief that God was leading them toward a better time.

Just as these sorting-judging stories are not my favorite texts, neither are the events unfolding in Ferguson, MO, my favorite news. But it’s not difficult to see a connection between the two. As ancient believers waited in hope for justice, so many people in our region and across the nation are waiting in hope for the report of the grand jury investigating the shooting death of an African-American young man, Michael B., by a white police officer, Darren W. The grand jury may charge Darren W. with a crime, or it may determine that he acted reasonably in using deadly force. Either way, some protesters may exercise civil disobedience, and some with criminal intent may use the decision as an opportunity for theft or violence.

In this situation, and others like it, we join all people of faith in praying for improved common understanding, greater justice for all people involved, and lasting peace in our communities. If the outcome reflects something other than our sense of what is appropriate, then we pray for the sorting-judging work of the Shepherd-King, whose perfect justice will not sleep forever. There’s a quotation we sometimes hear in one form or another that may be traced by to a poem by Longfellow: Though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small; Though with patience stands He waiting, with exactness grinds He all.[2]

Our Protestant Presbyterian heritage contains special lessons about justice that is delayed, then arrives in force.

By the middle of the sixteenth century, the village of St. Andrews had been the focal point of the Scottish Church for more than 600 years. At the hub of St. Andrews, situated on limestone cliffs overlooking the North Sea, was the great cathedral. A vast maze of towers, cloisters, chapels, and work areas were connected to a nave nearly five-hundred feet long.

Like much of the Church in Europe, the Scottish Church had succumbed to temptations of greed and power. The bishop lived in a castle, offering lavish hospitality to favored guests. When younger reformers tried to introduce the ideas of Martin Luther and John Calvin, their efforts were countered with imprisonment, torture, and execution.

Watching these events was John Knox, known to us as the father of the Scottish Presbyterian Church. Knox first came to notice as the sword-wielding bodyguard of the preacher George Wishart. Implicated in a rebellion against Catholic rule, he was imprisoned for a time on a French galley ship. Later he traveled to Switzerland to study at the feet of John Calvin, returning to Scotland to begin his preaching ministry.

On June 11, 1559, Knox preached a prophetic sermon in which he challenged the abuses of the Church. The congregation was so moved by his message that they moved as one toward the cathedral in an effort to tear it down. In the riot that ensued, the roofs were stripped, and the building that was once Scotland’s most splendid church was reduced to a stone quarry.

Today, visitors to St. Andrews walk among the ruins, as I was privileged to do several years ago. The cathedral ruins are an architectural treasure. They speak of the religious devotion of another age. At a deeper level, the cathedral ruins are a reminder of what can happen when disparity of power leads one group to feel oppressed by the forces of another group, when the Church fails to be an advocate for all people: the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless.

Who are the powerless ones?

  • Are they African-American teenagers approached by overly aggressive police officers, or are they police officers who, in the exercise of their duties, find themselves fighting for their lives?
  • Are the powerless ones those who feel oppressed by the increasingly militarized practices of police departments, or are they the public safety officials who face increasingly difficult opposition in defending our homes, businesses, and communities from violent crime, and even terrorism?

I find myself praying fervently for God’s wisdom for all of us because determining the dynamics of power is a perpetual challenge.

In the midst of that challenge, we pray for wise and exacting sorting-judging work of the Shepherd-King, who is coming to sort the sheep from the goats, and inaugurate his kingdom of perfect justice. We remember that Though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small; Though with patience stands He waiting, with exactness grinds He all.

To Him be honor, glory, blessing and power, now and forever. AMEN.

[1] The comparison to the Sorting Hat was suggested by Nancy Rockwell’s “The Bite in the Apple” blog entry entitled “The Great Sorting,” 17 Nov. 2014.

[2] Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Retribution.

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~ by JohnH1962 on November 23, 2014.

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