Sunday, 13 September 2009

Sermon for Choral Evensong

Exodus 18:13-26 & Matthew 7:1-14
Critics of the bible might enjoy pointing out that our two bible readings this evening appear to present a contradiction: in the Exodus passage Moses is serving as ‘judge’ for the people who come seeking God’s will in their disputes. But in the gospel reading from Matthew 7 we hear Jesus saying ‘Do not judge’. So what’s going on here?

People today like to declare the well-known saying, ‘judge not, lest ye be judged.’ Our postmodern culture is anti-judgmental and tolerant of everything but intolerance. Relativism is another typical postmodern view - that there is no absolute truth by which things can be judged. So is Jesus promoting relativism here? Absolutely not!

There are many places in the Old Testament where God entrusts people to pronounce judgment. The book of Judges, for example, presents twelve leaders raised up by the Lord, who judge the tribes of Israel (my personal favourite is Deborah, and you can read about her in Judges ch. 4 & 5).

In the New Testament, it’s remarkable what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6: ‘If any of you has a dispute with another, dare he take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life!’

If this is the case, why then does Jesus say, ‘Do not judge’ in the beginning of Matthew 7? Well, there’s a difference between types of judgment. The judgment that Moses and Deborah carried out, and the judgment which Paul refers to, is judgment between right and wrong; between truth and falsehood. That kind of judgment is our duty, and it should be done with wisdom, honesty, common sense, and discernment. But the kind of judgment that Jesus speaks against, in Matthew 7, is about condemning people. It’s judgmentalism; it’s superficial, self-righteous, dishonest, and hypocritical.

Throughout the gospels Jesus condemns hypocrisy - pretending to be something that you’re not, or pretending to be better than you are. Matthew 7 verses 3-5: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in someone else’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? …You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from the other person’s eye.”

Christianity itself is often judged by those outside the Church. Their verdict is that the Church is full of hypocrites. Some people outside the Church believe that Christians think they are ‘perfect’ people, or ‘superior’ in some way. It’s not really true that the Church is full of hypocrites. The truth is that the Church is full of sinners. The hypocrites in the Church are those who would deny that fact, or who don’t include themselves in that fact, but they do love to condemn other people. And for some reason, we are quick to identify hypocrisy in other people, but not so quick to recognise it in ourselves.

American telly-evangelists seem to be particularly prone to hypocrisy - of not practicing what they preach - which has led to the public downfall of many. But at least as far back as 2 Samuel 12, there’s a good example of King David being called on self-righteous hypocrisy, when Nathan the prophet tells David a story of a rich man who steals a poor man’s precious lamb and kills it for his own use. David pronounces sound condemnation on the rich man in the story, while Nathan’s intention all along was to point out David’s blindness to his own sinful behaviour with Bathsheba.

In Matthew 15, Jesus says to the Pharisees, “You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, [saying] ‘these people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.’’ In the gospels, Jesus reveals many ways in which the Pharisees practiced a hypocritical religion - ways which are sometimes practiced by people today who deceive themselves and others into thinking they are Christian.

Here are a few examples from Matthew’s gospel, ch. 23: ‘everything they do is done for others to see; they love the place of honour at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; ‘Woe to you… you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices… but you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness… You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel… You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and self-indulgence… on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.’

This is especially challenging for those who are called to lead by example: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practise what they preach.” But aren’t ALL of us Christians called to practice what we proclaim? By our fruit we shall be known.

Christianity’s claim that there is an absolute truth and an ultimate judge is not popular today. But God’s judgment is righteous, just and merciful. And that is how he wants us to judge. In the letter of James ch 2 v.13, we read that ‘judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; [and] mercy triumphs over judgment.’ And similarly in Matthew 7 v. 2, ‘For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.’

There is no contradiction here. Yes, we must judge between right and wrong and between truth and falsehood. In 1 Corinthians 14 Paul advises to ‘weigh carefully what is said’. And in 1 Thessalonians 5 he says to ‘Test everything. Hold on to the good. [And] avoid every kind of evil’. But we should not be judging the status of other people, and especially their status before God. Romans 14:4 – ‘Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls’. And verse 13: ‘Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother's way’.

Jesus tells us the gate is small and the road is narrow that leads to life. Many obstacles can block that gate and divert people from the road. God forbid that we should be that obstacle for another person.

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