Grace and Judgment (and a note on brotherly love)
(This entry is a follow-up to “Gracious Living” preached on March 2, 2008). Yesterday morning we talked about the relationship between gracious living and reward, gracious living and judgment, and gracious living and the heart. On the surface gracious living seems contrary to judgment. God instructs you to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. You are called to forgive someone “seventy times seven” times in a day, if need be, for the same offense. That doesn’t leave much room for judgment. If God calls us to live graciously, then why does He judge us? Isn’t that the religion of the Old Covenant, the one that the New Covenant replaces?
Of course, the answer is no. Grace requires judgment. Let me explain what I mean. When someone hurts you, or worse hurts your spouse or child, forgiveness is difficult. We cry out for justice. We cry out for justice because we were designed with a sense of it. We know that if we throw out the concept of justice then we’re left with societal chaos where the weak are always trampled on by the strong. Justice protects the poor and needy among us. And since there is always someone stronger than us, it protects us too. We need for justice to be carried out. So if we need justice to function, are we thwarting society when we live graciously? No, of course not. Again, grace and judgment are not incompatible. In fact, we need two things in order to live graciously.
First, we need to know that when we choose to forgive, justice itself is not thwarted. My kids naturally know this. When one of them hurts another one, the first response is to retaliate. We try and teach that they must forgive each other and repay evil with kindness. But the only time that seems to work is if the hurt child knows that the perpetrator is not escaping punishment from us, as parents. The knowledge that justice will come provides the freedom for them to restrain their own instinct to pursue vengeance. While there is more to forgiveness than simple restraint of actions, it is a start. And it begins in knowing that the crime will be punished. When Jesus speaks of the day of judgment, he is giving us this sense of certainty – all crimes will be punished, absolutely. They may slip through our earthly judicial system, but they will never escape God’s. (The gospel teaches us that our own crimes do not escape God’s justice either. For those in Jesus, their crimes are punished on the cross.)
Second, we need enough in our tank to absorb the debt of those we forgive. Forgiving financial debt requires money in our account to cover the debt. Forgiving a personal attack requires enough assurance from God that we are approved and loved. When we turn the tables around and look to see how Jesus showed us the care that he looks for from us we can see how he has filled us up. When we were naked (our sins exposed) before God he dressed us in his righteousness. When we were hungry he gave us his body to eat. When we were thirsty he poured out his blood that we might have living water welling up to eternal life. When were were strangers to God he called us friends. When we were imprisoned to our own selfish desires he set us free by making us into new creations. Jesus filled us up that we might be poured out to others in need without ourselves running dry.
One final note on the text: Jesus examines the evidence of how we care for the least of these, his brothers. The reference to his brothers refer to followers of Christ. In other words, are we loving the church? The apostle John, in his epistle gives three tests of knowing whether or not you are a Christian and one of them is love for your brother. He writes, “the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling.” The church is made up of people we are to love – people to whom we are to commit to our care. This goes against our grain as we typically look at the church as a place to care for us and meet our needs. But if we only see the church as an organization to meet our needs, there is no reason to stay when we feel they are no longer being met, or if there is another church that might meet them better. If we see the church like John and Jesus call us to see it, then our committed care for our brothers and sisters in the church keep us there – even through the dry spells that occassionally come. We need each other.