I’m getting those preaching chops back–guest-preached this morning at the Community Church of San Miguel, an interdenominational and quite liberal Christian church that was one year old this past Valentine’s Day. It’s been many years since I preached from the lectionary, and I enjoyed it. As with an art exercise or academic assignment, sometimes having to work within set constraints can be paradoxically freeing and inspiring.

Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year C)

Amos 7:7-17
Psalm 82
Colossians 1:1-14
Luke 10:25-37


One uncomfortable theme comes up repeatedly in today’s lectionary readings: judgment. I don’t like judgment. You could say I’m positively judgmental about it. I don’t like to be judged, I don’t like to hear people judge other people, and my own quickness to judge others is one of the qualities I try hardest to eradicate in myself.

Judgment is not nice. So how do we make sense of these passages, such as the one from Amos and the 82nd Psalm, which seem to exalt judgment, and harsh judgment at that? Aren’t they just encouraging one of our worst tendencies? The obvious answer is that the scripture is encouraging us to give our desire to judge over to God, the only true Judge. But I’m not much more comfortable with a judging God than with a judgmental person. When I pray, it’s never to the divine Judge—except when I’m vengefully hoping that an all-powerful Someone will bang the gavel and mete out justice to someone I think deserves it. Which is to say, both I and many others call on the God of Judgment when we want our own views to be backed up by the ultimate authority. And so we come round, in a very small circle, to our own harshly judging selves.

To make things more difficult still, we do have to judge. It’s part of our responsibility, part of being a good person. Sometimes it’s literally our duty as citizens, as when we’re called to jury duty and required to decide who among our neighbors is speaking truth, who is lying; who bears blame and who is innocent; who has done wrong, who should be exonerated, who should be compensated, who should be punished. Then there are the more everyday, less dramatic cases of judgment. Judging the parent who yells at his child in the market. Judging the greed of corporate directors who have trampled on human dignity or nature’s beauty in search of profit. These are just discriminations of fact, of right and wrong, aren’t they? And finally, there is the kind of judgment that we might call discernment, that is so essential a part of religious life because it is the heart of morality. How do we decide, “I should do this, I should not do that,” without implicitly shining the light of judgment on others and saying, if only to ourselves, “This person is good, that one is bad”? If we flat-out refuse to make such judgments, whether in a courtroom or our own hearts, we may be guilty of abandoning the world to injustice and chaos.

The wise designers of the lectionary have pieced together an interesting message for us, in the passages they’ve chosen about judgment and the way they’ve paired them with a complementary theme.

That theme is taken up by a midrash, a Jewish story expounding on the scriptures, that tells of a king

who had delicate crystal goblets [and he wasn’t quite sure how to make use of them]. He said, “If I pour hot water into them, they will expand and burst; if I pour cold water into them, they will contract and shatter.” So what did the king do? He mixed hot water with cold and poured the [temperate] water into the cups, and they did not break.

So it was with God. When it came time to create the world, God reflected, “If I create the world with the attribute of compassion alone, there will be an overflow of wrongful acts. No one will be afraid of punishment. But if I create the world with justice alone, how could the world endure? It would shatter from the harshness. So I will create it with both justice and compassion, and it will endure.” (B’reishit Rabbah 12:15, translation found here)

Justice and compassion, or, put another way, judgment and mercy. Today’s scriptures urge us to practice them together. Let’s take a few minutes to look at how.

The passage from Amos is chilling. In a time of prosperity and peace, God’s prophet has some bad news: God has judged the people; his verdict is “GUILTY”; and the sentence he pronounces is death. This is judgment at its most terrifying. And what makes it perhaps even more terrifying is the so-simple image of the plumb line.

A plumb line is an age-old builder’s tool that uses gravity to determine whether a wall is straight. Hang a lead weight on a string and you have an inescapable, implacable judgment of whether the work of your hands is in plumb, is true, is the way it should be.

You can’t argue with this judge, it isn’t biased, it isn’t corruptible, you can’t appeal to it with emotion or logic. It just measures us the way we really are: how we compare to the straight line. Are we upright, are we true? And none of us could escape such a judgment.

Imagine being judged for everything we do. Not judged harshly, but purely, unemotionally, as by a carpenter’s tool. Who among us could stand under that impartial gaze? We have betrayed the trust of friends. We have responded to suffering with callousness and apathy. We have spoken words that are not true and many more that are not kind, and we have left unsaid the words of compassion that could have been a balm to another suffering soul. We have seen someone in trouble and been too tired, too busy, too nervous, too bent on our own destinations to stop and help. Who among us does not deserve punishment?

Were we subject to pure justice, we would be in a bad way. We need that judgment to be tempered with mercy, or we could not withstand the force of our own failings. They would shatter us.

J. R. R. Tolkien put wise words in the mouth of his wizard, Gandalf: “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement” (The Two Towers, Book IV). It is not enough for our judgments to be just; they must also be tempered with mercy, or who could live?

That rather bizarre council of the gods in today’s psalm shows us two ways the people of the world are judged. All gods sit in judgment, but the God that is our God, our champion in this psalm, is moved by mercy as well as justice. God exhorts the other gods to have mercy on the orphan, the poor person. The psalm challenges us to consider: When we judge others, do we judge like these gods, the ones who have no kindness for the widow and the hungry and so lose their own immortality, or do we judge like the God who is Love, pouring mercy and compassion upon those in need, and so gain ourselves a kind of immortality?

Which brings us to the question asked of Jesus in the Gospel reading. It is asked by one whose realm is that of judgment: the law courts where people come to be judged and to attain justice. He seems to be a good man—he gets a lot of flak in various interpretations of this story, but he’s honest and earnest—but still, he would like to judge those around him, to sort out who is his neighbor and who unworthy of that designation, so as to make that onerous commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” a little easier to carry out.

The story of the Good Samaritan also tempts us to judge: to criticize the priest and the Levite, and of course to criticize, then applaud, the Samaritan. Just one chapter previously, Luke has reminded us that the Samaritans are Not Nice People (Luke 9:51-55). It’s as if the Gospel author is saying to his listeners: yep, I’m talking about those Samaritans, those troublemakers who don’t respect Jesus. It might even be the case that the apostles who itch to punish them for their disrespect are justified in judging Samaritans harshly.

In that passage we read two weeks ago, Luke’s Jesus gave us a hint of what was to follow when he silently prevented his disciples from passing sentence on the Samaritans. In today’s passage, Jesus doesn’t ask us to judge the Samaritans, those we despise, fairly. He doesn’t ask us to judge at all. He asks us to do mercy. That is what it means to love our neighbor as ourselves.

And so from today’s scripture, we may derive a small but profound spiritual practice. A tempering of justice with compassion, judgment with mercy, which we can all practice daily, at least if you’re like me and never go a day without passing judgment on someone. The practice is to add mercy to each of our judgments. When we hear the man speak harshly to his child and our minds leap to the judgment that he is a bad parent, we can think, mercy in our minds, “Maybe he is an exemplary father and I’m catching him at the one moment all year when he’s lost his patience. Maybe he is under stress that I can’t see and what his child did was the last straw: maybe he just lost his job; maybe his mother died last week.” When we hear the news and are filled with rage at what some criminal, some corrupt official, some greedy CEO has done, instead of just hoping that the so-and-so gets what’s coming to him or her, we can pray for a merciful outcome for all involved: that the culprits as well as the victims be healed. When we cast our eyes on someone in judgment, we can add, “there but for the grace of God go I”—and know that if we are blessed with a little extra grace right now, we could be in a very different situation in a year or a week or even an hour. “That could be me,” we can remember, and more—“Sometimes that is me.”

We show mercy to others—we grant others the same benefit of the doubt that we want for ourselves—we give them room to change—we, in short, love our neighbor as ourselves, because we are our neighbor’s neighbor. We are the one set upon by thieves, we are the thieves, we are the important official hurrying past to carry out another duty, we are the despised Samaritan. We are the lawyer looking for an easy way; and sometimes, just sometimes, on a good day, we are Jesus.

So may it be.

© 2010 Amy Zucker Morgenstern