Saturday, 31 December 2011

You Who Pass Judgement

Crazy Judge by prthugp
It's probably the worst placed chapter boundary in the entire Bible: the one between chapters 1 and 2 of Paul's letter to the Romans. Of course, chapters and verses weren't part of the original Bible, they were added later for convenience. Convenient they undoubtedly are - I don't know the Bible off by heart, and I don't know anyone who does, so finding references without chapter and verse would be near impossible - but they also sometimes change or obscure the original meaning. Particularly as preachers and writers of Bible-study notes tend to lazily split their teaching by chapter rather than by content.

The problem in Romans is that Paul is using a clever rhetorical trick to make a point, and the chapter boundary cuts off the punchline from the lead-in. It's a trick used long before by the prophet Amos (cf Amos chapters 1 and 2): Amos starts by criticising Israel's neighbours, saying how wicked they are and how God will punish them. Then, when he has all his Israelite hearers nodding along, he turns on them, telling them that they are even worse, so shouldn't God punish them even more.

In the second half of Romans 1, Paul has what looks like the most amazing rant against 'all the godlessness and wickedness of people': "they are without excuse," he thunders. Then you get the chapter boundary. If you stop there you are left with a picture of a wrathful God judging a wicked humanity, whilst the self-righteous churchgoers look on. But that's not the end of the passage, it's missing the turnaround, the main point:
You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgement on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgement do the same things.
How is that unclear? How is that anything but a reflection of Jesus' "Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven"? How on earth do churchgoers find any basis here for being judgemental about other people's lifestyles? Yet they do! As I've written before: too many people read the Bible with their eyes tightly shut.

The main point, then, of this passage is to tell its readers not to be judgemental.

But I reckon that there is another, secondary, point. Drastically summarising Romans 1:18 to 2:4 it looks to me like an argument with a simple beginning, a middle and an end. Thus my summary would be that the passage is saying that there are people who are far from God, because of this their lifestyles are a mess, particularly their relationships, therefore do not judge them because you are the same.

If there are people whose lives are a mess because they are far from God, then how helpful is it to tell them how messed up they are, or even to tell them to follow your rules? Surely if the cause of the problem is that they are far from God, then the solution is for them to come closer to God. And if we are 'just like them' - ie too far from God ourselves - then us pretending to have it all sorted and telling them what to do is a fake.

We need to walk together, helping one another, stumbling our joint way toward God, toward His love and His mercy. That's how lives can be changed, and that's how the world can start to be changed. It is a messed up world, especially in its relationships, because we are all too far from God. Let's work on it together: humbly, respectfully and with love.