For many Christians, today is Reformation Sunday, the last Sunday of October, which anticipates Reformation Day on October 31 (otherwise known as Hallowe‘en), commemorating the day in 1517 on which Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. That relatively minor event, as church doors were bulletin boards for the area, nevertheless launched the centuries-long effort to reform the Church – a perennial struggle, in fact, and one which both preceded Luther’s heroic battles and have continued to the present. Ironically, no one bothered to show up and debate the upstart monk who was fed up with the ecclesiastical grift and graft of his day.
For Roman Catholics, the notion of “ecclesia semper reformanda” [the Church must always be reformed], which seems traceable to the great St. Augustine, may have even greater relevance at present, as the Amazonian Synod wrapped up its deliberations in Rome last week with proposals to admit married men to the priesthood in areas of severe clergy shortage and to ordain women deacons. Not that these are somehow foreign to the Roman church, as for centuries priests, bishops, and even popes were married and women deacons are not only mentioned in the New Testament but also served for centuries in churches throughout the pre-medieval Christian world. Of course, mandatory clerical celibacy in the Western Church was a chief target of Luther and the Protestant Reformers, and it should also be noted that Lutheran and Anglican “deaconesses” have served for over a century in those churches. There is, as they say, precedent.
Today’s readings in the Catholic liturgy are appropriate for mulling over the perennial task of personal and institutional reform. Not surprisingly, there is hardly a figure of greater disrepute in Scripture than the unjust judge, the antithesis of the righteousness God expects of those whose duty is to safeguard and dispense justice. The first reading from the Book of Sirach provides a concisely opposite portrait of the true judge, one who like God does not cater to the rich and powerful but hears the voice of the widow, the orphan, and the illegal alien.
The other readings continue the theme: God is not impressed by social status or titles, but searches the heart. And to all accounts, what God is looking for is humility and repentance, not moral flawlessness. God knows we are sinners. The problem seems to be whether we do.
The reading from the Second Letter to Timothy focuses on God as the only truly just judge, not only because God is Justice itself and despises injustice, but because only God is truly able to read our hearts. God is therefore the only judge we must truly fear. Speaking for Paul, the author writes,
The first time I had to present my defense, there was not a single witness to support me. Every one of them deserted me — may they not be held accountable for it. But the Lord stood by me and gave me power, so that through me the whole message might be proclaimed for all the pagans to hear; and so I was rescued from the lion’s mouth.
Therefore, he says with confidence, “all there is to come now is the crown of righteousness reserved for me, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that Day; and not only to me but to all those who have longed for his Appearing.”
Jesus’ parable of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee follows directly on Luke’s account of the parable of the unjust judge of last Sunday’s readings. It is a warning about judging others — and the wisdom of refusing to. The tax collector compared himself to no one, but admitted his own imperfections from the depth of his awareness of his own failings. He did not even see the Pharisee, who was all too aware of the disgusting public sinner cowering in the shadows.
This is not some incidental moral exhortation from Jesus, who famously warns in Matthew 7:1-5, “Judge not, that you not be judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”
And Luke has already cited this famous dictum, “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven” [Luke 6: 37]. And in John we find, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment” [John 7: 24]. Paul, too, tells us in Romans 2:1 “you have no excuse,…whoever you are, when you judge another; for in passing judgment upon him you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.”
The lesson for us in today’s readings, and throughout the Bible and our common Christian tradition, is simple enough: do not be quick to condemn others, whose hearts you cannot read with the eyes of God. Be slow to criticize, quick to forgive. Do not hold grudges, and do not persecute the repentant sinner – or anyone else, for that matter.
The prophetic condemnation of injustice, oppression, and falsehood is still mandatory, however. We are not given license to blind ourselves to evil or excuse ourselves from opposing it. What we are forbidden is exalting ourselves over others, especially those we perceive to be sinful. As long as men and women do wrong, there will necessarily be the need for constant reform. Let us pray that it will be just and equitable and that our willingness to pardon and forgive will reflect the integrity and compassion of the God we profess to imitate and whose Rule we seek to follow.