Sir 35:12-14, 16-19
2 Tim 4:6-8, 16-18
Luke 18: 9-14
Judges these days tend to be controversial – at least in the news media. Some are too lenient with their sentencing, others have their rulings overturned, still others seem too harsh or just say stupid things. Occasionally, a local judge gets convicted of fixing traffic tickets for friends, and Chicago is no stranger to judicial scandals of even greater importance. Both our expectations that judges should be exemplary figures of discretion, moral rectitude, and wisdom and our experience of judges as fallible, often faulty human beings, as sinners, form the background of today’s readings.
If you are of a certain age, you will remember Flip Wilson’s announcement “Here come de judge!” In a few weeks, the season of Advent will begin, during which we look forward to the coming of the Son of Man who will give just judgment to the nations of the world. In the meantime, our lives are pretty well involved with lesser judges of all kinds, from traffic court to the Supreme Court. Those I have met seem to be exemplary. But unjust judges are not a novelty. Today’s readings call on us to reflect on the great tradition of the importance of just judgment among the Jews of old and problems that even Jesus would face when faced with unjust judgment.
The Hebrew word for Judge, both noun and verb, is shaphat, which means to pronounce sentence, which could include both punishment or vindication, as well as a host of other things — to rule, govern, legislate, or avenge, among others. Judges were expected to be men of the highest moral and spiritual character, as they are even today. Even the semblance of immorality was to be avoided.
Not surprisingly, there is hardly a figure of greater disrepute in Scripture than the unjust judge. The diatribes against wicked priests and false rulers pale next to the scorn lavished on the unjust judge, which was no more an oxymoron in ancient Israel or Roman Judea as it is today.
The first reading from the Book of Sirach provides a concise portrait of the true judge, one like God who hears the voice of the widow, the orphan, and the illegal alien. God is not impressed by social status or titles, but searches the heart. And to all accounts, what God is looking for is humility, not moral flawlessness. God knows we are sinners. The problem seems to be whether we do.
The second reading focuses more directly on God as the only truly just judge, not only because God is Justice itself and despises injustice, but because only God is able to read the thoughts of our hearts. Only God truly knows what lies within us and 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.”
The story of the Publican and the Pharisee follows directly on Luke’s account of the parable of the unjust judge. It is a cautionary tale, if you like, about judging others — or, rather, refusing to. The tax collector compared himself to no one, but admitted his own imperfections from the depth of his awareness of his own heart. 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, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.” [John 7: 24]
So 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 spiritual tradition, is simple enough then: 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 household of faith is not immune to the trap of comparative self-canonization!
The prophetic condemnation of injustice, or oppression, or falseness is still mandatory, however. We are not given license to blind ourselves to evil or excuse ourselves from speaking out against it. What we are forbidden is exalting ourselves over anyone, especially those we perceive to be sinful. As long as men and women do evil, there will necessarily be judgment. Let us pray that it will be just and equitable and that our willingness to pardon and forgive will not be less than that of the God we profess to imitate and whose rule we seek to follow.