The Bounds of Judgment

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Such harsh words from Jesus, this coming Sunday: Unless you repent, you will perish as they did. (Lk. 13:3, 5) Perish the thought, I murmur to myself. Who said Jesus is the nice guy? Nicer, many people have told me, than the so-called vengeful god of the Old Testament.

 

Now, don’t get me wrong. Jesus thoughtfully lined this dark cloud of judgment with the silver of hope. The impotent tree receives a one-year reprieve. God, Jesus is saying, can be long-suffering. The question remains, “Will the tree produce fruit by the end of that year?” A tree is a tree, incapable of choice, of purchasing a self-help book to improve its production capabilities.

 

Only one year, and I thank God from the depths of my questionable heart for the excessive space of five and ten and even twenty years’ reprieve that God has accorded me from time to time.  Yet, Jesus’ point regarding judgment, hyperbolic or not, seems obvious: God may be long-suffering, but not forever. Or, more to the point, God’s patience – or impatience – is completely out of my control. God will be bound neither by my timetable nor the forty days of Lent. God is uncontrollable, unknowable, and unpredictable. Except for one character trait. See below.

 

Isaiah speaks hopeful words in juxtaposition to Jesus’. Seek the Lord while he wills to be found, he intones in canticle. Let the wicked forsake their way. “Let”, as in “allow” or “permit.” Permit the wicked to forsake their way. Give these ne’re do wells space, whatever space it will take, for some day, the lost child like the prodigal might return home. Long-suffering, for the Lord richly pardons. Richly, as in wealthy and ridiculously extravagant, God lavishes grace richly.

 

Still, Jesus seems to have mangled theodicy. It sounds like he is saying that bad things happen because of judgment, God’s judgment. Unless you repent, you will likewise perish … just like those Galileans whose blood Pilate mingled with the blood of sacrifices; or, just like those Muslims killed in their Christchurch  mosque. Is evil God’s tool for judgment? Perish the thought, I again protest.

 

I am aware that I am arguing with Jesus, but he’s a rabbi and can handle it. The pastor in me answers the theodicy question differently from Jesus. We live in a broken world that contains evil like the oceans contain water. Both water and evil exist and are bounded. Our problem is that we are fish in that ocean. Evil happens to us. The question isn’t – at least now – why God allows bad things – or evil – to happen. The question is, why can’t God prevent it? Evil happens outside of God’s purview, as in stuff happens, as in this world is broken.

 

Importantly, God sheds buckets of tears before any of the rest of us sheds a single one. Soulful, soul-wrenching sobs, at each mass-shooting, at any shooting whatsoever, at the apparent victory of evil in whatever form it takes. God suffers when the children suffer, these children of God. Whoever they are; wherever they are.

 

Yet, Jesus’ line in the sand appears unambiguous, dividing good from evil, and by consequence, the repentant from the unrepentant. Where is Jesus’ line? What is repentance?

 

Sin is not about being perfect (or not being perfect, as the case may be). God isn’t look for good people. God is looking for open hearts. Sin is far less about the things one does (or fails to do) than it is about the geography of the soul. Where do I choose to build my spiritual home? Here, or there? This side of the line, or that? Every farmer or vintner knows that the quality of the fruit depends upon where one chooses to plant the tree. It’s about the soil.

 

And the soil is rich on the grace-side of Jesus’ line. I know. I have lived on both sides, often at the same time. I have hardened my heart. Found myself to be defensive, intransigent, unwilling to forgive others, and by extension, unable to receive forgiveness. Alternatively, I have crossed over  the line – moved to that place where I became soft-shelled, and vulnerable, open to and forgiving of others, once realizing how very much grace I, myself, required. By this point in my life, one might have thought I had reached the limits even of lavish grace, but grace does not seem to be temporal. It seems to be eternal.

 

Lines. The problem with lines is this: the world, the kingdom, and all of eternity is not divided by lines. Like I said, I live on both sides of Jesus’ hyperbole. I stand judged. And I stand in reprieve. The reason for this apparent paradox is simple: the Lord wills to be found. And so, I seek.

 

What is the one predictable and knowable character trait of God, the one through which all others are refracted? Love. For us. Above all else. The predictability of love makes God eminently trustworthy. Love is the only lens through which to read Jesus’ challenging words. The only way to view judgment.

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Gary Nowlin
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Gary Nowlin

Sometimes Jesus is talking eternal truths but sometimes he is reflecting on events of his time. This is an example. The fig tree is the nation. If it revolts against Rome it will be destroyed. The people whom the tower fell were not being punished because they were great sinners. Neither will it be a punishment for sin when Rome destroys the nation. But it doesn't have to happen. There is still time to reject the dream of an earthly kingdom for a spiritual one.

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