Don: In our discussion to date, we seem to have arrived at six principles regarding judgment:
- There is a judgment, and everyone is subject to it.
- Judgment is counterintuitive—everyone is surprised by his or her judgment.
- There can be joy in judgment.
- Judgment is a divine, not a human, prerogative.
- Judgment is linked to how we judge others.
- The quantitative outcome of judgment tends strongly to the positive rather than to the negative.
We’ve also noted that Jesus had much to say on the topic, particularly as He approached the end of His ministry.
Today I would like to propose a new paradigm for judgment; namely, that what is judged is simply our willingness to accept God’s grace. To put it another way: Our destiny is shaped by our willingness to accept God’s grace. Many parables support this paradigm.
Jesus knew that grace is a commodity so difficult that it is hard even to give away. The parable of the Rich Young Ruler makes the point:
And someone came to Him and said, “Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?” And He said to him, “Why are you asking Me about what is good? There is only One who is good; but if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” Then he said to Him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not commit murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother; and You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to Him, “All these things I have kept; what am I still lacking?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But when the young man heard this statement, he went away grieving; for he was one who owned much property.
And Jesus said to His disciples, “Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were very astonished and said, “Then who can be saved?” And looking at them Jesus said to them, “With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:16-26)
The rich young man asked how he could reach a favorable judgment that would lead to eternal life. The central criterion seems to be a willingness to relinquish the work of one’s own hands, to relinquish one’s own good deeds and righteous acts, and the profit therefrom, in favor of faith and trust in God. In short, we must be willing to exchange our own effort for the grace of God.
The answer Jesus gave the rich young man provides two important principles about judgment: (1) It is not about human goodness, since nothing is good but God; (2) Whatever the criteria might be, the act of judgment is something only God can do.
In contrast to the rich young aristocrat, Zaccheus, a hated (and rich) tax collector, willingly gave up half of his possessions, and was saved:
He entered Jericho and was passing through. And there was a man called by the name of Zaccheus; he was a chief tax collector and he was rich. Zaccheus was trying to see who Jesus was, and was unable because of the crowd, for he was small in stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree in order to see Him, for He was about to pass through that way. When Jesus came to the place, He looked up and said to him, “Zaccheus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” And he hurried and came down and received Him gladly. When they saw it, they all began to grumble, saying, “He has gone to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” Zaccheus stopped and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” (Luke 19:1-10)
Zaccheus was deficient in physical height (hence his need to climb a tree to see Jesus over the crowd) and in spirit. He sought to overcome his deficiencies through his own effort (climbing the tree). Jesus invited him down from his tree—and from his spiritual height such as it was—in order to experience the presence of the judge of all Mankind. The short, declarative sentence: “…hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house” is telling. There was no time to be lost, Zaccheus had to come down from his perch, and Jesus had to stay at his house—it was personal. Grace is urgent, essential, and personal. Zaccheus accepted all this and did so gladly, with joy. It is vital to note that it was God’s grace—not Zaccheus’ willingness to give half his wealth to the poor—that brought “salvation…to this house.” Zaccheus responded to the grace he was given by willingly passing it on to others. In contrast, the rich young ruler wanted to hoard what he had been given.
David: It seems to me that what is given up is not possessions but selfhood. The poor and the oppressed and others in the Beatitudes would have had no possessions to speak of—they had nothing left to give but their selves. The Prodigal Son had nothing left when he threw himself—by now, an empty shell—upon his father’s grace. Not all of us have material possessions, but each and every one of us has a self, which we must give up in order to receive God’s grace.
Donald: Many of us identify with our possessions. Giving up our identity, our sense of self, is indeed a very, very difficult thing to do. I remain somewhat confused. Grace is accepting Christ, but giving up one’s self for Christ seems to be a different thing.
Michael: Sometimes Jesus sets criteria we can align with; but sometimes they are impossible (in practice) for us to follow. “Don’t look at another woman or you are committing adultery! Give up everything! If your eye does something bad then pluck it out! If it’s your arm then chop it off!” and so on. So grace is our only alternative, if I am understanding this correctly.
Robin: You are talking about works, in contrast to faith.
Donald: Faith is about grace and our acceptance of Christ; works are our behavior. We seem to be trying to tie them together, but we tend to see them as separate entities.
Robin: I think the important thing is to get them in the right order. Our behavior should change in response to the revelations and acceptance of grace. Our behavior does not earn us grace.
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God. (John 3:16-21)
A decision to follow the darkness instead of the light is not work—it is just a decision. But having made a decision to follow the light, it is not easy, as Michael pointed out, to do so. The key thing is to make the decision—to prefer the light over the dark. To be saved, we must want to be saved.
Aishwarya: Giving up possessions and giving up sin are indeed difficult in human terms. But if we do good works because we feel it’s our duty to do so, then it is that much easier to give up our possessions. To the extent they work hard, company workers often seem to do so mainly with an eye to promotion, not because it’s the right thing to do. So, it seems to me, with God’s grace: We should live life as we feel it is our duty to live it, not because we expect to be rewarded. It is easier to give up things if we don’t look for them.
David: The good people in the Judgment passage had treated others with care and concern because it seemed to them to be the right thing to do. They were surprised to be rewarded with a place in heaven.
Donald: What is the rationale, or the motive, for giving to the poor or visiting people in prison? Is it a recognition of the difference, between giver and recipient, in needs, and in the ability to meet those needs?
Anonymous: It is something inside us that motivates us to give. It is not the object of compassion. Sometimes the seemingly needy are just frauds. We give because something inside us tells us to.
Donald: We don’t want to be selfish. If we don’t give, we appear selfish.
Anonymous: Sometimes we don’t give because we don’t have enough faith to believe that God will make it up to us.
Donald: I am not sure we think of our own needs and desires in that case.
Jay: I don’t think I understand what it means to accept God’s grace. I don’t know what it looks like. I can’t tell from other people’s faces if they have received it. Could we tell somehow, without knowing the events that happened to them, that the rich young ruler did not accept grace but Zaccheus did? How would we know?
Don: The joyous impoverishment of Zaccheus versus the joyless lifestyle of the rich young man might provide a clue. The key to accepting grace is to divest one’s self of something, in order to become selfless. In what proportion, I don’t know, but the passing on of grace is evidence of having received it.
Kiran: There is also a discernible gratitude component—Zaccheus showed it when he received grace. The woman Jesus saved from being stoned to death showed it in return for the grace she received. Paul lived simply but was always professing his gratitude for what he had. It might not be immediately obvious but will manifest itself over time. One is unlikely to get this sense of sincere gratitude from people who have refused grace because they think they don’t need it, like the Pharisee whose thanks to God for not being like other people ring hollow.
David: Where we go seriously wrong, it seems to me, is in seeking to discern on a rational basis. To the extent it can occur at all, true discernment can occur only internally, via the inner spirit, not via intellectual analysis of external sensory signals. The inner spirit is God. The intellect is self. Whether or not we think of ourselves as religious or spiritual, we often call the inner spirit “conscience” and we often tell our selves to do as our conscience urges. Intuitively, we know that our conscience is not part of our selves. Discernment is a tricky thing. Jesus (in my reading of Him) told us clearly enough not to mess with it intellectually.
Chris: The concept of grace should be comforting, yet I find it scary because it seems to require going against human nature. First, we have to give up control over our own lives; and second, we have to admit our faults in order to recognize our need for grace. Both of these are very hard for us to do.
Robin: As children we are told we must learn to “control ourselves.”
Kiran: Even after accepting grace, can we really know that we have received it, when we seem unable to help but retain some sin in us? If we help someone in need even though our intellect is screaming against it, can’t we only conclude that we are being driven by something divine, not something rational? Unfortunately, we tend to resist the divine.
Don: The paradox of grace is that it seems, on the face of it, so easy to accept. Who could turn down a free pass for sin? Muslims and others are aghast at what seems to them to be an evil concept. Jesus Himself said (if not in exactly these words) that it is extremely difficult for the divine to give away grace.
David: It seems we are most inclined to accept grace only when we appear to have no choice—when we have reached the end of our tether. I sense that Zaccheus was hurting badly, whereas the rich young ruler was just seeking to hedge his bets. The Publican was beating his breast in anguish, while the Pharisee next to him was preening in self-worshipful prayer. A mid-life crisis might make us feel like we have reached the end of our tether, but have we? One thing we can be sure of: We all come to the end of our tether when we die. And that must surely be the moment when the acceptance of grace is most critical.
Donald: We like to think we control our destiny, but we all know we don’t, really. We fight against unwanted circumstances—we seek to control them.
Jay: There seems to be a dichotomy between accepting grace and passing it on. On the one hand, we should do nothing—just passively accept the grace, since we cannot control the future; on the other hand, we should do something with the grace we have accepted. Perhaps doing something with grace follows naturally from receiving it. But in any case, the choice of doing something with grace or doing nothing (hoarding it) implies that we do in fact have some control over our future!
Donald: If we are dying, we have no control over the future, so it is easy to accept and pass on grace.
Michael: Jesus simply told Zaccheus to “Come down!” but He told the rich young ruler to give up everything he owned. Surely Zaccheus had it much easier…!?
Chris: If we are not sure we have received grace (or love, or kindness, or anything else, for that matter) then how are we able to pass it on? If we accept it, perhaps there is a natural gratitude that drives us to pass it on.
Donald: Is it necessary to consider grace and judgment together? It seems we can talk about grace alone. Can judgment be considered alone?
Don: Jesus seems to tie them together in the parables. That He devoted so much time and effort to His parables must mean that they contain very important messages. We will continue to examine them in this light, for messages about grace and judgment that God wants us to see. But all perspectives are welcome!
Anonymous: People don’t like the light because it exposes their bad deeds. So the judgment is not against them—it is for them, but they refuse it!
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