Judgment: Surprise, surprise!

Don: It seems that God’s plan was for Him and us to live together in harmonious unity. In the garden of Eden, the prohibition against eating the fruit of the tree of good and evil made it unnecessary for us to discriminate between good and bad, right and wrong. It was God’s divine prerogative to make such judgment.

On the face of it, though, the difference between good and bad seems obvious enough to us and we make judgments all the time about whether an action is consequently good or bad. But our perspective, vision, and context is limited, incomplete, and (often) self-serving. God’s view is whole, complete, infinite, and unbiased.

Turning points we encounter in life often seem different in retrospect than they seemed at the time when they occurred. Things that looked good once may look bad later. Without omniscience, ultimate assurance of right or wrong, good or bad, is difficult if not impossible.

All the great religions believe that God judges wo/men at the conclusion of their lives, and rewards or punishes them according to how well and how badly they behaved in life. Furthermore, they believe that God’s judgments are actionable in the afterlife—that we are punished with hell or rewarded with heaven.

Archaeologists have unearthed prehistoric burial pots containing articles of daily life—food, clothing, jewelry, shoes, tools—implying that even prehistoric people had belief in life after death.

The parables we have discussed recently have all touched upon the issue of judgment and revealed the teaching of Jesus on the topic. This one is worth repeating for our discussion today:

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. When he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the market place; and to those he said, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.’ And so they went. Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did the same thing. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing around; and he *said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day long?’ They *said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He *said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’

“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard *said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last group to the first.’ When those hired about the eleventh hour came, each one received a denarius. When those hired first came, they thought that they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they grumbled at the landowner, saying, ‘These last men have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day.’ But he answered and said to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go, but I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?’ So the last shall be first, and the first last.” (Matthew 20:1-16)

Three clear concepts emerge from this parable: First, there is a clear invitation to enter into a relationship with God (“to work in the landowner’s vineyard”). It is very similar to the message in the parable of the Wedding Feast, to which everyone is invited. While the landowner invites everyone to work, the host of the wedding feast invites everyone to party; but the point is that everyone is invited in either case.

The second concept to note is that God’s initiation of the invitations is persistent. The landowner hires workers all day long,…

But do not let this one fact escape your notice, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day. (2 Peter 3:8)

The point is that the invitation to enter the kingdom of heaven is always open.

The third concept is that judgment and reward are the prerogative of the landowner and the host of the wedding feast—i.e., of God.

It seems both counterintuitive and unfair that workers hired near the end of the day should be paid as much as those who came first thing in the morning and worked all day. But it shows that God’s grace is overwhelmingly operative in judgment. Our human concepts of cause and effect, of the proper ordering of first and last, and of “earnings” are not God’s concepts, not His way. The parable shows that the amount of our work is neither here nor there: All that matters is that we show up, that we accept the invitation.

Judgment is full of surprises. Those who worked all day were surprised that those who only worked for an hour received the same pay. (The parable doesn’t say so explicitly but we can assume that the people who only worked an hour were just as surprised.) The wedding guests, too–especially the down-and-outs—would have been surprised to be invited off the street.

Jesus emphasized that judgment was a divine matter, and not for us:

“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’” (Matthew 7:21-23)


“Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at 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,’ and behold, the log is 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.” (Matthew 7:1-5)

He warned, too, that we would be in for a surprise:

“But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left.

“Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’

“Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.’ Then they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?’ Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 7:31-46)

Everyone is surprised. Nobody seems able correctly to predict the outcome of their judgment. Should we be concerned about that? How can we rely on our own self-assessment, especially one based on the cause-and-effect model we so slavishly rely on in daily life but which is irrelevant on the day of judgment? Why bother to try to be good if it makes no difference in the end? Would it not be more fun to be bad? If we are saved by grace anyway, why is judgment even necessary? What is the relationship between grace and judgment?

David: Going back as far as we can in human history, or at least 2000 years back to the time of Christ, we might ask if we are more moral than people back then. I don’t think so. I think modern Wo/Man is just as surprised at the judgment Jesus described as were His contemporaries and as (I believe) would have been prehistoric Wo/Man. However, surprise was not justified then nor is it justified today, because we have always had the inner light to show us the way, to tell us what is right and wrong. Surprised or not, we are attracted by the notion of judgment as Jesus described it because it confirms what we already know, albeit vaguely. We can tell right from wrong because God is inside us telling us—or, at least, hinting at—what is right and wrong. But when we ignore or smother the divine inner light and turn instead to our human intellect to determine right and wrong (which is exactly what we tend to do) then we are bound to end up being surprised at the divine judgment.

Kiran: The wedding guest who did not wear the robe was surprised to be cast out. He evidently thought his own garment was OK since he was “in” already. Likewise, the workers who worked all day were surprised to discover that earnings were not based on time worked. They thought that they would be the landowner’s favorites, as measured by the difference in earnings between them and the tardier workers.

So I too sometimes wonder: Why not be bad? But the answer always comes back that I am bound by the goodness of God. He is so gracious to me; how can I not pass that on to others? I stray sometimes, but I always come back. Some people have a hard time accepting the message so struggle with making the change, though.

Donald: Making a bad decision—showing poor judgment—is not necessarily sinful. Human judgment and divine judgment are not the same. I am much more comfortable with the idea that at my judgment, God will find me to have been faithful, than I am with the idea that He will find me to have made few or no bad decisions. I know I am a sinner. God knows I try not to be, but I am. We are all different, but God knows the heart of each of us. We have to have faith in Him independent of our sinful nature.

Should we try to be good to be saved at the judgment, or simply because it is the right way to live? Why do we want to be bad?

John: If you eat well, it gives you peace and satisfaction. You don’t have to worry about anything. You sleep well.

Kiran: If I am selfish, I don’t care about the consequences of my actions on others. Now, I concentrate on thinking about such consequences, as a way to avoid them. When you love God, that is what you have to do. Whether you will go to heaven or hell is irrelevant. Sometimes I sleep badly, but not from fear of hell—only from fear that my behavior might have hurt someone else.

Don: I find our surprise at the judgment puzzling and even distressing. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised, because of the inner light; but we are so prone to measuring ourselves against our own standards that we are surprised when told we don’t measure up. Are the parables designed to show us that our behavior is really inconsequential?

John: Sometimes trying to be good to others has unintended bad consequences. Sometimes others tempt us to join them in some bad behavior. Sometimes they try to prevent our doing good because they feel we are taking something from them, as the all-day vineyard workers probably felt about the one-hour workers. Maybe all things work together for good, but sometimes life doesn’t feel like it is working out that way!

Donald: The crux of the matter seems to be selfishness.

David: In old times, people were terrified of the (to them, literally hellish) consequences of being judged wanting. Today’s Christians seem less concerned about this consequence. Is it because they place more faith in God’s grace than the early Christians did? I am less surprised at the divine judgment Jesus described than I am about the consequences He described. It concerns me that He talked about being cast into outer darkness and burning in everlasting fire and so on.

Humans and perhaps some of the higher animals seem to me to have the capacity to divine (a telling verb!) right from wrong. But it is not an intellectual capacity—it is a spiritual capacity. Any surprise we feel at judgment is intellectual surprise, not spiritual surprise.

Donald: We’ve been taught that if we end up in heaven we may be horrified to think of those who do not make it there with us, but will come to understand why they did not—we will come to understand God’s judgment. It is not for us to criticize His judgment.

Don: Yet that picture is not what the parables suggest. He rounded up all of humanity—good and bad, tardy and prompt—it didn’t matter to Him—to come to the wedding feast, to be paid full wages in the vineyard. At the wedding, the fact that there was only one single guest—among an uncountable number—who was thrown out serves to emphasize how easy it is to get into heaven!

Donald: Yet we are also taught that the way is so narrow that we might as well consider ourselves doomed!

David: The goodness or badness of people for whom the way is broad is irrelevant, for they are sufferers. They are the blessed of the Beatitudes.

(Question: With regard to the single rejection at the wedding feast: Could that have been the Devil?)

Kiran: It’s hard to love people regardless of how they treat you, but it’s what we must do.

Donald: We want to be told exactly what the rules are, so that we know exactly what to do. The uncertainty bothers us.

Don: And surprises us.

Donald: Yet we have the truth!

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