Monday 8 December 2014

Making Judgments

With some lines and ideas from my colleague, Margaret Killingray, I contributed this week’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

Not so the wicked!
They are like chaff
that the wind blows away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.
For the LORD watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.
Psalm 1:4-6

How do we read passages like these, which talk about the ‘righteous’ and the ‘wicked’? Does everyone fall into one of these categories? Isn’t life – and aren’t people – more complicated than that? Yet, as unpalatable as it might sound, in Matthew 7:13-27, Jesus himself speaks about two ways (one which leads to life, one which leads to destruction), two trees (one which bears fruit, one which doesn’t), and two houses (one built on rock, one built on sand).

As it happens, the psalm itself fills out what is meant by being ‘righteous’ or ‘wicked’. It lays two ways before its readers – a contrast not just between the righteous and the wicked, but the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked. Here is a promise not only that the wicked will perish, but all that wickedness stands for will one day pass away, alongside a guarantee that the Lord ‘watches over the way of the righteous’.

None of this is because we are naturally good. The ‘righteous’ in the Old Testament are those who have been brought into covenant relationship with God, through his grace, who then seek to live within the terms of the covenant – even if they don’t always manage to do so consistently. We know from elsewhere in Scripture that ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23), and we are saved only ‘by grace... through faith’, which is not from ourselves, but is ‘the gift of God’ (Ephesians 2:8-9).

Jesus told a parable about wheat and weeds growing together in the same field until the final harvest. The over-enthusiastic servants who ask whether they should pull up the weeds are told by the owner, ‘Let both grow together until the harvest’ (Matthew 13:30). What looks like a weed today may actually turn out to be wheat. God alone makes the final judgment call.

In everyday life, there are moments to challenge wickedness and admire righteousness – in Christians as well as non-Christians, and sometimes in the same person. Still, the task of judging which category people belong to can, and probably should, be left to God, in the exercise of his complete love and perfect justice. Meanwhile, as we continue to serve the Lord, we can trust that he will watch over our ways.

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