On Judging to the Two Foundations- Luke 6:37-49

27 Jul

Jesus’ Sermon on the Level Place (cf. Luke 6) begins with His teaching about blessings and woes. This discourse is not intended to be a criticism of any particular social class or of the class system of first-century Palestine in general. Instead, the point is that in Heaven there will be no favourites. The saints were all created by God for the same reason: love- of God and of neighbour- no matter where they lived or what their socio-economic status was. Therefore all in Heaven live in perfect equality in the oneness of the Lord. God will humble those who were rich and never lacked for anything earthly, and those who lived in sorrow-filled exile will receive a greater abundance of joy in life everlasting.

Luke’s Gospel instructs us that our love must also extend toward our enemies: those who curse us, who are abusive, who take our belongings from us, or who do not return our kindness with kind actions of their own. This section ends with a more concrete message: we are set apart by our mercy unto others that mirrors that of the Father. Jesus tells us: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:36) But human clemency regularly falls short of that of God. We prefer to show mercy conditionally, often when this is convenient. Few are willing, though, to risk their reputation or their life for another, yet Jesus did just that for us. He loves us more than we know, though we never give the full measure of that love in return to Him. We therefore deserve to be admonished as were the first disciples:

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.” (Luke 6:37)

This passage ought to be one of the easiest to comprehend. Seemingly, its meaning is quite literal. But one must also put Jesus’ criticism and instruction of His followers here within its wider Scriptural context; much of the Sermon on the Level Place focuses on economic issues. For example, the blessings and woes compare those who have plenty of food, of money, and of human consolation to those who possess less of these. Persons who are joyful and thankful for what they have, no matter their socio-economic situation or their outward passion toward their faith, are better disposed already to enter the Kingdom of Heaven than those, especially the materially rich, who are glum and ungrateful. Much of Jesus’ exhortation to love our enemies (cf. Luke 6:29-30, also v. 33, from “What credit is that to you?”, to v. 35, “Do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.”) is also centered on the economy and on fair trading practices. The disciples are limited by the custom of receiving a just exchange for that which they have given or sold. This is a normal and acceptable mindset even nowadays; when something is sold, we expect to receive proper payment for our goods and labour, and when we are sold goods or services, we anticipate being charged the correct amount and receiving accurate change. Jesus, though, asks more of His disciples than this strict give-and-receive approach. The theme of basic economics continues in Our Lord’s address on judgment and condemnation of others.

Arguably, Jesus intends an economic message in verses 37 and 38. Most recent Biblical translations, including my own New Revised Standard Version, read: “Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.” However, the original Koine (common) Greek word in St. Luke’s Gospel from which the word ‘forgive’ is derived is ‘απολυετε’ (pronounced ‘apolyein’). According to Franciscan Robert J. Karris in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary*, ‘απολυετε’ means to pardon or to release another specifically from financial debt. Thus the interpretation of this word as signifying the forgiveness of wrongdoing is improper, writes Karris. This position differs from the more literal view offered by Fred Craddock, for instance, whose book in the ‘Interpretation’ series I’ve been referring to in my articles on the Gospel of Luke.

Karris’ argument that Jesus’ teachings about judgment, condemnation, and mercy fit the economic theme of most of the Sermon on the Level Place is more plausible, especially when one considers the following verse, “give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” (Luke 6:38 ) Here, Jesus is assuring His adherents that they will receive full recompense and more for their good works and fairness in trade dealings.

Verse 38 reminds me of when Mom bought her first bread machine. As a young child, I enjoyed helping Mom bake bread, while I experimented with different types of loaves. Not much has changed insofar as my keenness toward baking bread, especially since that old machine now resides at my house. Mom used to remind me regularly to measure accurately and not to pack the dry ingredients down, otherwise the loaf would be either too large or too small. It suffices to say that I would fail to listen to my mother on occasion, and absent-mindedly would squeeze as much flour into the measuring cup as I could instead of simply leveling it off with the flat side of a knife. As a result, the loaf would either not rise properly, or the attempt to add extra yeast to compensate would create a horrendous mess that would overflow from the pot inside the machine.

God’s overflowing blessings and mercy given to humankind are loosely analogous to those episodes with the bread machine, thankfully none of which I can recall ending up in my lap. St. Luke, writing to a largely Gentile audience about forty years after Jesus’ death, highlighted the continuous tension between mercy and justice, especially as these characteristics applied to God. Early Christians struggled in coming to terms with people who would do much evil but would be financially or otherwise successful. Was God, in His mercy, holding such people to no account for their dishonest behaviour? Meanwhile, those innocent of wrongdoing were regularly treated in unfair ways. Notably, at the time Luke wrote, Jewish people who were still anticipating a Messiah- understood as a political or military leader who would oust the Romans from Israel- experienced the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. God’s mercy seemed to clash with His justice in several instances, so people would take matters into their own hands. If God weren’t judging evildoers harshly enough, human justice would adequately fill the void.

In that context, St. Luke reminds us of Jesus’ teaching that God will judge us as we judge other people. If we condemn others, God will condemn us. However, if we show mercy, God will not only return our mercy when He accounts for our merits and our faults, but in His love He will shower us with more leniency than we are capable of imagining.

Importantly, Jesus doesn’t say or imply in Luke 6:37-42 that our judgment of fellow human beings is always inappropriate. On the contrary, His message is more about honesty: one must be at least as quick in holding one’s self accountable as in criticizing another’s faults. Otherwise, one might miss one’s own faults that could be greater than those of one’s neighbour, hence the parable about blindness toward the log in one’s own eye while one attempts to remove the speck from another person’s eye. (cf. Luke 6: 41-42) Nonetheless, Jesus’ teaching about judgment of others is often misinterpreted as a prohibition of judgment altogether. Yet St. Paul writes of humankind and then of the law as “a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” (2 Corinthians 3:3) Therefore, the Law of Christ lives deeply within us, and it is our responsibility to discern and to be faithful to it. In so doing we must be able to judge right from wrong.

Without adherence to a universal Truth, we risk falling into normative** moral relativism, where judging the practices of other societies is considered incorrect. This may progress toward subjectivism, where it becomes improper to compare other individuals’ moral standards with one’s own or against those of each other. At best, both normative relativism and subjectivism are self-referentially incoherent positions. In other words, one cannot consider judging the correctness of different moral principles of groups or individuals to be wrong; that in itself requires making a judgment. Thus, relativism is easily defeated on logical grounds. Even more critically, as written by Jean-Bethke Elshtain, an ethicist at the University of Chicago, moral relativism creates a society dependent upon what individuals ‘feel’ to be true. Such a position is opposed to moral accountability and potentially creates a society of ‘victims’ who place blame on other persons and make excuses for their own failures. Elshtain wrote that “the elimination of the possibility of judgment, the evacuation of the very capacity of judging, would spell the end of the human subject as a self-respecting, accountable being. Judging is a sign, a mark, of our respect for the dignity of others and ourselves.” Proper judgment has its place, according to Elshtain: “‘Judge not’ is, then, not an injunction to spineless acceptance but a caution against peremptory legalisms that leave no space for acts of compassion and witness.” (Jean-Bethke Elshtain, “Judge Not?”, in “First Things”, October, 1994, available at http://www.leaderu.com/ftissues/ft9410/articles/elshtain.html)

After His warning about hasty judgment by His disciples, Jesus sets up two further comparisons that St. Luke records: that of a tree and its fruit (cf. Luke 43-45), and that of the two foundations (cf. Luke 46-49). St. Matthew also mentions both discourses, as well as Jesus’ restriction on imprudent judgment (cf. Matthew 7:15-20, 21-27, and 1-5, respectively), although he scatters these stories throughout the larger context of the Sermon on the Mount. Conversely, Luke places all three teachings together, likely following the “Q” document (“Q” is short for the Greek “quelle”, or “source”), from which the Synoptic Gospels were drawn, more closely.

Our Lord teaches, “The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks”. (Luke 6:45) The priest whom I credit for inspiring me to read the Gospel of Luke attentively, and to a lesser extent to write about it, has said that one’s actions bear witness to the condition of one’s soul. This is similar to Christ’s words here. Jesus shapes His instruction around an agrarian metaphor- that of trees and the fruit they carry. Different plants, whether in this case the fig tree or the grape vine, produce different fruits. Thorns and bramble bushes are incapable of allowing for the growth of grapes or figs. Likewise, each of us has a particular temperament. Some people are naturally more serene, whereas persons like me tend to be passionate and slightly impatient at times. Nonetheless, our personalities are gifts from God that are meant to be employed for His glorification. God invites us to use our strengths and to offer up our weaknesses in contrite prayer to Him.

This involves not only confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord, but also acting upon our belief. (cf. Luke 6:46). Otherwise, any confession of faith we make is meaningless. St. Paul’s letters to the Romans and to the Philippians emphasize that:

“If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9) “At the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in Heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father…for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” (Philippians 2: 10-11, 13)

Working with God, we will be able to withstand the flood that will destroy dwellings without foundations. We will have built houses founded upon the rock of charity within us, with Christ as the cornerstone; therefore we need never be afraid of the ruin of our souls. (cf. Luke 6:48-49)

Lord, may we confess our allegiance to You and also act upon our faith. Enable us to open our hearts to you and to our neighbour. May charity, mercy, and honesty toward ourselves and others always surpass our desire to rush to judgment. May we be just and true as You are. Amen.



*- I refer in this article to Robert J. Karris, O.F.M. in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. Raymond S. Brown, S.S., Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J, and Roland E. Murphy, O.Carm., Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall Inc., 1990, p. 695.

**-In philosophy, a normative statement is one that prescribes what one ought or ought not to do, for example, “Do not judge”. This differs from a descriptive statement, whereby one conveys an observation, for example, “Jesus’ disciples were corrected because of their hasty judgment of other people.”

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