TO JUDGE THE LIVING AND THE DEAD
by Jamie Gladly
When I drafted this post on December 23, I had just dropped my 16yo off at court. My husband was meeting him there; my job was to send him off with a prayer: Let him find a good judge waiting in the courtroom, Lord. Let him learn the lessons he needs to learn.
The matter before the court was a speeding violation, a 16yo boy going 34 miles per hour. (The kindly police officer told him to go to traffic school, hence the court visit.) All of us, though, will one day find ourselves before a capital-J Judge on a much more serious question: what did we do with the life he gave us?
The Bible is peppered with references to God as judge: the just judge, the righteous judge, the one who judges uprightly, the one whose judgments are unsearchable. The day before Christmas Eve was a good day to be reflecting on this question, because that day’s O antiphon calls Jesus the legifer, the law-bearer. This title recalls Moses’ descent from Sinai, stone tablets in his hands. Moses also prefigured Jesus in his role as judge. This parallel makes sense: where there are laws, we need interpreters of those laws. Those who understand the law most intimately are best equipped to judge the people under its rule.
Our culture, though, seems reluctant to acknowledge Jesus as judge. Did you see that post-Phil-Robertson-interview meme in your Facebook feed, about Jesus the anti-slut-shaming revolutionary? Of course we need to remember that Jesus said to the woman taken in adultery, “Neither do I condemn you.” He also said, “Go and sin no more.” These two truths about God’s nature, his judgment of our sin and his mercy in our weakness, will always be in tension. As cultures wax and wane, the emphasis changes. Though mercy is more in vogue these days, God’s judgment is still central to his identity.
“Judgmental,” I think, is our generation’s “cowardly”: the insult that triggers an instant wave of shame. In a childhood spent reading older books, I remember being puzzled about the humiliation associated with fear. It was the post-Vietnam Free-To-Be-You-And-Me era, and I found it much more understandable that a person would acknowledge fear, even unreasonable fear that conflicted with duty, than that he would do something brave regardless of the consequences. Wise judgment demands courage because it requires a person to take a stand, to be willing to be unpopular.
“Wise” is the key word there: some aspects of God’s character we tend to imitate badly. If we think we’re feeling righteous anger, it’s prudent to remember that we’re on treacherous ground. Similarly, “judgmental” is an epithet for a reason. Exercising wise judgment is hard. Remember how tired Moses was?
A judge’s work is isolating as well as difficult. In his title, in his clothing, in his physical position in the courtroom (and, in Britain, in his hair), a judge is set apart. Holiness is an essential trait of the righteous judge; intimacy with God sets him apart. When Moses encountered the back of God’s glory, he was too radiant for the Israelites to behold. How much more so for Jesus, who was himself the refulgence of the Father’s glory?
We are more comfortable with Jesus the baby, Jesus the meek, than with the Jesus of the Last Judgment, separating the sheep and the goats. Each time we repeat the Creed we are prompted to remember the whole picture, the Lord who blends judgment and mercy with wisdom beyond cultural vagaries. At this point in the liturgical year we continue to welcome a baby; we must recall also that the purpose of his first coming was to prepare us for the second. When the earth welcomes Jesus again it will be as the rider called Faithful and True, the one who judges justly, and who wages war.
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What are your thoughts? What else can we learn from “to judge the living and the dead”?
Jamie Gladly is a Midwestern mother of five who blogs at Light and Momentary.
Read all the entries in the Blog Series: Credo: Professing the Creed for the Year of Faith.