Archive for the ‘Gospels’ Category

Some time ago a good friend of mine wrote a note, in the midst of a set of truly appalling circumstances, about the importance of non-judgment. For, she said, we don’t really know what anyone is up against. We do not know the history of the one whose action we judge. And, if we were given the history and circumstances of those we judge, would we have done better? 

Nothing in the note, especially given the circumstances it addressed, was wrong. Quite the contrary, in its place it was exactly right. And yet, after reading it through twice, I had a nagging thought that it was incomplete. Yet that’s about all that anyone is willing to say publicly about judgment these days: “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” There is more that needs to be said, though, and hardly anyone is saying it.

Hi Ed Nathan Jr.

Thus saith the kidnappers of Nathan Arizona, Jr.: “Now y’all without sin can cast the first stone.”


The thing more that needs saying has to do with the distinction between appraising and condemning. The connotations attached to these two words are quite different, though both can be used as synonyms for judging. Appraising and condemning may sometimes be distinguished in their effects, but more often in their respective intentions and underlying assumptions. The condemning man, when pointing a finger at a wrongdoer, doesn’t stop to think whether he’d have done any better — but probably assumes he would have. The appraising man also does not stop to think whether he’d have done better, but for a very different reason: what he would have done isn’t the standard.

There’s a reason the demanding teacher — the relentlessly critical appraiser of thoughts and words — is an archetypal character. And it’s no accident that under that archetype’s crusty exterior is a heart of gold. The exacting teacher is the one who cares. It is precisely because he does care that he will push his students to and just beyond the point they think of as “the limit” — but not so far beyond them that the students will break. The teacher knows the standard for all is wisdom, virtue, and high beauty, and that only great exertion will get us there.


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In Socrates’s last weeks, questions of piety and impiety were not the window-dressing of life. They were, on the contrary, quite literally a matter of life and death. He had been indicted on a charge of impiety, corrupting Athenian youths by teaching novel doctrines — he was a “god-maker” and did not give the old gods their due. He would shortly be tried and convicted on that charge, and then executed.


The Eagle, the symbol of St. John, as shown in the Four Gospels plate of the Book of Kells.

It is against that background that one must read the dilemma Socrates put to Euthyphro: Is piety loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?[1] It is easy for us to dismiss Socrates’s question as philosophical play — fitting for a boy, deserving of a whipping for a man (as Callicles put it elsewhere)[2]. But a man about to stand trial for impiety needs some idea of what piety means for a very practical reason: to defend himself. So we may suppose Socrates to have been completely in earnest. And his question is an important one. It would be a strange thing to worship a god who didn’t come into existence until after “the good,” and was subservient to “the good.” It would be terrible, however, to worship a god who could alter “good” arbitrarily — say, to make hate “good” and “love” bad.

St John the Evangelist lived a few centuries after Socrates, in a different part of the Mediterranean region. He was a Jew, not a Greek, though he wrote in Greek and his writings show some familiarity with Greek thought. So we should not be surprised that the prologue of John’s gospel, though its primary purpose is to place the life of Jesus of Nazareth within the life of the one God of Israel — God the Creator who spoke creation and life into being, God the Redeemer who dwelt in the Tabernacle and led the Israelites out of Egypt — also addresses the Greek world by John’s use of the word logos. The prologue’s opening phrases also happen to address (probably unintentionally) the dilemma Socrates put to Euthyphro.

The first character to appear in St John’s prologue is the “Word”that is, the divine logos. In the beginning, the logos was. While “word” is a good translation for logos in John — connecting John’s prologue with God’s act of creation by speech in Genesis 1 — it isn’t a comprehensive translation. If you hear the echoes of our word logic, and the suffix -ology, in logos, you’re not hearing things. While logos conveys the sense of word as speech-act, it also conveys rationality. And John says that, no matter how far back in time one might travel, or if it were possible to go back to before the dawn of time, the Word, the logos, would still be there. And it would not be subject to change upon the whim of any deity.

But no matter how far back in time one might travel — even if one went back to before the dawn of time — the logos would not be there alone. He would be with Someone. He would not just be sitting alongside that Someone in a passive Aristotelian kind of way, nor at war with Him in a Zeus-versus-Kronos kind of way, but facing Him, engaging with Him with a quality of attention and affection that we can hardly begin to imagine. Or, as John puts it: “And the Word was with God.”

John’s first two phrases, without more, almost solve Socrates’s dilemma. For if goodness and sound logic are comprehended within the word logos, then goodness — Socrates’s piety — has always existed, and is not subject to change. Moreover, that logos has always existed with God, neither apart from God nor in competition with Him. So one might say, without proceeding beyond John’s first two phrases, that if God and the pious logos are co-eternal, always together, fully engaged with one another and of one mind, then we have a set of conditions that cuts the horns off Socrates’s dilemma. But John isn’t done, and his third phrase resolves the dilemma beyond all doubt:

“And what God was, the Word was.”

The three statements, taken together, read like this: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and what God was, the Word was.” John calls the Word eternal, eternally in relationship with the God who called himself, simply, “I am,” and eternally in full possession and enjoyment of the character, nature and identity of that God, whose nature encompasses, indeed actively embraces, the Word’s piety. John solves Socrates’s old mystery by the plain statement of the eternal Mystery.

[1] Plato, Euthyphro 10a.

[2] Plato, Gorgias 485d-e.

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Were you there when He crawled atop skull hill,10-good-thief-2
Driven by Roman soldiers like a lamb,
Condemned and cursed by sons of Abraham
Who by perjury procured a true bill?

Were you there when His hands and feet were nailed
Down, His body lifted up, on a tree —
A spectacle for all the world to see
Where Israel’s sight and Rome’s Blind Justice failed?

Were you there when one man hanged by His side, 
One terrorist at death’s door, entered life,
And laid his “just cause” down, and ceased his strife,
And on the tree his King and God espied?

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The world reads the Sermon on the Mount and says “nice heavenly aspirations, but the real world don’t play like that.” The Church in the post-Christian West — salt that has lost its taste — reads the Sermon on the Mount and says, “Our Lord preached it, not so we would obey, but to teach that obedience is impossible and that we must rely on grace alone.” Anyone who wonders why the world is in a mess, or why the Western Church is in a mess, need look no further than this.

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After St Matthew finished his begats, he dove right into two of the great controversies of his times: righteousness and justice in applying Torah, and divorce. Nearly two thousand years have passed since Matthew wrote his gospel, and two of the great controversies of our times are righteous application of Torah, and divorce.

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Text: St Luke 18:1-14

The more I look both at the Church and the world, the more I am persuaded that the pressing need of our time is a sound doctrine of judgment.  For while the word “judge” has fallen into disrepute, judgments are meted out with astonishing frequency, with little sense of proportionality and little seasoning of mercy.  The judges who decry “judgmentalism” hand down the harshest sentences, knowing not what they do.

We judge the way we breathe. Our judicial sentiments act as regularly, as unconsciously, as our breathing reflex.  The question we face, then, is not whether we will judge, but how well.

A first step toward learning to judge well is to acknowledge that God judges. We need to get over saying that. We need to rejoice in saying that. In his epistle to the Romans (2:16), St Paul said that God’s judging the world was part of his gospel. It is good news that we have a good judge who has the wisdom and power to sort things out, to make things clear, to right wrongs, to refute accusations, to justify justly.


The Publican and Pharisee (St Luke 18:9-14)

St Luke tells us, that as Jesus drew near to Jerusalem, he told two parables about the kind of Judge God is. In the first parable, a widow asks an unjust judge for judgment against her adversary. In the second, two parties, a Pharisee and a Publican (tax collector), appear in succession before God, presenting themselves for His judgment.

Note the posture in which the cases appear in the two parables. In the first, the widow appears as civil plaintiff.  Jesus says she is a model for something that the Church corporately, and her members individually, ought to do: come to the Father for judgment against oppressing adversaries — “for he will avenge them speedily” (18:7-8)  In the second, the Pharisee and Publican appear before God as criminal defendants — though only the Publican acknowledges that he’d done anything deserving condemnation (v. 13). Jesus says that for humbling himself, for casting himself wholly upon the mercy of God, the Publican was justified. He, not the Pharisee, walks out of the heavenly court an innocent man (v. 14).

Taken together, the two parables tell us about the kind of Judge God is, and the proper posture for His people to appear before Him. He is the Judge who liberates us from adversaries — and, as such, we should not shrink from approaching Him boldly as plaintiff, asking Him to grant judgment for us, against hardened enemies. We do this, however, knowing He also has absolute power and jurisdiction to judge us, and that only His mercy affords us hope of emerging from that examination justified. Both parables inform the manner in which we do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before God. We need both to reform our imaginations, our hearts, our wills — and our judicial sentiments.

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Text: St Luke 15

Is anyone more lost than a man with a clear vision of a glorious idea, and no sense of where he is in a story? Javert praised the stars in their multitudes, not realizing he’d already fallen as Lucifer fell. The scribes and Pharisees fixed their gaze upon an idea of pure, faithful Israel, and grumbled at the tax collectors and sinners gathering to hear Jesus of Nazareth.

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