You Be the Judge (Not!): Reflections on Romans 14:1-12

Lectionary Reflections
Romans 14:1-12
September 14, 2014

In this passage Paul exhorts the Roman Church to focus on offering their lives to God through Christ, not on judging one another's actions and practices. They were not to spend their time judging themselves as strong in the faith and their brothers and sisters as weak, their eating and Sabbath practices as righteous and others' as below the mark. They were not to suppose to have to argue someone out of their position before they could be part of the fellowship. Each group should remember that God has accepted and forgiven the other.

There is a message here for us 21st-century Christians as well. When we judge others we place our authority above God's. We are all only servants of God in God's household. We are to focus on God, not our supposed superiority to others. All conduct must take its reference from our service to Jesus whose claim to lordship over all comes from his death and resurrection. (Best, 156) We will not have to justify to God the conduct of others, but only our own.

Paul asks, "Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? We will all sit before the judgment seat of God."

Jesus' Sermon on the Mount sounds a similar theme: "Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your brother's eye when you have a log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' while 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 neighbor's eye" (Mt. 7:1-5).

I recently ran across the following story about judging and not judging from the rabbis. It was from an article by Rabbi Jeffrey Summit on the occasion of Yom Kippur 2004. Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, also called Yom Hadin, the Day of Judgment, and it is a day of reflection and introspection. (This year Yom Kippur falls on October 3-4.) His article was called "Judging Others, Judging Ourselves," and in it he shares this rabbinic story called "The Rabbi's Gift."

The story is told of a monastery that had fallen upon hard times. Once it was a great order, but as a result of the waves of anti-monastic persecution in the seventeen and eighteen centuries and the rise of secularism in the nineteen, all its branch houses were lost and there were only five monks left in the decaying mother house: the abbot and four others, all over seventy in age. Clearly it was a dying order.

In the woods surrounding the monastery there was a little cabin that a rabbi from a nearby town occasionally used as a retreat. The old monks could always sense when the rabbi was visiting the cabin. "The rabbi is in the woods, the rabbi is in the woods again," they would whisper to each other. As he agonized over the imminent death of his order, the abbot decided to visit the rabbi and ask for any advice that might save the monastery.

The rabbi welcomed the abbot at his hut. But when the abbot explained the purpose of this visit, the rabbi could only commiserate with him. "Yes. I know how it is," he exclaimed. "The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore." So the old abbot and the old rabbi wept together. Then they read parts of the Torah and quietly spoke of deep things. When the time came for the abbot to leave, they embraced one another. "It has been a wonderful thing that we have talked after all these years," the abbot said. "But is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice you can give me that would help me save my dying order?"

"No, I am sorry," the rabbi responded, "I have no advice to give you." But then the rabbi paused and said quietly to the abbot, "But, there is one thing I have to tell you: One of you is the Messiah."

When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him and asked, "Well, what did the rabbi say?"

"He couldn't help," the abbot answered. "We just wept and read the Torah together. The only thing he did say, just as I was leaving—he said that one of us was the Messiah! Maybe it's something from Jewish mysticism. I don't know what he meant."

In the days and weeks and months that followed, the old monks began to think about this and wondered whether the rabbi's words could actually be true? The Messiah is one of us? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks here at the monastery? If that's the case, who is it? Do you suppose he meant the abbot? Yes, if he meant anyone he probably meant Father Abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation. On the other hand, he might have meant that Brother Thomas is a holy man. Everyone knows that Thomas is a man of light. Certainly he couldn't have meant Brother Jonathan! Jonathan gets crotchety at times. But come to think of it, even though he is a thorn in people's sides, when you look back on it, Jonathan is virtually always right, often very right. Maybe the rabbi did mean Brother Jonathan, but surely not Brother Philip. Philip is so passive, a real nobody. But then almost mysteriously he has a gift for somehow always being there when you need him. He just magically appears by your side. Could Philip be the Messiah? Of course, the rabbi didn't mean me. He couldn't possibly have meant me. I'm just an ordinary person. Yet supposing he did? Suppose I am the Messiah? Oh God, me?

9/8/2014 4:00:00 AM
Alyce McKenzie
About Alyce McKenzie
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.