Skip to main content

"Thou shalt judge thy neighbour"

This is a transcript of a short reflection I gave recently at a peace and justice service in Liverpool Diocese. I was the invited speaker for the service, the theme of which was "Casting the first stone". John 8 was the reading...


The ecumenical peace and justice group.
Wavertree URC Church.
29th of January 2013.

Let me begin by saying thank you very much inviting me to speak to you this evening. It's a delight to be with you, and to know that such groups exist in our diocese is especially encouraging. It is a truth which every Christian must hold that only as we stand together as Christ's church across the denominations do we have any hope of seeing peace and justice come to our world as we move forward together in the light of Christ who is the Prince of peace and Lord of justice.

By training, I am a theological ethicist. It means that I have been taught and shaped and moulded in such a way that when I think about difficult ethical questions, I immediately turn to the resources of our Christian faith - our creeds, our Bible, and our traditions - to help me answer them. But ethics is a complicated discipline. We often find ourselves thinking and acting, or being required to think and act, at the boundaries of our human experience, at the places where we are least confident and yet are required to act most urgently. There are grey areas, and there are also black and white areas. The key is to know who we are in Christ, what it is we are called to be and do, and to exercise judgement appropriately.

Some of you may be surprised to hear me say "to exercise judgement appropriately". So often I'm reminded by helpful church-watchers that Christians are not supposed to judge.

Judgement is something of a taboo term in our society, and in Christian circles, especially in groups that seek peace and justice. And rightly so. For in how many situations, on how many occasions, have we seen the exercise of judgement totally misused and abused to privilege the politically powerful, the elite, the socially acceptable, the majority? In such circumstances judgement is a destructive and poisonous idea, that leads only to further marginalisation. It is easier, and more Godly, in these circumstances to avoid judgement altogether, and rely on something far more noble: compassion. "Judge not, lest ye be judged". Let God's love and compassion show forth in our lives.

Of course, it's not that simple. A world without any discernment, any judgement, is a world overtaken by chaos. What we need to learn as Christians is how to exercise judgement appropriately - by which I mean in a way shaped by God's loving kindness and compassion. We see something of this proper Christian notion of judgement in our Gospel reading tonight (John 8:1-11).

The setting is something of a court-scene scenario. Think Perri Mason or Quincy. There are prosecutors – those who have come to accuse. There is the defendant – the one on whom all the attention rests. And there is the jury - those watching, ready to decide for or against.

The whole scene has all the hallmarks that we've come to expect of the kind of judgementalism that should have us Christian running for the hills:

There is sexism, as these men bring the woman caught in adultery to judgement. Where is her partner?

there is the abuse of political power as the rule-makes exercise their authority to publicly humiliate another

There is the tyranny of the mob over the minority, as they (plural) brought her (singular) before the makeshift court

There is the threat of violence and death if the judgement goes against the defendant

There is no justice in this scene. It's not fair - a phrase my 2 year old daughter has learned to say often. It's not fair.

But, we need to be careful when we read texts like this. The agenda of the text - the agenda of God mediated through it - is so often not our agenda: this is not a story about feminist equality, or liberationist rhetoric for minority voices. It's not even primarily about justice - though it has overtones of a court.

It's not as it may first appear. The woman caught in adultery is incidental to the story, she is just an excuse by which the Pharisees – the prosecution – can make their case. In fact, Jesus is on trial in this court. "They were using the question as a trap in order to accuse him."

So often in the rhetoric we use about justice, whether implicitly or explicitly, God is on trial. Like the Pharisees, we find something wrong in our world - and the Church teaches that adultery is wrong - and we wonder how we can believe in a God of love in the world so full of injustice, pain, broken relationships, mistrust and distrust, anger, warfare, and violence. Where is God, and why is this happening? What will you do God when faced with so much wrong?

"They came to him to test him, using the question as a trap in order to accuse him"

It's a natural reaction. How do these things fit into the picture of God's love and kindness we construct for others and for ourselves? To that extent the pharisees represent all of us, wanting not so much to accuse God, but to understand and make sense of the ways God challenges our pre-convictions in Christ. How can God be serious about outrageous forgiveness in a world where rape is used as a weapon of war, and where children are murdered in the street for learning to read?

So what happens? Well, I want to suggest to you that Jesus did judge the woman. This is not a story that teaches us we must move beyond judgement. Instead, it's about exercising judgement well. Jesus did judge the woman, BUT, not in the way the court desired, or expected. He refused to engage with them in the way they wanted: there's no public debate, no slanging match, no argument, no presentations. He remained, as our opening prayer stated, silent.

Silence is difficult at the best of times, and could easily be mistaken for weakness - as if Jesus had nothing to say. But that doesn't make sense in this story. It seems more likely that Jesus' silence is an act of rebellion - a refusal to join in the condemnation, an act of contemplative witness to a God who is slow to anger.

Jesus did not get caught up in the inappropriate and unChristian patterns of judgement and judgementalism that everyone else wanted. He stopped and wrote in the sand, silently. We don't know what it was, but it was enough to sideline the prosecution, and make the the crowds - probably through boredom - disappear. He was not going to play their games.

We too must be careful of this: getting sucked into the worlds patterns of judgement, taking the lead from those around us instead of Jesus, both as progressive liberals and conservative judgemtalists.

Then, when everyone else had gone, Jesus meted out his judgement. "I do not condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin."

Jesus names what he sees: the woman has sinned. She is right for judgement, there is no injustice in this situation. He tells her "leave her life of sin."

But Jesus' judgement does not condemn. It calls and invites us to a life free from sin, free from destructive habits. It does not condemn us to death, but is a judgement laced with mercy and love.

It is a hard task to say what we see, sometimes. But that old Catchphrase catchphrase is a good theological idea: the ability to speak the truth in love is at the heart of Christian ideas about judgement and discernment. It was the way of the Master, and so it must be with us.


Anonymous said…
All very well - until an ordained minister refuses to forgive you. Then you see it's all just words, words, words ... seventy times seven, before the sun goes down, the least of these my brothers ... what's written in the book, stays in the book ...
Honest Abe
Dear Abe,

thanks for your thoughts. I totally agree that this really only becomes meaningful and real when the rubber hits the road. But, I guess I'm also hopeful that it is not just an ideal - that when we fail to forgive one another, to judge mercifully as Jesus did, then we are at fault: as in the scenario you describe. And faults can be corrected, and reconciliation can take place. It is particularly difficult though, as you suggest, when ordained ministers are the problem - they are the ones we look up to, and from whom we expect a good example.

I hope for myself anyway that it doesn't always stay in the book, but that I practice what I preach.

with every blessing in Christ,

Popular posts from this blog

Paul Nimmo on Schleiermacher

Once again it's been a while since I blogged anything, but I thought I would flag-up this clip from the increasingly successful Modern Theology  Timeline created by Tim Hull at St John's College Nottingham, UK. This is a recent interview Tim did with the Edinburgh based scholar Paul Nimmo on Friedrich Schleiermacher. It is a really good interview, and will go a long way to rehabilitating FDES for those who mis-read Barth and reject him outright. Happy watching!

What Do You Call a Group of Theologians?

I think the answer should be "an argument", but perhaps that's unfair. I can test my theory this next week, which sees the start of the annual Society for the Study of Theology (UK) conference on the theme of Holy Writ? (The question mark is very suggestive). It looks really good, and the list of plenary speakers is great: Alex Samely (Manchester); Morwenna Ludlow (Exeter); Henk van den Belt (Amsterdam); Walter Moberly (Durham); Anthony Thiselton (Nottingham); Hugh Pyper (Sheffield). The conference lasts several days and is convening this year at York University. I hope to be able to blog a few thoughts from the conference and some info about the plenary sessions, but I shall be presenting a paper at one of the themed seminars on Wednesday afternoon on the interpretation of Barth's ethics of responsibility so may be a bit distracted until then. So watch this space for more info...

When religion stops us seeing clearly...

I spent a few minutes after morning prayer on Saturday wandering around the church building, enjoying the silence. I also had a look at the stained glass windows - most of which are Victorian. It's something I don't get to do very often because I'm too busy. My favourite window in our church building is very recent, only three years old, and is a brightly coloured rendition of Jesus welcoming children to himself. It is in the baptistry, an appropriate place for welcoming children into the family of God. I discovered another window today too, which I've never really noticed before - something that surprised me because ours is not an overly large building. It is a large plain window, with clear glass. You can see straight through it to the outside world: across the grave yard to the A-road that runs through the middle of the parish, and on to the homes beyond. I stood for a while watching people heading to the shops, the saturday morning traffic held up by the changing