“How Shall We Be Judged?”

This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, 24 October 2004.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Joel 2: 23 – 32; 2 Timothy 4: 6 – 8, 16 – 18; and Luke 18: 9 – 14.


It has to be hard being a Christian in today’s society. This is a society where there is a contradiction between the expression and the practice of one’s faith. On the one hand, we cherish religion along with all matters of private conscience. This is partially why we justly celebrate a strong tradition against state interference with private religious choice. But, at the same time, many are coming to the view that the interjection of religion into the public moral discourse is a tool of the radical right for reshaping American society. The result seems to be that while trying to keep religion from dominating our politics, we have created a political and legal culture that presses the religious faithful to be other than themselves, to act publicly, and sometimes privately, as though their faith does not matter to them. (Adapted from The Culture of Disbelief by Stephen L. Carter)

And if you should happen to express publicly your religious beliefs, you are looked upon as some type of aberration or weirdo. And if you happen to express the thought that you are evangelical in your outlook about Christianity, you are apt to be labeled a conservative and perhaps Neanderthal in your outlook.

With many conservative Christians expressing their views openly and actively, we see a contradiction between what they are saying and the teachings of the Bible they say they support. It is hard to say you are a Christian when people think that Christians want to dictate all factors of other people’s lives while being free to do whatever they please. It is hard to say that you are Christian in today’s society when people think that Christians feel that wars in the name of God are the solutions to the problems of the world. How is that we can say that Jesus is the Prince of Peace but so vividly celebrate war?

We live in a society today where Christians appear to be more like the Pharisees in the New Testament rather than the disciples. We live in a world where the actions of Christians are to persecute or at least ignore the least deserving of society, not bring them up in stature and thought.

There is clearly a contradiction between the Jesus, His words and His actions and the words and actions of today’s public Christians. The problem is, of course, that those who might understand this contradiction too often are silent, not willing to point out the contradiction. And this leads those seeking to find an answer in this world with very little choice.

The primary issues for Christianity in today’s society were birthed when Jesus spoke the profoundly prophetic words found in Matthew 25: 32 – 46. These scriptures reveal God’s heart for the poor, the sick, the needy, and the oppressed, not just in the days two thousand years ago but today.

I have always said that I saw Jesus as one of the world’s first revolutionaries. The religious and social structure of his day hated and crucified Him because of His actions, words, and deeds. He rebuked the religious leaders of His day because they embraced the letter of the law instead of the Spirit. He saw the hypocrisy of their lives and rebuked them. They saw in His life everything that they opposed. He challenged the religious orthodoxy of His day. He aligned Himself with the poor and the oppressed. He liberated women and minorities. He healed on the Sabbath and forgave adulterers and prostitutes. He associated with drunks and other social outcasts. He loved sinners and called them to be with Him. For all that Jesus did, He was hated. (From a note the Buzz Flash website by Gary Vance of Loretto, TN – "Wasn’t Jesus a Liberal?")

This is the Jesus that I learned about growing up and through my own experiences. Yet, this is not the Jesus that I see through the many conservative Christians today.

And I think that is where we have a problem. We live in a society where many feel that it is the Pharisee in today’s Gospel reading who should be rewarded, not the repenting tax collector. We see those who follow the rules and do the right things as the ones who should be rewarded. We cannot understand how it is that the tax collector, one of the dregs of society, who is openly contrite and seeks God’s forgiveness for his sins, receives the rewards of God’s heaven.

But the problem with this is that the Pharisee expects a reward because of what he has done. The tax collector expects nothing because he knows that he is unworthy of any reward. Second, the Pharisee’s expectations are self-centered. All of his actions are based on that expectation that he will gain something. All of his actions are done for his benefit, not for the benefit of God.

The letters that Paul wrote to Timothy were among the last of his letters to anyone. Paul knows that his time has come and that shortly he will get his reward. The difference between Paul and the Pharisee in today’s Gospel is that Paul has, first, worked constantly for the benefit of God and, second, any rewards that he might receive only come at the end of his life, when his work is done. Contrast that to the Pharisee who is expecting his reward now. In today’s vernacular, the Pharisee is seeking instant gratification for something that will only come at the end of one’s life.

On the other hand, the tax collector knows that his actions have done damage to others. He knows that because of his actions, harm has come to others. He knows that there are no rewards for him, now or later, unless he repents of what he has done.

The prophet Joel is speaking of the rewards that the people of Israel receive. But they are rewards received because of repentance. As with most of the prophets, the people of Israel have rebelled against God, going against the direction that He has set for them. The people of Israel feel that they have a better understanding of what God wants than God does Himself.

And we know through history that any one individual or group who deems themselves worthy enough to know the mind of God probably knows nothing. And the results of actions that are based on nothing generally result in nothing being accomplished. That is the case with the people of Israel prior to this passage. They have presumed to know God’s will and have gotten into trouble.

But the interesting thing to note is this time; the people of Israel repent. They come back to God and seek repentance. God will always grant repentance and with repentance comes rewards. Repentance comes with humility. You cannot simply ask God to forgive you if your heart does not hold the same thoughts as your mind. Humility is necessary.

The tax collector is clearly humble in his actions as reported in the Gospel; the Pharisee is not. This is not made clear to the people of today; too many people feel that there is no need for repentance, there is no need to act humbly before God.

They have done what it is right, even if they have ignored those around them less fortunate in mind, body, and spirit. They have come to expect that their adherence to the letter of the law transcends their need to adhere to the Spirit. They have allowed their pride and arrogance to allow them to demand things from God.

But we have to stop and think for a minute. Why exactly did God send His Son, our Lord and Savior, to this world? Why exactly is the centerpiece of our being Christian a wooden cross? In the times of Christ, to die on the cross was the most shameful way to die; yet, we hold that one death in glory. In the times of Christ, those who held to the views that they knew best for their people were put to shame by an itinerant preacher from Galilee who served the people first rather than expected the people to serve Him. As we go through this day, as we go through this week, as we prepare to think of the future of this church, perhaps we should each ask ourselves which of the two men on the corner is the best representation of our lives to date? Which of the two would we rather be? Today is not about judging others, it is about considering how we shall be judged.

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