Who Are You To Pass Judgment?

The sermon from Sunday, September 17, 2017 on Romans 14:1-12

Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall.

We are continuing through Paul’s words to the church at Rome.

We find ourselves this week in the 14th chapter of a letter divided for our reading into 16 chapters.

In these last sections Paul is trying to get really practical in helping the Roman Christians deal with one another.

He’s looking closely at the barriers to their community life.

If we were to create that sort of analysis today, we’d be looking not only at broad social forces, but at the gritty details of daily life.

We’d be looking not only at how we do things differently from one another, but at how we pass judgment on each other for those differences.

If we are to see how Paul’s words apply to us – who are not a part of the 1st century church community in Rome – then we need to find the underlying essence of Paul’s persuasive argument and make sense of it in our lives.

That’s our daily act of interpretation of Scripture – and just as this was offered into community, read aloud, probably multiple times, among gathered Roman Christians, we interpret Scripture together here in community this evening.

So while we might ponder the question of vegetarianism or our views of daily routines – which were apparently the subject of controversy and efforts at exclusion in the church at Rome – I would argue that the heart of the matter is not those specifics.

The heart of the matter is instead the ways in which people in that community pass judgment each other – and not only pass judgment on each other, but pass judgment on each other over things that Paul says don’t even matter.

Paul’s critical point – Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall.

In our times, we are invited constantly in our world to pass judgment on one another.

Am I right?

Let’s work with the term for a moment. We all want to have good judgment. That sort of judgment, which we might also call discernment or wisdom, is not really what we’re talking about here.

We’re talking about my deciding that I am entitled to judge you. Or you are entitled to judge him. Or we are entitled to judge them.

We judge people for their actions and for their very being – and we also judge ourselves.  

Admittedly life requires us to evaluate the world around us. We need to understand what’s going on in order to function. I don’t think anybody will argue that.

So where does this go wrong, where do we go from using good judgment to function in the world to passing judgment on others?

Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another?

Passing judgment is an act of the ego. It is making the claim that you have the right to be critical of another. Being judgmental feeds your ego because it allows you to feel righteous at the expense of the other.

Now it might be that you are right. But we have to be mighty careful with things that make us feel self-righteous.

It becomes a habit. It’s very much a cultural habit.

It fits within that context that we talk about here. When a culture teaches you that you are never enough (so it can keep trying to sell you the empty promise of ‘enough’), it encourages you to compare yourself to other people.

And when you constantly compare yourself to other people, then one of two things tends to happen.

You decide that you are inferior to them – that’s being judgmental with yourself.

Or you decide that you are superior to them – and that’s being judgmental and self-righteous toward them.

Though many a self-proclaimed follower of Christ may act that way, I believe we are not supposed to act like that if we are people of faith and followers of Jesus.

There are all kinds of problems with it.

It’s exhausting.

It will keep you from ever being satisfied, from ever finding a moment of contentment and peace.

It’s addictive, because it seduces you into a particular judgmental way of seeing the world, which then becomes continually self-reinforcing.

It’ll make you mean.

It feeds your ego with poisonous fuel.

It makes you the center of the world.

It’s hubris. It’s making ourselves into little gods.

You know, I loved my grandmothers. I really loved my grandmothers. My daughter is named for one of them, the one who in large part raised me. They were fierce, kind, hardworking women who each navigated complicated and often difficult lives – and they sure did love me, even when they didn’t understand me.

But because I was close to them, I also recognized how deeply enmeshed they were in a particular type of toxic judgmental culture. Both were born a century ago and came of age and raised families in the difficult years of the Great Depression, World War II, and the rapidly changing white middle class society of the 1950s.

The pressure to conform was constant. And the self-policing of those standards of conformity was brutal – about how you appeared to the world – what size you were and how your hair was done and who you were seen with and what color your house was painted and how neatly groomed and well-behaved your children were and how you cooked and what you cooked and what you drove and so on.

(and by the way, I am not saying that these pressure of conformity and its effects are limited to that particular subculture. It was and is epidemic in our society. It is deeply linked to the competitive mindset bred by our current economic and cultural systems.)

I invoke that world here – Lilla’s world and Hazel’s world, my beloved grandmothers’ world – because my own intimate knowledge of that world and yet my distance from it, both then and now – allows me to see it for what it was.

And yet I too am continually learning – I made some comment about someone a few months back to my daughter – and it wasn’t an unkind comment – I think it was even something of a compliment – and my teenager took me to task for it.

“Mama, you’re being judgmental.”

“What? What are you talking about? I was saying something nice.”  

“What right do you have to pass judgment on her, good or bad?”

Wow. This was some sort of a small thing, but it most certainly applies to bigger things too.

I don’t think I realized until that moment just how deeply ingrained that tendency, that reflexive habit is – and that no matter how much work I have done across the years to get that kind of judgment out of myself, I always have more work to do.

I learned it too early and too thoroughly and the culture of the world continually reinforces it. It’s like a persistent weed.

Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another?

Before we spend a minute with the closing section of this passage, let’s go back and affirm that Paul’s not talking about – and I’m not preaching against – relationships of loving accountability, for we know that Christians are tasked with speaking truth to power with love in every realm of our lives.

This is not about rejecting sensible discernment in your own actions and in your engagement with others.

It is about letting go of this whole story that we tell ourselves, this weight of judgment that we have to haul around and whack people over the head with and whack ourselves over the head with, the way we try to make the world fit with our story.

We need calm clarity to act wisely and compassionately, not sharp judgmentalism.

That also means that we can recognize other people’s judgmentalism for what it is. We’re working on ourselves and at the same time we are able to recognize that unproductive, destructive storyline when it is imposed on us or on others.

We see the ways in which passing judgment rests often on money and power and fitting certain stereotypical images. Those images don’t have to be our images.

Our own clarity and compassion applies to ourselves as well as to others. We rest in careful discernment. We rest in loving accountability.

And when you can’t tell the difference between loving accountability and self-righteous passing of judgment, maybe we need to stop and sit and stare at it for a while til we make sense of it. Give yourself some breathing room.

Let all be convinced in their own minds.  Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God. We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living. Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.” So then, each of us will be accountable to God.

Let God work through you. Let your words and your actions be so filled with God’s love and justice and mercy and compassion that who you are and what you do gives honor to God and to your neighbor.

If we live in that intention, if we let ourselves be transformed in that way, we will find ways to live with another in community. If you want to live an ethical life, then live an ethical life. That is a life accountable to God and to God’s command that we love one another.



Image is Romans from the Codex Alexandrinus, artist unknown, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35884265

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