Jesus comes across this small crowd who have surrounded a young woman they believe to be an adulteress. They are preparing to stone her to death. To calm the situation, Jesus says: “Whoever is without sin among you, let them cast the first stone.” Suddenly, an old lady at the back of the crowd picks up this huge rock and lobs it at the young woman, scoring a direct hit on her head. The unfortunate young lady collapses dead on the spot. Jesus looked over towards the old lady and says: “Do you know, Mother, sometimes you really upset me.”
Ok, so you need to know a little about how the church has historically viewed Mary to get that joke, but the point I want to explore with you is about judgement. You see, the joke is funny because we would never expect a Saint, like Mary, to be the person who executes judgement, would we? The saints are people full of grace and mercy, like Mother Theresa.
But here’s the rub: if we view the Saints in that way, and we view Jesus in that way, then how do we make sense of the belief that God or Jesus is the judge of all the world, and that he sends some to eternal pain and some to eternal bliss? Do you see how difficult an idea that is? The historical Jesus spends his time forgiving sins, eating with sinners and touching untouchables, but then we somehow suppose that all this changes after the Resurrection, and he becomes the stern and just judge of the whole world.
To be fair, it is partly Jesus himself who gives us this problem. A parable like the one we have read today is pretty harsh. The man with the one talent didn’t waste it, he didn’t spend it on drugs, he just buried it and gave it back untouched. And as a result, he is kicked into the outer darkness. It seems extreme, doesn’t it? In fact, the parable is so extreme, that it seems quite unfair.
So here’s a clue that maybe Jesus isn’t talking about some judgement that happens at the end of time, or when we die, after all how can God be unfair? It’s impossible. So perhaps he’s not trying to tell us about what happens when we die. Perhaps he’s talking about something else. Perhaps his point is about what happens every day, when we either use or bury our opportunities: Opportunities to love, to serve, to give and to grow.
So this is not an end of your life story, but an end of each day story. Today, did I take the opportunities to love and give that God gave me, or did I bury them, ignore them, waste them? The point of the parable then is to help you exercise discernment, or as Ignatius of Loyola used to call it, the examination of conscience.
Ignatius who founded the Jesuits, a great missionary order of monks, which gave us the current Pope, Francis, told his monks that the one prayer that they absolutely must never omit was this examination of consciousness or examen. And the examen is simply this: at the end of the day you review the events of the day before God and simply ask: what today brought me closer to God, and what left me in the cold?
You see, this is the point that Jesus is making: when we make the right decision in any situation we know it inwardly, it takes us to that place where we hear God, our Father, say “Well done, good and faithful servant, you have been faithful in a few things”. In other words, we feel a lifting of our spirit, a gladdening of our heart. But when we make the wrong decision, then we feel a chill, a disappointment, a sense of loss, we are in the darkness, metaphorically.
Of course, the parable over-dramatises this to make a point, and in reality the feeling we get might be very subtle, just a slight joy or a slight sense of sadness. And this is the reason we do the examen, so we learn to recognise these moments of joy or sadness, and honour them and not miss them. For these are how God guides us, an inner sense, our conscience, the Holy Spirit, they are all ways of describing the same thing.
So what about you make a pact with yourself to do this every night, as you lay in bed, review the day, and ask yourself: when did i feel good today, and when did I feel bad? And what do I learn from this? And in case, you think that sounds too easy, just give it a try.
I’ve tried to make this a part of my Rule of Life. My daily practice. And what i find is that as i review the day, my mind goes to some incidents that I’d like to forget. I don’t know if you do the same: I have this tendency to obsess over some incidents and completely forget others. But the Holy Spirit takes me back to them and helps me bring them before God, so the learning is not lost, not buried, but used, and incorporated into my life.
So back to the point, where I started: what are we to think about God or Jesus judging us when we die? Apart from the difficulty about the loving God we see in Jesus suddenly turning all judgemental, there is another problem: how can God judge Hitler and not judge me?
Now when I was a young Christian and worried about this rather a lot, it was customary for preachers to say: “Well, because you are a Christian, then you are passed over for judgement. The death of Jesus is your get out of jail free card.” Which is comforting for a while, but it doesn’t take you long to realise that this creates as many problems as it solves. You see, if God pardons people just for believing something, but not because they are a good person, then it makes God an unjust judge. It makes God somebody who has favourites, who treats people differently just because of their religion.
Now there is a lovely truth in the gospel message that we are forgiven by God just because we show faith in Christ. The moment that we repent and are baptised we are freed from judgement. But the question it has always raised is: just how much faith do you have to have? Just how much repentance? It doesn’t really resolve the problem of judgement. It just shifts it somewhere else: not “have you done wrong?” But “have you got faith?” and if you are anything like me, that still leaves quite a lot of fear around. Will God look at me on judgement day and say: “I never knew you” or something like that.
So what are we to think about how judgement works? Listen to these words of Jesus from John’s Gospel (Ch 12): ‘If anyone hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge that person. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world. 48 There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; the very words I have spoken will condemn them at the last day.”
Do you see the importance of these words? What Jesus is giving us here is a profound lesson in how judgement works: firstly, he, Jesus, isn’t here to judge us; he never was, never will be. He is the saviour, the helper, the redeemer, the friend and brother. He is always, unequivocally, unrelentingly on our side.
But there is still a judge, says Jesus, and the judge is “his words”. What does that mean? How can his words judge us? What do you think? How does it work?
Here’s how I see it: The preamble to the American declaration of independence says this: ‘We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal; …etc.
So my point is that certain laws and principles are held to be universal, because they are not decided by one country or nation. They apply to all, regardless. We are judged by these universal principles, especially the words of Jesus, who articulates the one law that trumps all the rest: love one another. In John’s Gospel this is the only commandment that Jesus gives: love one another. These are the words that judge us. The law of love. Did we love? Did I love today?
Now, you may think that all this is quite obvious and hardly worth saying. After all, who would criticise the Declaration of Human Rights or the Law of Love? Well, lots of governments for a start. Why are we so concerned about leaving the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice? Because it has the power to call our parliament to answer for when its actions contravene laws that are bigger than our national self interest. The law of love is a deeply challenging law. And it won’t always fit with our national self interest. Nor will it always fit with our personal self interest.
You see, the law of love is quite often at deep odds with what a government or a family considers right or wrong behaviour. We are judged not be our ability or willingness to keep certain rules, but by our allegiance to love. And in particular love means that we treat everybody as we would like them to treat us. You hardly need me to spell out how challenging that is!
As we come towards Christmas, we’ve all got lots of expenses to pay. Our self interest dictates that we spend a lot on presents for friends and family. But the law of love makes us look outwards too. These shoeboxes that we are sending off today are a symbol of this. They cost £5 just to post, let alone to fill. And then there are all the other calls on our love: refugees, Crisis at Christmas, the Children’s Society. Charity may begin at home, but if it stops at home, then it isn’t really charity, is it?
So the words of Jesus keep calling us out of a narrow, fearful self love into a wider and deeper love for the whole world. This love is hugely costly. It demands constant self discipline. There are so many times when I’d like to harden my heart against love. But when I do, I feel something inside go cold, go dark. This is judgement at work. When I freeze out somebody else, I freeze a little of myself. It is unavoidable, uncomfortable and universal.
On the other hand, as I love, my love grows bigger and more sensitive. The person who refuses to love finds that their little world is small, cold and lonely. The person who loves just finds that more love comes their way. A bit like in the story: everyone who has will be given more.
May that be your experience.