Love as Judge

Today is Advent in September. In Advent we hear a lot about the Last Judgement, with trumpets and groans and grinding of teeth, and all that. We think about some stern Jesus towering above us, looking into the depths of our hearts as we cower and pronouncing his verdict on our lives. But Jesus in his earthly life brought judgement by his very presence among us. We are effectively judged by our very reaction to Jesus. We can see such a judgement taking place in today's gospel.

In this case, Jesus renders a judgement back to those who have judged him. Those who are judged are a group of Pharisees. They see Jesus eating with many tax-collectors and sinners, and they object. Their grounds are that one defiles oneself by eating with sinners, that the sin in some sense rubs off. Jesus does not deny that these people are sinners, but says that it is the sick, not the well, who need a doctor. Thus he turns around the objection by suggesting that the rubbing off goes the other way. Then he quotes to the Pharisees from the very Scripture from which they derive their authority, from the prophet Hosea, 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice.'

Hosea, speaking for the Lord, has been berating the folk of Israel for going after pagan gods and no longer loving the Lord. Then he says what the Lord really wants, 'mercy or steadfast love, and not sacrifice, knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.' Knowledge of God and sacrifice are how we relate to the false gods, the idols, and steadfast love and knowledge of God how to relate to the God of Israel, a real living God.

What is this mercy? The Hebrew word is hesed, a word of some weight in the Hebrew Scriptures.

First of all, it speaks of a mutual relationship. It is the love between Ruth and Naomi, that led them to stay together. It is the love which led the Lord to create the earth and humankind in a living relationship with Godself. It is in fact this relationship that constitutes the people Israel. They are a people because they return the Lord's hesed.

Secondly, it is steadfast love. That steadfastness is seen in Ruth's going with Naomi. And it is seen in the Lord's sticking with Israel, continuing to love them in spite of the active rejection and passive forgetting of God. Israel wandered in the desert and the Lord wandered with them. Israel went to the gods of other nations and the Lord continued to call them back, to send them prophets and sages. When they violated the steadfast love of other humans to which the Lord had called them, God stayed with them calling them to repentance and when they repented forgiving them. God never abandons the people even when they abandon God and each other.

This is the steadfast love which Jesus suggests that the Pharisees are violating. "You accuse me of going with pagans, but you have turned the living God of Israel into a pagan god, a dead idol. You are turning the relationship of steadfast love on its head by forbidding steadfast love of pagans in the name of the God who called us into steadfast love, who is the source and means of steadfast love."

What would it mean for us to do this steadfast love? Steadfast love might mean that in a relationship we simply accepted a person, accepted them because God created them for this steadfast love and us for it as well. In a difficult relationship, it would let us in for a whole lot of pain. It is easier and less painful to abandon someone than to stay with them when they hate us, or at least act hatefully toward us. Think of someone in your life whom you hated being with and were forced by some obligation to be with. Then think of embracing the pain willingly, and what that could do to improve the relationship. Or think of someone you deeply love, yet who is being very difficult. Steadfast love, bearing the difficult and cherishing the good, what would that do for the relationship? This love does not judge, it feels. Steadfast love does not value, is not quantified, does not seek fair return, nor does it measure loss. Even if the beloved breaks the relationship, steadfast love does not rationalize or temporize, deny or repress. It goes on, still loving however badly wounded, having lost the relationship but having loved. So we find ourselves one with Jesus in Gethsemani or on the cross.

For that steadfast love is also the love of the healer who came to the sick, not the well. Think what it could do to you to be loved like that. What if there were someone in your life who was just always there for you, whom, from your own bad place, you could mistreat and abuse and still be loved. What if when you repented, she or he were always there for you, to say "yes, I knew what this was, this envy, pain, hate, avoidance, I could feel your hell." What if they could look you in the eye of your worst place, your most wretched and evil you, and stay there with you, not walk away, not tell you it's all okay, not say it doesn't matter, not tell you it isn't wrong or mean, because that would be lying, just not walk away. In the presence of that one, you, I, we, might actually begin to heal. In that one, we might meet the steadfast lover-healer. We might meet the apostle sent to us. As in fact we do meet the Lord who loves us, whose love stays with us, and enables us, or begins to enable us, to love others in this steadfast way. That steadfast love toward us from God or from another is seen as a gift and we call it grace.

But note that this is a story of judgement as well. The judge is here the steadfast lover. What if Jesus is not so much rebuking the Pharisees as looking them steadfastly in the eye and saying, "I see you, I love you, neither in spite of nor because of your waywardness, but because I plain love you with that love which created the world and maintains it in existence, and invites you to join in the love which I am showing these dear sinners." That may be just the judge we want for our own lives, but daren't hope to get. Think of one who loves and sees exactly who we are and does not scold or reject, but says it the way it is and loves on beyond any love we can imagine. And, of course, invites us to do the same for those whom we meet and confront.