In living we usually learn by experience. The experience of our own histories, where we have done what turned out to be the appropriate thing, and profited from that; or done things we would now have done otherwise, and (hopefully) have learned from that: each provides us with a framework which guides and shapes how we act now. In living we make judgements, and act on them, constantly. That simply reflects who we are: agents who can act for themselves. And yet it does not take much reflection to realise that our judgements can often be partial and biased. Sometimes the injuries done to us by others can powerfully warp and damage our behaviour down the years, as sadly evinced by our recent understanding of the decades-long (perhaps life-long) consequences of abuse, especially to the young. Sometimes we may come to realise how our own weaknesses and frailties can cloud our judgement. And as for the individual, so, too, for society, collectively. The recent obituaries of Gerry Conlon, one of those infamously convicted on false and inadequate evidence in a time of panic and hysteria demonstrates how easily our judgement can be swayed by the prevailing mood. And if we are, often enough, perplexed in judging the appropriateness of our own actions how can we presume to judge others?
Matthew enjoins us not to judge, so that we may escape judgement. But again, in the same chapter, he tells us to beware of false prophets, whom we shall know by their fruits – those who stir up discord and break peace; those who oppose the coming of the Kingdom. We seem compelled to judge the actions of others. Which of us has not, on occasion, been annoyed with those around us who seem indifferent or only motivated by self-interest? Today’s parable, which operates with the same imagery as the sower and the seed, addresses the problem of the good and the not-so-good, or lacklustre, in the church. Only now, a new character has entered the story: the enemy, who sows the bad seed. The workers are perplexed, and do not know how to respond. The householder, on the other hand, urges the workers to be patient, not to uproot the weeds, with concomitant damage of the crop. This will be sorted out, appropriately, at the harvest.
The parable exposes the double-edge of our judgement. On the one hand, the nervousness which leads us to want to expel those who are, in our eyes, recalcitrant or unworthy of church membership is exposed as arrogant: as the letter of James tells us, who are you to judge your neighbour? Church discipline has its place, as Matthew has taught, but it has to be tempered with the realisation that the final judgement is God’s. On the other hand, we are faced with an existential question of how we, ourselves, will stand under the judgement of God. Have we judged justly?
Still, this parable, nevertheless, pushes us beyond mere anxiety. Two other parables follow in quick succession. One of those parables describes the joyful pursuit of treasure hidden in a field; the other tells of a merchant who sells all he has to purchase “one pearl of great value.” In light of the coming judgment, the present is not a time of paralysing uncertainty, but a time of risk, of joyful ventures taken, of discovering what is really valuable, of a boldness not intimidated by the fear of failure, of a persistence in pursuit of the coming reign of God, as Pope Francis has recently emphasized. And the Son of Man who sends his angels to effect judgement is the same Son of Man who on earth forgave sins freely, who suffered at the hands of betrayers, and who confirms for us that God’s gracious promises can be trusted. We should then forego anxiety, forego judgement, and focus rather on making peace and doing mercy: so helping to establish God’s kingdom.
Judgement is God’s, however that is inseparable from his mercy. We judge ourselves by rendering ourselves incapable of receiving God’s mercy if we cannot recognise it, which is the meaning of “to those who are merciful is mercy shown”. Yet Jesus’ blood, the blood of the truly innocent victim, is poured out for us and pleads more insistently than Abel’s (the prototypical innocent victim) for our redemption and healing. In his Blood (or life) we are enlivened; quickened to seek forgiveness, do justice, make peace, and learn how we might walk humbly with our God.