The message of today’s readings seems easy enough to figure out, as we’ve heard it many times before: don’t pass judgment. Simple enough…and yet here they are, yet again, both Paul’s letter and Luke’s gospel staring us right in the face with this message. Don’t pass judgment, don’t pass judgment…it appears that someone thinks we’re not completely getting this message.
The imagery from Luke’s Gospel is a bit challenging within our modern-day culture yet I am enthralled by it. Jesus is a guest at a Pharisee’s house and has just been reprimanded by the host for not following the rituals of cleansing. So Jesus simply compares an encounter with a Pharisee-a member of the Jewish faith highly versed in all of the outward practices and rituals of that faith-as to an encounter with an unmarked grave. It’s easy to overlook the power of this comparison. In our culture, the dead are separated from the living and buried in marked graves so that families may come and pay tribute to the loved one. An unmarked grave is purely something unfortunate that may perhaps be rectified with the grave’s discovery in the near future.
In Jesus’ time, great care was made to separate that which was living from that which was dead, for anything considered dead and without life was considered, "unclean." An encounter with anything dead required ritual cleansing before being considered "clean" once more. Therefore, to walk over an unmarked grave was to have an encounter with death and to be made unclean without being aware of it. Therefore, all of that person’s actions would be negated due to their uncleanliness.
And that’s what Jesus is equating to a Pharisee? Ouch! What a deep, disturbing comparison for the Pharisee!
The actions of the Pharisees perturb Jesus because he continually saw, time and time again, these men of "faith" perform the outward practices of Jewish tradition, yet there was nothing substantial on the inside. Nevertheless because of their positions of power, these Pharisees felt justified in condemning and judging others that were not as law-abiding as they were. It’s no wonder that Jesus felt justified in putting this man (and the Scholar mentioned at the end) in his place. Jesus emphasized throughout his ministry that God is far more interested in interior conversions of the heart rather than outward signs of faith, something that the Pharisees never seemed to quite understand.
Paul isn’t shy about confronting similar issues with his audience in Rome. Although writing from Corinth, he is highly aware of the disputes erupting between the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians. The Jewish Christians see their places of worship have been taken over by the Gentile Christians, those people that had once worshiped at pagan alters. Gentile Christians see Jewish Christians as still partially belonging to a religion responsible for the death of Jesus. The judgments and accusations fly without boundaries.
Paul’s Epistle is written to remind the Roman community of God’s love and mercy as shown through the life of Christ, but he takes the time to point out those past stereotypes and grudges won’t work in this new community. His strong counterargument, that those that judge others hold God’s patience and love in low self-esteem, hits a chord with his community. How quick are Christians, both Jew and Gentile alike, ready to cast aside the fact that, "there is no partiality with God", and continue to see things with their physical eyes instead of the eyes of their hearts? How quick are they to be like the Pharisees, who judged according to outward practices and places of origin, instead of being like Christ, who looked past all things to see the glory of the person on the inside?
When praying today, ask God to help you identify periods in your life when you are unintentionally passing judgment on others. When do you in your own community judge by outward appearances-those indicated by sex, race, ethnicity, social class, medical illness, or religious beliefs-rather than by what is on the inside of a person’s heart?
Sandy Smith is a volunteer at Christ the King Passionist Retreat Center in Citrus Heights, California.