Reign of Christ (A): It’s Not Up to Us
By: The Rev. TJ Tetzlaff
I am not always proud of who I am or about the things I’ve done, but there are times when I’m guilty of telling myself “well, at least I’m not like him.” There are people who embody the exact opposite of the faith and grace I have come to love in Christ and I am guilty of looking down and judging them for it. When I am honest with myself, in my heart I know there are times when my only thought about someone is: “Thank heaven that’s not me,” or “I am such a better Christian than they are.” When these thoughts cross my mind I hope I am subtle about it. I hope I don’t let it show. But whether it’s seen by others or not, I know I can be self-righteous. There are times I need to remind myself I’m not the one who separates the sheep from the goats.
Judgment comes from a place of vulnerability inside each of us. It comes from our need for self-assurance. It’s a misguided way of convincing ourselves that we have God’s favor because someone else does not. There are many reasons we judge others. Sometimes we judge because it simplifies a complicated world by putting people in boxes of ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Most of us grew up watching TV shows and reading stories where it was obvious what side a character was on. A child reading The Lord of the Rings knows that the Orcs and Goblins are the bad guys and the Elves and Hobbits are good. In old Western movies you could distinguish good and bad by the color of someone’s hat. But in the real world people don’t fit into simple visual narratives, although it would make life much easier. People are ambiguous; saints can be sinful and the wicked can be redeemed. We see only a small snippet of each other’s stories. Even after spending a lifetime with someone, at the end we will have only understood a fragment of who they are in the eyes of God. It is God who alone sees us in our entirety and decides where we ultimately belong.
In the First Testament passage from Ezekiel God is described as a shepherd who cares for the flock. Those sheep who “pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with [your] horns until [you] scattered them far and wide” are rebuked and judged for their actions. The passage is filled with promises from the shepherd about what he will do: “I myself will search;” “I will rescue.” It is worth noting just how active this shepherd is. It is a theme Jesus draws upon repeatedly. Throughout the Gospels Jesus proclaims a great separation that will happen at the end of the age. Wheat will be separated from the weeds, chaff from grain, good fish from bad and goats from sheep. But none of this is self-selected. The sheep don’t decide who gets into the barn. The fish don’t get a say in who’s kept and who’s tossed back. That decision is made by the one to whom they all belong.
Judging is not the same as having an opinion. Being non-judgmental does not mean anything goes or that we should accept unacceptable behavior. What someone says and does communicates who they are and influences how we will relate to them, so of course we will have opinions about others (it would be naive to think otherwise). The difference is that opinion is something open that can be changed; a person can reform and relationships can mend. But a judgment is something final, something we don’t revisit once it’s been made. Once we’ve judged someone then we have dropped a curtain on them and refuse to pull back up. That’s something we don’t get to do. That is something up to God alone.
It is not our job to separate the sheep from the goats. The kingdom of heaven is not a club with us handing out entry tickets. We are more like promoters, not bouncers; we help send the invitations but who gets admitted isn’t up to us. Our job is not to be the gatekeepers but to care for everyone as long as we’re out here in the field. What happens after that is up to God, and until then we are called to love without reserve or distinction. We have all sinned in the eyes of God. It is not that one person is more worthy to receive God than another, but that God continues to love us all regardless of our past.
The Reverend TJ Tetzlaff serves as Assistant Priest at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Southport, North Carolina. He received his Master of Divinity from Episcopal Divinity School and has worked with a number of churches and nonprofits. He and his wife Chana, recently moved to Wilmington, North Carolina with their two dogs Molly and Momo. In his spare time TJ can usually be found walking on the beach, playing board games, or playing with his dogs.