Sermon for Evensong on the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity, 13th September 2015

Exodus 18:13-26; Matthew 7:1-14 
Sometimes you open the newspaper and, as you skim the headlines, you mentally tick off what they say – but, precisely because you feel sure you know what the article is going to say, you don’t bother to read it. For the same sort of reasons, I’m not going to give you a sermon about refugees, or about Syria, or even about Jeremy Corbyn, tonight. You know what I believe about these topics. It’s not that they aren’t very important. But you know what I might say about them. Our Bible lessons tonight have signposted us into a different area.
We tend to think that being too busy is a contemporary disease. In the old days, we might think, life moved at a slower pace. People had more time to think; a better quality of life. 
And then we read this passage from the Book of Exodus – something which is getting on for 3,000 years old – and Moses’ father-in-law Jethro is tackling Moses about organising his time better. He is just too busy. The solution is for Moses to delegate: he should just concentrate on the really difficult cases and leave the mundane disputes for his assistants to decide. Because the business, ‘busyness’, say, is all in the context of being a judge.
Being a judge was a very important thing in ancient Israel. You’ll recall that there is a section of their history recounted in the Book of Judges. The famous judge Deborah, for example. The judges were also the leaders, were kings and queens. They had a double function. The secular jurisdiction, settling disputes between the people, and also, because this was Israel, God’s chosen people, the judges were there to steer the people towards obedience to the One True God, and to steer them away from worshipping the false gods, the Baals, that the Canaanites worshipped.
It might seem quite an odd idea to us, that the most important person in society should be a judge. The Book of Judges is, in almost all respects, a story of the various kings of Israel, how one succeeded another: all the various stories, Samson and Delilah, the battles with the Amalekites, Sodom and Gomorrah: all the highlights of the Israelites’ history. 
In each case the hero of the hour, the king, tackled the unbelief of the Israelites and their tendency to chase after false gods, put them straight, and back into a relationship with the One True God, and then, when you would expect, perhaps, the historical account to say, ‘He reigned – for example, like the Queen – for so many years’, or you might hear that the king had given his name to some magnificent new building, the King Jephtha Memorial Stadium, or something, no, that’s not how the story went.
In the Book of Judges, when a king was established in his new reign, what he did was he judged the people: and it’s recorded in each king’s case how many years he did this judging. It reads almost as though you could substitute the word ‘ruled’ for ‘judged’, but I think that the special significance of the judging was that the main purpose of it was to keep the people faithful to the true religion, the worship of the One True God, and not to go after following other, false, gods.
A rather different type of judging from weighing up the merits of one case against another; but as we see in the first lesson, there certainly was conventional judging involved: so much of it that Moses really needed an assistant. Growing good judges is something which has come to be one of the attributes of the Jewish people over the years. Today, four out of the eleven Supreme Court judges (in what used to be the judicial committee of the House of Lords) are Jewish. There is a terrific judicial tradition in Judaism: in Jewish history, to be a judge is as important as, and sometimes is the same thing as, being a king.
We don’t get much information in our lessons today about how the judges operated or what they were deciding; what sort of disputes, what sort of cases they were involved in. The overriding duty was to uphold the law of Moses, to maintain the most important principle, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart,’ and so on; the Shema Israel. The judge is there to judge people’s conduct, to make sure that it complies with the standard, that they maintain their allegiance to the One True God rather than getting sidetracked and following false gods. 
We don’t really have judges that do that sort of thing today. We might say, as preachers in the pulpit, or as good faithful people in the pews, that there are apparently false gods around. People are effectively worshipping other things than God: money, and status, and celebrity, and so on.
But these days there is nobody in an authoritative position, like a judge, who is going to condemn it. Indeed, I think modern people would be pretty resistant to the idea that as a matter of law, somebody could condemn what they had chosen freely for themselves, however misguidedly, as their life-styles.

What about Jesus? What did He say about judging? What we see, in our New Testament lesson, is that on the face of it, Jesus went against the great Jewish judicial tradition. Don’t do it, He said. By whatever standards you mete out justice, you yourselves will be condemned.
One difference, between what the Old Testament judges were doing and what Jesus was talking about, was that the word ‘to judge’ can cover judging something, deciding between the relative merits of two different arguments, and assessing the worth of a person. Judging what someone is as opposed to what they do. ‘I think that so-and-so is rubbish’ is the sort of judging which Jesus is against. Choosing whether one person’s argument is to be preferred as against another argument, is what Moses was doing.
In St Luke’s gospel chapter 18 Jesus brings up the question of judging again, in his parable of the Unjust Judge. A widow keeps on badgering the judge to give her judgment in her favour, and eventually he gives in:
And there was a widow in that city; and she came unto him, saying, Avenge me of mine adversary.

And he would not for a while: but afterward he said within himself, Though I fear not God, nor regard man;

Yet because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me. (Luke 18:3-5)
‘Avenge’ is translated as ‘give justice to’ in modern Bible translations (such as the NRSV). You can see the wealth of possible meanings this topic of ‘justice’, and the exercise of judging, can have. ‘I demand justice’ often means, ‘I want a judgement in my favour’. It’s difficult to see why this judge is said to be ‘unjust’: literally, κριτής της αδικίας, judge of injustice. 
He is said to be a judge who had no fear of man or God. ‘No fear of man’ implies impartiality, a good thing in a judge. ‘No fear of God’ might imply a lack of principle, in a Jewish context where a judge had to assess the merits of a case against the Law of Moses, that is, the Law of God given to Moses. Today we would say, with Lord Denning, ‘Be ye ever so high, the law is above you’: we speak of, we revere, the rule of law. And that law is man-made: although it may well coincide with the law of Moses. Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.
Jesus draws the same lesson from the parable of the Unjust Judge as he does in our lesson from St Matthew. Ask, and it shall be given to you – just as the widow found out, by being persistent. But there’s no suggestion that she received a judgement which she didn’t deserve – or to put it another way, there is no reason to think that she received a judgement which was not justified on the merits of the case.
Perhaps the use of the word ‘avenge’ in the King James Version in Luke 18 gives a clue. Remember what St Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, quoting Deuteronomy: 
Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. (Romans 12:19)
One of the earliest functions of a system of justice was to replace private vendettas. If you had suffered injury or loss, instead of seeking revenge, you sought a remedy in court.
But who is qualified to be a judge? Are you condemning one of parties because they have a slight fault, that you yourself have in spades? I think we are meant to draw the conclusion that, at least where questions of human worth are concerned, only the ‘Judge Eternal, throned in splendour’ can take the case. 
But what about those current concerns? What about refugees, or whether to bomb in Syria, or even whether Jeremy Corbyn is a Good Thing? Who is qualified to judge? And what would the cases for and against say? And if you have managed to get that all in order, would these questions be ones for Moses himself, or for the Judge Eternal, or could you safely leave them to a magistrate?
Let us pray for God’s wisdom, and for the Holy Spirit to inspire and guide us, in all these matters which call for judgement, and for the best judges.

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