Connections 09.17.2017: The View from Below

Psalm 114; Romans 14:7-12

God is with us. Christ is present in us. These are, the Bible assures us, facts.

But such talk can go to our heads. After all, if God is with us, shouldn’t we be able to look down on other people? And if Christ is present in us, shouldn’t we be able to pass judgment on folks? I mean, having God with us and having Christ in us surely raises us to a level far above the masses.

So we might figure that they need to hear from us that they are under God’s judgment. We might even figure that, whether they know it or not, they want to hear from us. It’s for their own good.

And so when we go through hurricanes, earthquakes, or other disasters, some of God’s “spokespersons” will proclaim that the events are God’s judgment on somebody or another. They think they can make such pronouncements because God is with them and thus they think they have special insight into who deserves what.

In this week’s Romans text, Paul says that Christians ought not pass judgment on one another, so someone might point out that he doesn’t say we shouldn’t pass judgment on people who aren’t Christians. I would remind you of Jesus’ more sweeping pronouncement in Luke’s Sermon on the Plain: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned” (6:37).

Besides, passing judgment on folks, especially when they’ve been knocked down, is tacky.

We should also take our biases and prejudices into account. As the writer Anne Lamott has said, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

We should also be growing in humility. Jesus, the Son of God, “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8). We are called to be humble before God and before each other. Somewhere along the way I read a story about someone asking his elderly rabbi why people didn’t seem able to see the face of God anymore. He wondered why people couldn’t see that high. The rabbi told him that the opposite is true: nobody looks low enough.

If we practice appropriate humility, folks will more likely see Jesus in us.

Speaking of earthquakes and floods, in an interesting bit of accidental or providential timing, this week’s psalm uses language of geological upheaval to celebrate the Lord’s deliverance of the people from Egyptian bondage and deliverance of the land into their hands. “Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the LORD,” it declares. It’s metaphoric language that states a literal truth: where the Lord is, things get shaken up.

Imagine with me, if you will, that we Christians actually live in light of the fact that the presence of God in Christ with us means that we practice humility, love, mercy, and forgiveness rather than judgment.

Now wouldn’t that shake things up?

Discussion

1. In what way did “Judah [become] God’s sanctuary” and “Israel his dominion” (Ps 114:2)?
2. Why do you think the psalmist uses the language of geological upheaval to describe the exodus from Egypt and the occupation of Canaan?
3. How do the surrounding passages (14:1-6; 13-23) help us understand the Romans lesson text?
4. What does it mean to live and die “to the Lord” (Rom 14:8)?
5. Why should we remember that we are all “accountable to God” (Rom 14:12)?

Reference Shelf

Paul’s response draws on his entire theological argument to this point. From the start, he has associated the sort of judgment that humans make against each other on the basis of their superior virtue with arrogance and boasting (see 2:1). Humans are not accountable to each other but are answerable to God. Paul affirms again the basic point of 2:16, that God who knows human hearts will judge all people: “We will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written, ‘As I live,’ says the Lord, ‘Every knee shall bow to me and every tongue shall give praise to God”’ (14:11). The passage from Isa 45:23 that forms the heart of this citation (with the “as I live” influenced by passages like Isa 49:18) is preceded by the statement that “righteousness shall go out from my mouth.” A very high number of Paul’s citations in Romans have “righteousness” lurking somewhere in their original context! Paul then adds that “each person will have to give his own account to God” (14:12). Because God alone knows human hearts and judges the dispositions of the heart (including whether they “are convinced in their minds”), freedom of conscience must be maintained, and humans are forbidden to judge each other on the basis of appearances.

Luke Timothy Johnson, Reading Romans: a Literary and Theological Commentary, Reading the New Testament (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2001) 213.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra, father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin), grandfather to Sullivan. A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.

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