When Moses came down the mountain and saw the Israelites worshiping the golden calf, he took two steps. First, he smashed the tablets of the law that God had written — a great symbolic action, showing that they had broken the covenant and things would never be the same. (The second set of tablets was inscribed by Moses at God’s command, rather than directly by God.)
Then he ground the golden calf into powder, sprinkled the powder into water, and had the Israelites drink the mixture — another great symbolic action, showing that they would reap the bitter consequences of their sins. It was a powerful act of judgment.
By contrast, today’s culture tells us not to be judgmental. On one level, that’s deeply ironic. On another level, it’s exactly right. And, on a final level, it’s dead wrong.
It’s deeply ironic, because our culture judges and shames people for being judgmental. It commits the very same sin it accuses others of committing. We can do better than that kind of inconsistency, and it’s necessary.
It’s exactly right, in the sense that judgment of people is reserved to God. Jesus makes that clear in two parables this week. In one, He tells us that the weeds and the wheat grow side by side until judgment day, when they will be separated by the angels. In another, He says the kingdom is like a net that gathers many fish. Once they’re gathered, the angels throw out the bad and keep the good. The eternal destiny of a soul is in the hands of God’s judgment, not ours.
It’s dead wrong, in the sense that it proposes that there are no distinctions between right and wrong. We know that’s false from the Old Testament, in which God distinguishes between right and wrong. We know it’s false from the New Testament, in which Jesus makes distinctions between right and wrong. We know it’s false from the depths of our own consciences, because each of us has done and seen things that are right and wrong.
Finally, as Pope Benedict XVI pointed out in his 2007 encyclical on hope (“Spe Salvi”), we want a distinction between right and wrong. Each of us wants mercy for our own sins, of course. But we don’t want to believe that the difference between the great heroes of history and the great sins of history doesn’t ultimately matter. And the Church teaches — because Jesus taught — that God sees the difference and will bring judgment upon the difference.
There it is. Yes, we believe that there will be a final judgment. The rights and the wrongs of history ultimately will stand before God and be judged. And this, secretly, is one of the hopes of humankind: that right will ultimately be vindicated, and wrong will be named for what it is. Individually, we hope for grace and mercy. But, as Pope Benedict said: “Grace does not cancel out justice. It does not make wrong into right. It is not a sponge which wipes everything away.”
In that sense, says Pope Benedict, judgment is an essential element of Christian hope. But hope is not optimism; it doesn’t simply mean that things will get better. Hope holds that right and wrong ultimately will be put in their place by God.
So, culture is both right and wrong. On one level, culture is right to teach us not to judge people. But, on another level, the failure to believe in judgment is contrary to faith and robs us of hope. Let’s learn to make that distinction and fashion a better approach to judgment than our culture offers.