Who Made Me a Judge?
A New Commentary on Luke 12:13-14
“…if Jesus refuses to be the judge maybe I should too.”
“Do you support the Palestinians or the Israelis?” “Do you believe the U.S. should be sending money to Ukraine in their fight against Russia?” “Who do you support in the upcoming debate, Gavin Newsom or Ron De Santis? We should have an opinion on each of these issues no matter how much or little we know about them. I have certainly decided where I stand. But when Jesus was asked to get involved in a battle in his day he refused. Is that even an option?
Jesus was teaching one day when a man abruptly asked him to get involved in a family fight. He felt he was being treated unjustly by his brother in the distribution of their inheritance. His request wasn’t particularly unusual. Rabbis were asked to weigh in on issues like this one as part of their calling. Surely this was an important issue of justice. But Jesus refused saying, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?”1
His response shocks me. If I am a compassionate person I should get involved. Even distant issues over which I have very little control should be my concern as a global citizen. It’s sad when family relationships, long-term friendships and local commitments are broken by our take on such issues. But if they disagree with us on Israel and Palestine or money for Ukraine or the way that California and Florida are run then we cannot be faulted. This is about justice. If they disagree with us they are not on the side of justice.
But Jesus and Teddy Roosevelt have seen something I haven’t seen; something that makes them believe that taking the seat of the judge isn’t the best way to live life. Roosevelt, in his speech “Citizenship in a Republic,” warned against this way of life: “The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer. A cynical habit of thought and speech, a readiness to criticize the work which the critic himself never tries to perform, an intellectual aloofness which will not accept contact with life’s realities - all these are marks, not…of superiority but of weakness.”2
Jesus rejected this approach as well. The value of his life didn’t come from getting in the middle of other people’s battles. His purpose was to make people aware of a better option. In alignment with that other path, he refused to judge the two brothers. Instead, he taught the brother who had approached him about the better way of life. Then Jesus left him to make his own decision and handle his own battle while he took his message, personally, to other communities. If Jesus refused to be the judge, maybe I should too.
Who made me the judge of Ukraine or Israel and Palestine or Florida or California anyway? I still have my views. But the better way of Teddy and Jesus is available to me as well. Instead of focusing my energy on judging others from a distance, I can choose to do justice in the local interactions I have today. How can I strengthen existing relationships? What can I do to show compassion in the unplanned encounters I have with people? How can I work for justice in the local issues which directly affect me? It takes courage to ask and answer these questions because it requires me to deal, not just with people and ideas who are far enough away from me to be almost theoretical, but with situations and struggles that are directly in my path. Roosevelt encourages me forward in a description of that better life that resonates in so many ways with the life of Jesus:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
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Luke 12:14 (TNIVUK)