Kennedy's 'Postcards from
Jonal entry 996 | Friday, June 23 2006
Though my pilgrimage from evangelical (and what at an earlier time I unashamedly called "fundamental") Protestantism to Eastern Orthodoxy a dozen years ago had no hitches, there were two major changes in my interpretation of biblical teachings. They had to do with almsgiving and judging. The first is easy to cover (as I don't intend to try to persuade anyone but just to report it). My "Protestant" view of almsgiving was that giving to the poor had to be carefully studied in order to prevent the donations falling into the wrong hands and their being used for wrong purposes (like a "wino" buying a bottle of cheap wine).
But my reading of the early fathers (the "spiritual giants" of the church's first millenium) as I pursued my study of the early church persuaded me that my approach to almsgiving had been unbiblically judgmental. The fathers I've read have convinced me that the true spiritual benefit in almsgiving is in treating the recipient of your gifts as an icon of the Savior himself. In fact, the tradition of the church is such that anyone asking for a handout may be what the Old Testament calls "an angel of the Lord," and giving to anyone no matter how derelict he or she may look, may be giving to the Lord. If you're dedicated to being Jesus' disciple, you will be tested, and the next alms-seeker you meet may be just such a test.
I was nudged toward writing about these two topics by two things that "just happened" in the 24 hours before beginning to write this. Some writers would refer to those "coincidences" as the work (or play) of my creative muse. The first was Judy Rose's choice of Thought for the Day for Thursday's Postcard: "The generous heart does not know or care what is done with the given." The second was Judy Martin's devotional reading sent to her list (to which I subscribe) for Thursday. It was a short reflection on "judgment" by Oswald Chambers, author of the Protestant spiritual classic, My Utmost for His Highest, whose writings are always quotable. This one, entitled, "The Unchanging Law of Judgment," was the most Orthodox-sounding teaching I've ever seen from a Protestant. A quick search of the worldwide web found the same devotional for yesterday on the Radio Bible Class site, which I'm linking here for those who don't subscribe to Mrs. Martin's devotional list.
My "Protestant" interpretation of "judge not" was "don't condemn anyone or consider him beyond saving; only God can make that call." Though it's true that only God judges perfectly and on the basis of having all of the facts, my earlier interpretation fell short of the full teaching of the New Testament, which Chamber's devotional so well summarizes. Though salvation grace is free and not a reward for our works, it is conditional. The one condition is stressed in the prayer most frequently uttered by Christians, "forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors." To be forgiven, we must first be forgivers.
Of course my interpretation was not the Protestant one, as Oswald Chambers demonstrates. In my youth I was influenced by the take on "judge not" that I identified as "Methodist liberal" then, which was "judge nothing." I knew loving the sinner had to be separated from the sin and that the sin, as Jesus and the disciples all stressed, had to be judged and never condoned. It's not possible for us sinners to help each other climb the ladder to holiness if we don't first deal with our own sins and share the good news that there is remedy for all the sins covered in the curse.
The key to the difference between "judge not" and "judge nothing" is in my statement in the second paragraph, "my approach to almsgiving had been unbiblically judgmental." I had determined that I need not help those who...well, as we would have said at that time...weren't willing to first "help themselves." But there's no way of knowing what anyone's intentions and desires are...judging an alms-seeker on the basis of external appearance is failing to love where love is being asked. Presuming that you know someone's motivations, whether they're related to alcoholism or drug abuse, or their attitudes toward social needs and solutions (someone too "conservative" or too "liberal," for example, or even "too judgmental" to deserve your help), fails the test of judging not. To love the alcoholic is to dissuade him from drink, of coursea paradigm for any sinful behaviorbut only while letting him know you're there for him, supporting his best intentions, ready to help him when he falls again.