Save Me a Seat on the Aisle

Romans 2:1-16

I’m going to let you in on a little secret this morning – Paul had read the OT. No – really. He knew Jews - he was a Jew!  But he knew from centuries of God’s dealing with his people that they were much more aware of the sins of others than they were of their own.
• Think of Nathan’s confrontation of David after his sin with Bathsheba. Nathan tells this story of a rich man, a poor farmer and his one little pet lamb – and we’re all getting it – but David is getting mad and condemning the rich man – until Nathan sets him back on his heels by pointing his finger at David and declaring, “You are the man!”
• Remember how Amos began his preaching in Samaria, the capital of northern Israel – and he condemns everybody around them – Syria, Philistia, Phoenicia, Edom, Ammon, Moab, even Judah, their rival sister nation to the south. And they are listening attentively, shouting “Amen, let’em have it!” Until he turns and says, “For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath…” And they are ready to tar and feather him.
• Jesus condemned the Pharisee who self-righteously prayed about himself, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.”

So, you can imagine what Paul’s Jewish readers are thinking as they listen to what he wrote in Romans 1:18,21-25.
They were feeling pretty smug – “That’s just about the way we see it too, Paul. You might have gone a little too easy on them, but they deserve to be condemned.”

Then Paul turns the focus from the worldly, immoral Gentiles, to the critical, self-righteous Jews – “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else…” (2:1).

You’ve seen them on TV – the movie critics – Ebert, Roeper, Siskel, Shalit – they get paid to watch movies and then tell you what they think – thumbs up - thumbs down / five stars – zero stars / must see – don’t waste your money. What a great job! Professional critic. Save me a seat on the aisle. We like to practice the craft as well – we’re amateurs of course.

We make ourselves spiritual judges – this person in – that person out / this person liberal – that person conservative / sinner – saved / benefit of the doubt – flatly condemn.
Paul takes us to task for our arrogant assumption that we can stand as anybody’s judge. He places us side by side with the only true judge. Listen to his comparison: 2:1-2 “…for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth.”
• When we judge others, we do it on the basis of incomplete information, on assumed motive, often times with personal animosity, against a backdrop of our own personal sinfulness.
• When God judges, it is based on truth. His judgment is with full knowledge of the facts, full comprehension of the motives, against a backdrop of his own absolute personal holiness, and out of the context of his perfect, unconditional love.
When God judges, it is thorough and fair – listen to another analysis from the Hebrews writer – Heb. 4:12-13 “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. //
Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”

Here’s Paul’s assessment of their attempt to usurp God’s place as judge: Romans 2:3-4 “So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance?”

“You a mere man” – who is this person who is judging and condemning others? Who is this who filters God’s grace through his own opinion – who dilutes God’s mercy with his own prejudice?
• The prodigal son’s older brother who was so upset he refused to attend the party.
• The worker who labored 10 hours and resented the one hour worker who received the same wage.
• It is you and I when we set ourselves up as judge, jury and executioner when we look at others and condemn their sins, knowing that ours are hiding just beneath the surface.

Paul’s assessment is harsh – judging others shows contempt for God’s kindness.

What is the purpose of God’s kindness toward us – his mercy – tolerance – patience? Not to puff us up, not to inflate our egos – but to lead us to repentance. It is our heart that God wants. When God has mercy on us, it is so that we might be merciful to others. But instead, it has made us arrogant and judgmental, and has brought God’s anger upon us – vs. 5 “But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath , when his righteous judgment will be revealed.”

Jesus told a parable with that theme in Matthew 18. A man owed the king a huge amount of money – so much he could never repay it. But the king, in his compassion forgave the man’s debt – just wiped it off the books and sent him home a free man. As this man was going out the door, he spotted another man who owed him fifty bucks. He grabbed the man by the collar and demanded he pay him back right now, but the man didn’t have the money to pay him. So the first man drags him off to debtors prison until he can pay him back. Well, word gets back to the king, and you can imagine how angry the king became. He had the man arrested and not only thrown into prison, but tortured until he could pay him back. (Matthew 18:23-35) God takes judgment seriously and when we fail to show the same kind of generosity and patience toward others that he has shown to us, you can be sure he will not take that lightly.

To illustrate and drive home his point, Paul begins a series of contrasts in vs. 6“God will give to each person according to what he has done. To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.”

Notice what he does not contrast is Jew and Gentile – they are both alike – vs. 11 “For God does not show favoritism.”

It’s when we start thinking that we are essentially different from everybody else – that we’re special, we’re privileged – God looks differently on us – and the rules don’t apply.
But in vss. 12-15, Paul makes it clear just how much alike we all are – “All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.)”

The point Paul is making is not that pagans without the law will be saved. His point is that even though the Jews have the law, it will not save them – look again at vs. 12 – “All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law.”

His point about those without the law is that the Jews should not pride themselves on being the possessors of the law – there are Gentiles out there who live better than you do. They don’t have the law, but they naturally do what it says because God wrote it on their hearts. Paul says, sometimes they live well, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes their conscience accuses them, sometimes it defends them. But neither having, or not having the law will justify or condemn. It is not simply hearing that justifies, but obeying.

I’ve thought about some people I’ve known over the years. Great big Bibles, Sunday morning pew sitters. They loudly and frequently condemn how sinful the world has become, as well as the vast majority of their erring brethren who don’t think like they think. They pride themselves on their piety. They, and only a few others they deemed sound enough, were going to heaven. But their private lives were a shambles. Miserable marriages, children who had bitterly left the Lord. Their personalities were arrogant and critical. The only joy they had was in congratulating themselves over how much better they were than everyone else.

There’s a huge difference between learning the Bible and living the Bible – 2:13 “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.”

Why are we so ready to judge others? What benefit do we gain by knocking others down a rung or two on the ladder? Or worse, condemning them to hell, with a twinge of gladness in our voice?
• There is something smug and self-satisfying about donning the robe, stepping behind the bench, and slamming down the gavel – “Guilty!”
• Judging others makes us feel better about ourselves. When we knock others down, we look a little taller. We compare ourselves with others and look pretty good – and then we boast to God, “compared with them, you’re lucky to have me.”
• But that’s the problem. God doesn’t compare us to them. Others aren’t the standard. God is. And compared to him, our righteousness is but tattered rags.

Suppose God judged us on the basis of being able to jump across the Colorado River? Some of us might take a running leap and make it 3 feet before plunging into the water – others 6 feet, a couple 15 feet, and if we were to bring in an Olympic champion long jumper he might clear 29 feet (Mike Powell has held the world record of 29.4 feet since 1991) – but plunge he would – far short of the other shore. How ludicrous to brag about jumping farther than others when we all fall short of the goal.

And that is the danger of comparing ourselves with others. The Jew over the Gentile, the Christian over the non-Christian, me over you, you over me. All of us fall short of God’s glory – without his grace, none of us are deserving of the glory of heaven.

God doesn’t grade on a curve. He doesn’t play favorites. And our only hope – the only hope anybody has, is in his grace purchased at the cross with the blood of Jesus Christ.