Christian Karma

I want to give a little airtime to some teachings of Jesus that have flown under the radar in modern Christendom as they do not fit the pre-approved Protestant narrative. These are small, surprising bits of discourse from Jesus that have easily fallen prey to “yeah, but what about this other verse?” dismissal. I want to give them space to be heard and, hopefully, to ignite our imagination. Today I want to focus on two very short verses. Matthew 7:1-2 attributes this saying to Jesus:

“Do not judge so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.”

This is by no means an obscure passage. Even most non-Christians are vaguely aware that Jesus said “judge not lest ye be judged.” But the truth is that within Christianity there are few verses more quickly shrugged off and swept back under the rug than these. It’s not even that we disagree with the premise that people shouldn’t judge one another, but the idea is seen as somehow dangerous, slippery, a gateway to liberalism and compromise. Disgraced Seattle megapastor Mark Driscoll routinely mocked what he portrayed as effeminate male Christians citing Matthew 7 as their excuse to get away with all manner of personal sins. “Hey, don’t judge me, man!”

Given the current religious/political climate in America, it seems urgent that we stop and listen to what Jesus is saying.  I want to give these two verses special attention, particularly the second one which is rarely discussed.

At face value it sounds like Jesus is presenting a sort of Christian Karma (sans reincarnation). Being judgmental of others will result in you being judged, and what you dish out is what you will receive. Choose to be harsh with your neighbor, and you will be treated harshly. Sow seeds of forgiveness, and you will be forgiven yourself. A more provocative way to say it might be, the God you give is the God you get.

But here a major objection pops up: “These verses aren’t about God’s judgment, they’re about people judging each other! God will still judge everyone in the end based on how well they’ve kept His law, or how much they believed in Jesus. We have lots of verses to prove it!!” But Jesus, true to character, challenges our deepest religious assumptions. Consider these additional verses, not to trump or dismiss Jesus’ words, but to add startling dimension to them:

“Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:19; 18:18)

“If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven, if you retain any sins, they are retained.” (John 20:23)

Right here in Matthew, Jesus tells his followers that they will have the authority to “bind and loose” anything on earth. That is, they can forbid or permit anything according to their own judgment and it will be so. Similarly, at the end of John’s gospel, he tells his followers that they have the power to forgive sins (as he did) and they will be forgiven from on high. This constitutes a radically innovative notion of God and religion. Unlike their ancestors, whose only task was to obey the ancient written Law, Jesus’ followers must come together to determine a way forward for themselves.

To put it another way, for followers of Jesus religion is an instrument of either forgiveness or condemnation.

Sadly, too many Christians throughout history and in our own day seem to have interpreted this task negatively, as if our mandate was to dole out condemnation against all deserving targets. But what if we made the effort to interpret this charge in the positive, and according to the spirit of Jesus himself? If Jesus regularly pronounced forgiveness on the undeserving, including his own unrepentant murderers, should the church not seek to emulate him in our own “binding and loosing”? What if we sowed into the world seeds of forgiveness and liberation instead of condemnation? What if we chose to project the forgiving Father of Jesus rather than the God who enforces our own bigotry and disgust?