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Right judgment: love, humility and restoration (September 17, 2023)

So often we determine who’s worthy of our time and concern based on who they know, how they act, or what benefit we might receive from them. Jesus shows us a different way, the way of “right judgment,” writes Daniel Frayer-Griggs.

Outlook Standard Lesson for September 17, 2023
Scripture passage and lesson focus: John 7:14-24

If you’ve ever applied for a job, you’ve probably had to provide some sort of evidence of your education and work experience. Depending on the field of work, this evidence may be a written and formal resume or an informal verbal recommendation from a friend or colleague who can attest to your skills, experience, and character. In academic contexts, when people apply for teaching positions, they often rely on the reputations and connections of their own teachers to open doors for them. It was not so different in Jesus’ day. There were certain requirements that a teacher had to meet to gain recognition and be seen as legitimate.

Take Paul as an example. In Acts, he provides a resume of sorts when, upon his arrest in Jerusalem, he defends himself to the crowds, saying, “I am a Jew born in Tarsus in Cilicia but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, educated strictly according to our ancestral law, being zealous for God, just as all of you are today” (22:3). The reference to his teacher is especially significant. Gamaliel was a respected authority, and by naming him, Paul benefited from his teacher’s reputation. Paul could expect to be granted a more favorable hearing and be seen with greater legitimacy based on this association.

This question of legitimacy and authority is central to today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus was without formal education, so when he comes to Jerusalem and teaches in the Temple, he faces considerable skepticism. His opponents in Jerusalem are astonished. This is perhaps partly due to the content of his teaching, but the main source of their bewilderment is implied by their question, “How does this man have such learning, when he has never been taught?” (John 7:15b). Jesus had no worldly resume to provide his hearers, for he was not the student of an established teacher whose reputation he could benefit from.

Earlier in this Gospel, Jesus quotes Isaiah 54:13, saying, “It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God’” (John 6:45). This is an eschatological vision, an expectation that in the last days those called by God will have the new covenant written on their hearts (see Jeremiah 31:33). According to John, Jesus had no earthly mentor or teacher because he was taught by God, the source of his legitimacy and authority. What is prophesied in Isaiah as the future state of all God’s children is already true of Jesus.

Yet while Jesus has no reputable earthly teacher to vouch for him, he still expects that some will recognize the authority of his teaching, a teaching that comes ultimately from God (v. 16). Those who do recognize the truth of his words will not do so based on worldly pretensions. They won’t recognize the truth Jesus speaks because has a puffed-up resume or the ancient equivalent of an Ivy League degree. Rather, those who already do the will of God will recognize that the source of Jesus’ teaching is also God. And Jesus makes clear that he does not seek his own glory – the glory that might be gained by name-dropping or boasting about one’s credentials – but the glory of the one who sent him (v. 16).

John goes on to identify the event that led to the criticism against Jesus. He had healed a man on the Sabbath (see John 5). In his defense, Jesus engages the other teachers in a debate about biblical law. He observes that it was common practice to circumcise eight-day-old boys on the Sabbath despite the fact that this required work. Jesus then employs a well-known Jewish rule of argumentation called qal wahomer (Hebrew for “light and heavy”), which moved from the lesser to the greater. Jesus essentially states that if an operation on a single member of the body is permissible on the Sabbath, they should all the more allow the healing of the whole body (v. 23). If surgical excision is allowed, why not physical restoration?

Whether or not Jesus’ interlocutors found his argument compelling is unclear. We don’t get to hear the rest of the debate. But his final words are direct and forceful: “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment” (v. 24). So often we determine who’s worthy of our time and concern based on who they know, how they act, or what benefit we might receive from them. Jesus shows us a different way, the way of “right judgment,” which is characterized by love, humility, and restoration. Let’s follow him on that way.

Question for discussion:

What are some instances when you’ve been tempted to judge on the basis of appearances?

What do you think it means to “judge with right judgment,” and how is it different from judging by appearances?

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