Let God be the Judge
1 Corinthians 4:1-5
When you take on a task, or even a major life change, it’s important to consider why you do it. It could be something you rather enjoy, like a hobby or interest. And in that case your motivation, your “why”, is probably “because I enjoy it. It helps me unwind at the end of the day, puts me in a better mood, and is even a way I better myself.” Great! If it’s a major project at work or school, the motivation is probably because it was assigned, and you have to get it done. You could maybe take it a step farther and say you want to do the project well because you take pride in your work, you like your company, and it reflects well on your character. Just one more example, something a little more life changing. What might be your motivation for a major life decision like getting married, starting a family, or moving for any number of reasons? It could be love for another person. It could be fulfilling your life dreams, or something else.
Now, imagine any one of these situations if your motivation was misaligned. What if you started a hobby and then found you didn’t really enjoy it. Yet you continued that hobby simply because you didn’t want to quit, or perhaps because you’ve already invested some money it in. That really changes the game. Your motivation, your “why”, is now completely different. On the outside it may all still look the same. You still complete the assignments, finish the task, or continue in your hobby just the same. Maybe even put on a good face. But when the motivation is misaligned, it becomes something completely different. I’m going to even take it one step farther.
What is your motivation for being faithful stewards of the gifts that God has given you. That’s really the one requirement that this reading from 1 Corinthians 4 is addressing, and really, could be one way to summarize everything that God asks of us. He asks us to be faithful. Paul writes, “It is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful” (1 Cor 4:2). There’s really an illustrated role that helps flesh this out a little bit better for us. NIV captures the idea, but misses the imagery. What verse 2 is saying is “it is required of stewards that one be found trustworthy” (1 Cor 4:2 NASB). A steward is one who managed a portion of all that his master had. So the master takes a portion of his possessions – note: they belong to the master, not the steward – but the master trusts the steward and allows him to have complete management of whatever he has been given. So, one steward may manage the flocks and herds of the master. Another steward may manage the finances. And yet another could manage the master’s affairs. Each steward is given complete confidence in whatever they have been given as if it were his own, yet really, it belongs to the master.
So, what have you been given by your master, God? Let’s start with the very fundamental, you’ve been given your life. In addition to that, you’ve been given certain abilities and talents which can enrich your life and the lives of others. You’ve been given your role as a student or employee. You’ve maybe been given a spouse and a family. You’ve been given all your possessions. And here’s a difficult one to wrap our minds around sometimes: your vocation.
Some would think of a vocation simply as a job you do, maybe an occupation. Others think of a vocation as your passion – something you are pursuing. In Luther’s day, “vocation” was understood to apply only to those called to religious service. Yet, as Luther studied God’s word, he began to realize that “vocation” is much more than that. The Bible points out that a human being is not called away from this world; rather, one is called to enter and engage the world, especially those who are in need, powerless, or suffering. This means that every person is called to live his or her life in relationship to others. While young Luther was raised with the notion that only the work of religious professionals really “mattered” in the world – I think we fall into that mindset at times too – yet the Bible shows that we all form part of an interdependent web in which life and health are sustained and supported. Jesus even said, “anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to Christ will certainly not lose their reward” (Mk 9:41). So, the test for vocation is not “Are you doing something religious?” but “Are you serving the real needs of your neighbor?”
That’s vocation. That’s the section of his possession that God has asked you to manage. It’s every place your life touches the life of another. Your vocation as student has to do with the way your life touches the lives of your fellow students and teachers. Your vocation as employee has to do with the way your life touches your co-workers and employers. Your vocation as spouse and family member has to do with the way your life touches the lives that God has put into a family with you.
So, with all that in mind, back to the original question. Have you proven faithful as a steward of all that God has entrusted to you? I think every one of us could go through each area of our vocation to see where we have fallen short. I haven’t been the student or employee that God would have me be in this world. I haven’t faithfully been the committed and loving spouse that God would have me be. I haven’t always been the caring and nurturing parent that God has called be to be. I haven’t faithfully used the gifts and abilities God has given me to serve my neighbor or to serve my God.
What does faithfulness even look like? Can anyone prove faithful? Hebrews 11 is known as the “Hall of Faith” chapter of the Bible. In it, you find brief summaries of about 20 people or groups who were honored by God as being “faithful”. But let’s take a closer look at one of these divinely called “faithful”. Scripture calls Moses a faithful servant in God’s house (He 3:3). Yet he was not perfect. Do you remember when God called him from the burning bush? I wouldn’t really say that he was willing to take on that vocation. He even complained about his ability to speak, which God specifically said was a non-issue for this task. He was not always liked by the people he was asked to lead. He even made an infamous, monumental blunder when he struck the rock for water instead of speaking to it as God had commanded (Nu 20:12). And yet, Scripture says that God judged Moses as faithful.
The crux of the matter, and something we need to understand, is really that human judgment does not have the final say. We aren’t to let others judge us, nor are we even to judge ourselves according to human standards. “I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself” (1 Cor 4:3). Because, the fact is, we as humans jump to conclusions. We presume to judge what God alone is able to judge. We use metrics to judge that aren’t God’s metrics. Human judgment usually picks at specks of sawdust and makes a big deal about them (Mt 7:3). But God does not judge that way.
“The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Sam 16:7). As Jesus sat and watched people put offerings into the temple treasury, he praised the woman who gave the least as being faithful and giving the most. Because he saw what no one else could see. He saw that while others gave out of their wealth, she, out of her poverty, put in everything – all she had to live on (Mk 12:41-44). Again, whereas everyone might praise the exemplary conduct of one person, and frown upon the dishonesty of another, it is God who hears the prayers of both. It is God who proclaims the dishonest sinner forgiven because he hears his sincere prayer of repentance, while condemning the Pharisee who claimed to not need forgiveness. So, who’s judgment should we really be concerned about? Will we power through the burdens we place upon ourselves with misaligned motives because we want to be praised by others? No, the Bible says, “It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore… wait until the Lord comes” (1 Cor 4:3-5).
That’s good news for you and for me. I don’t know what weighs heavier upon you, your own judgements against yourself or the judgments of others. Either way, we all have been about as faithful Moses when he complains against God for putting so much on his plate, “Why have you brought this trouble on your servant? What have I done to displease you that you put the burden of all these people on me? Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth?… I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me” (Nu 11:11-14). And yet, despite moments like this, God judges Moses as faithful! Even puts him in Hebrews 11, the “Hall of Faith!” Because that is not how God judges you and me – not in our moments of weakness. God judges you through the strength of Christ. Who, “for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12:2) so that you could be judged faithful. It is through the blood of Christ that you are cleansed as with a launderer’s soap. It is by Christ living in you and leading you on paths of righteousness that you are refined and declared faithful.
So, in all that you do in your vocation – whether it be completing an assignment, building someone up, or changing diapers – what God asks for is faithfulness; that we prove faithful. It’s faithfulness that flows from Christ’s love for you. Faithfulness that looks at all that God has given you and stands in humble awe. God has given you the abilities and the talents. He’s given you your vocation and possessions. All he asks is that you use them for others, out of love for him. And now you see how it all comes down to motivation – the right motivation.
Allow me a longer quote from Martin Luther which vividly illustrates the contrast. “Now observe that when our sinful nature takes a look at married life, she (sinful nature) turns up her nose and says, ‘Do I have to rock the baby, change its diapers, make its bed, smell its stench, stay up nights with it, take care of it when it cries, and on top of that care for my wife, provide for her, labor at my job, take care of this and take care of that, do this and do that, and whatever else of bitterness and drudgery married life involves? Why should I make such a prisoner of myself?’
“But what does Christian faith say to this? It opens its eyes, looks upon all these insignificant, distasteful, and despised duties in the Spirit, and is aware that they are all adorned with divine approval as with the costliest gold and jewels. It (Christian faith) says, ‘O God, because I am certain that you have given me life, and have given me this child from my own flesh, I also know for certain that it meets your perfect pleasure. I confess to you that I am not worthy to rock the little baby or change its diapers, or to be entrusted with the care of the child and its mother. How is it that I, without any merit, have been given this distinction of serving your creature and your most precious will? O how gladly I will do so, even though the duties may seem insignificant and despised. Neither cold nor heat, neither drudgery nor labor will dissuade me, for I am certain that this is pleasing in your sight.’” Later he continues and says, “God, with all his angels and creatures, is smiling, not because that father is changing diapers, but because he is doing so in Christian faith.”1 God looks past the task itself and into the heart. “He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God” (1 Cor 4:5).
1 Luther’s Sermon on “The Estate of Marriage” (1522)