On Judges, Pastors, and Robes

Recently, the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch got started. Senator Ben Sasse (from Nebraska), in his opening remarks for the hearing, said some interesting things that are actually helpful and good reminders for us in the church. Here’s part of what he said.

I want to focus my opening remarks around a simple image: a judge’s black robe. It’s a strange thing that judges wear robes. But instead of looking past this strange convention, let’s look right at it. For it isn’t just some relic from the past. It isn’t just something people wore long ago in a forgotten era of formality, like a powdered wig.

So why do the robes – often unfashionable and unflattering – persist? The reasons were summed up better than I could put it by one sitting judge. He said:

“[D]onning a robe doesn’t make me any smarter. But the robe does mean something – and not just that I can hide coffee stains on my shirt. It serves as a reminder of what’s expected of us – what Burke called the ‘cold neutrality of an impartial judge.’ It serves, too, as a reminder of the relatively modest station we’re meant to occupy in a democratic society. In other places, judges wear scarlet.... Here, we’re told to buy our own plain black robes – and I can attest the standard choir outfit at the local uniform supply store is a good deal. Ours is a judiciary of honest black polyester.”

The author of these insightful words was Judge Neil Gorsuch. And that statement is an excellent lens through which to frame the work of this Committee this week – and indeed the work of the Supreme Court for the next century and beyond. 

I want to make three simple, overlapping points about the judge’s black robe: 

One, it changes the way our eyes see the Court;

Two, it reiterates the duty – the calling – of a judge to the judge; and

Three, it gives us an opportunity to teach our kids about our – their – Constitution, our fundamental law, the enduring paper that defines what our government can and cannot do. 

Senator Sasse went on to elaborate on these points, but for the purpose of this article it’s enough to narrow the message down to this point. The judges robe is a reminder, to the judge and to those on trial, that the judge has been placed in his or her position by the people of this nation for the purpose of impartially upholding the law.  The judge isn’t to decide the case based on his or her preferences or opinions, but based upon the constitution of the United States and the law of the land.  The robe covers the judge, so that the idea is that it shouldn’t matter who the judge i
s, but about the facts of the case and the law of the land.
In much the same way that the judges robe covers him or her, because it’s the office that is more important than the individual, so it is that the robe worn by the pastor reminds him and the congregation that the pastor is there for a specific reason.  The pastor isn’t there to do whatever he wants or to do what the people want.  The pastor isn’t there to say what he wants or to speak the words the people want to hear.  The pastor is there, called by God, to preach the message God would have him proclaim and to administer the sacraments according to the Word of God.  The pastor is there to forgive the sins of the repentant, not because he himself has some special ability, but because he is there to fill the office of pastor which includes delivering God’s forgiveness to God’s people.

So in much the same way as the judge's robe reminds us of what he or she has been given to do, so the vestments worn by the pastor remind us that he is there to speak God’s Word of law and gospel, to baptize, administer the Lord’s Supper, hear confessions, speak Christ’s forgiveness, and be an under shepherd of the Good Shepherd. 


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