Matthew 7:1-5, 2 Corinthians 5:11-21
It was about a year ago that I came across Mark Sandlin’s article (blog) “10 Clichés Christians Should Stop Saying.” It stayed with me. When I hear some of those clichés he named being used, I think of that article. So, I thought maybe it would be worth spending some time looking at those clichés.
I’m not doing them in any particular order. So, the cliché for today is “It’s OK to judge.” He wrote, “Recently, there has been a rash of Christian bloggers defending their right to judge. I guess it’s a thing. All the cool bloggers are doing it. I love being cool. And apparently it’s cool to judge others. So, let me judge them for trying to justify judging others. …Oh, give me just a minute though. It turns out I’ve got a log in my eye. I’ll need to take care of that first.”
“Do not judge so that you may not be judged.” I thought that I would look for the place where this passage appears in the Revised Common Lectionary because then I could find some helpful reflections on it, interpretations by scholars I respect. Much to my surprise, I found that this passage was completely omitted from the three year cycle exploring the scriptures. Now, to me, it is a familiar scripture passage. But, it’s not one that those who established the cycle thought worth including.
Why is that, I wonder? Is it too simplistic? Or, does its omission reflect our discomfort with a command that seems to strike at the very heart of who we think we are to be? Are we not supposed to look at this world and see the ways in which it falls short of God’s intent and plan? That agenda requires us to judge the world – and find its faults.
What if the church were to choose to be silent in the face of the world’s ills? “Live and let live” could become our creed. “We won’t judge. We won’t speak out against or about that which enslaves and hurts and destroys people, communities, societies, and the world.” We don’t want to be perceived as being judgmental. Is that what Jesus meant when he said, “Do not judge so that you will not be judged?”
The Interpreter’s Bible says that this command is new. Much of what Jesus taught had its roots in the Jewish tradition. But this does not. Yet the word “judge” is difficult. M. Eugene Boring noted that there is a broadness to the word in both Greek and English which makes it difficult to discern Jesus’ intent. Yet, Boring goes on to say, the context tells us that Jesus is extending a “call to live in the light of the dawning kingdom of God.” Right after Jesus commanded his hearers not to judge, he assumes that they will judge. “For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” This verse seems to imply that living in the light of the kingdom of God means that judgments will have to be made.
Judgments will have to be made. We can’t stand back and wash our hands of the ills, the hurts, and the injustices we see all around us. “Do not judge” is not to be used as an excuse to be disengaged from God’s beloved world. Boring suggests that the warning is about how judgments are made. God’s disciples will be judged by the same standards that the disciples use to dispense judgment on others. Therefore, God’s disciples need to be careful about the way they judge others.
“You sure told them!” a parishioner was fond of telling me after church. “You sure told them!” He, of course, was never included in the “them” I was telling! And it is one of the easy faults for me as a preacher to think about “them”, those that I might feel the need to tell so that they can clean up their act! But, maybe part of Jesus’ warning in this passage is that we need to recognize our own fallenness and our own participation in the systems and institutions of this world that perpetuate the brokenness. It’s easy to point out the fault of others. It’s not nearly as easy to see our participation in the ways of the world that contribute to those faults. We see the speck in our neighbor’s eye and do not acknowledge the log in our own. My better sermons are ones that are preached to me.
As I was thinking about this theme, I remembered an observation from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. So I went back to a few of his books to see if I could find the line I remembered. I didn’t find it exactly. But I found powerful statements on how we interact with others, and on the call of the church to look at the world and see its sin. Bonhoeffer participated in resistance to the Nazi regime. He critiqued the church for its silence in the face of that regime’s evils. Yet, he cautioned again and again that judgment of the other was not allowed. He said that others are to be viewed only through Christ who mediates our relationship. In The Cost of Discipleship he wrote, “If the disciples make judgments of their own, they set up standards of good and evil. But Jesus Christ is not a standard which I can apply to others. He is judge of myself, revealing my own virtues to me as something altogether evil….Judgment is the forbidden objectivization of the other person which destroys single-minded love. I am not forbidden to have my own thoughts about the other person, to realize [that person’s] shortcomings, but only to the extent that it offers to me an occasion for forgiveness and unconditional love, as Jesus proves to me….Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating.”
“Judgment is the forbidden objectivization of the other person which destroys single-minded love.” We might think of all the ways we are encouraged, in this society, to see others not as people, individuals, beloved children of God, but as objects. We judge appearances – weight, clothing. We judge lifestyles. We judge incomes. We judge education. We judge skin color. We judge backgrounds. We judge neighborhoods. We judge nationality. We judge age. We live in the “us” versus “them” world. Particularly, we live in the “us” versus “them” society.
“From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view, even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way,” Paul wrote. These powerful words must have influenced Bonhoeffer. We are to see others only through or by way of Christ. First, we picture our very selves standing before the Christ who calls us. As we do so, we are to acknowledge our own failings – failings that are forgiven by Christ, yet failings we need to acknowledge in order to move into a new way of living, into the values of God’s realm.
“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us.”
We are ambassadors for Christ. Ambassadors! Think of the role of ambassador. The ambassador has no coercive power. I do believe that the best ambassadors respect the people to whom they are sent. They make friends with them. They honor their traditions and their ways. They invite curiosity by being curious. They invite respect by being respectful. And, in the midst of those relationships, they bear witness to the values of their senders. The ambassador represents the sending entity.
I like the image of ambassador. It’s not one that we often lift up. I don’t think there’s a hymn that celebrates or honors this role. But, think about those who serve as ambassadors and about the places they’re sent. I would guess that effective ambassadors are those who are willing to value where they go. They don’t judge it and find it lacking. I knew someone years ago who travelled extensively. Every time she came back from a foreign country she would talk about how awful it was, how it didn’t live up to her standards. I always wondered why she bothered to go! Her judgment of those foreign places limited her ability to enjoy them.
“It’s okay to judge.” No. And, yes. But, no first. Too often judgment is outward looking. Judgment sees the fault of the other and ends there. Judgment when applied to other people or groups of people opens the door to making them objects. And when others are perceived as objects it is difficult to be in relationship with them. To use a modern example, recently it made the news that many men who are conservative Christians cannot imagine spending time with a woman other than their wives. Those women, in their eyes, are potential threats to the sanctity of their marriage relationships. It doesn’t matter who the woman is. They have been pre-judged. They are threats. There is no potential for friendship – or even for working relationships – with that attitude.
When we see the logs in our own eyes first, when we look at the world and acknowledge that we are enmeshed in its sin and brokenness, then we can begin to speak of God’s good intent for us and for all people. Paul said that Christ has given us the ministry of reconciliation. That is a ministry not of division, but of bringing together, through Christ. It is the ministry of breaking down the walls of hostility. We can work toward that vision as we see, acknowledge, and work to overcome the walls that separate us from one another, from our neighbors, from particular groups of people, and, yes, from those we consider to be our enemies.