I told somebody this past week that the sermon for today could really only last a few seconds. Don’t get your hopes up, it’s going to be longer than that, but it seems like I should be able to just say something like, “Jesus says, ‘Do not judge.’ So, stop doing it. Amen, let’s stand and sing.”
It’s not as though the command is unfamiliar to us. The text we’re dealing with is in Luke 6:35-42.
“But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.
Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive and you will be forgiven; give and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.” And he also told them this parable: ” Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will not they both fall into a pit? A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher. Why do you see the speck that is in your brothers eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.”
It’s one of the most popular passages in the Christian Bible, well known among Christians and nonbelievers alike. In fact, I don’t know if there is any Christian ethic as respected by the outside world as “Do not judge.” Of course, the world is also acutely aware of our failure in following this command, and knows that while Jesus tells us not to judge, we are quite practiced in the art. Unfortunately, it comes quite easily to us.
Judgement against our friends, family, neighbors and strangers simmers deep within our hearts. Occasionally it might pop out as gossip or a sharp word, but we try to police ourselves about that, because we know it sounds bad. We don’t want to be known as judgmental people, but truthfully, even when we don’t actually say what we’re thinking, it is just so easy to harbor our verdicts, the bitter condemnations of people around us, deep in our hearts. We don’t want to judge. We know we’re not supposed to, but it just comes so easily to us.
One of the problems here is that we try to avoid judgmental behaviors without really working on judgmental attitudes. We try to catch that stuff before it gets out of our mouths, but really, by the time we get to that place we’ve really already lost the battle. The mouth is just speaking out of the abundance of the heart, and it’s the fact that all that condemnation is in our heart that is really the issue. Our morality begins with our identity, or at least our understanding of our identity. The way we understand ourselves controls the way we interact with other people and perceive them in powerful ways. That said, there are two significant things I have come to understand about myself that, the more I internalize them, the more they help me escape my tendency to judge. I want to share and confess here in the hopes that they can help you out as well.
1. I am not God. I know, it’s a shocker. But, seriously, it’s helpful for me to get in touch with the fact that I am not the sovereign lord of the universe. I believe people are accountable for the good and evil things they do in the world—but most of them aren’t accountable to me. I didn’t create anybody, and I’m not supremely powerful. Beyond that, my failure to be God also means that I have a limited amount of knowledge and insight into people. I don’t understand the whole of anybody’s situation, don’t understand the different things in people’s backgrounds that make them act the way they do. I don’t even understand why I do half the stuff I do, much less what’s going on in anybody else’s heart! So I will never the authority or information I need to pass judgment on anybody else.
2. Not only am I not God, but I also know that I am not perfect. Far from it, in fact. Most people I know can confirm this, but of course I know it more truly than anybody else could possibly suspect. After all, they can’t see what’s inside my heart. I am, like the rest of you, a broken human being, a person whose heart has been twisted by sin and who is powerless to recover except for the grace of God.
This is an important nuance to the world’s criticism of the church as being too judgmental. It wants to believe everything is alright. It’s as if the world wants refuse our right to judge on the basis that everyone is basically equally good. But we refuse to judge on the opposite basis, because we know that everyone, including ourselves, is broken and sinful.
I know, that because I’m not God and I’m not perfect, that I need grace from God. I need the grace of forgiveness and the grace that God gives to change and purify me. Truthfully, I need all the grace I can get. And that self-awareness really heightens the shock of this text for me. How I give grace to people around me can actually affect how God gives grace to me? Whoa. That is an absolutely stunning idea, and as it becomes more firmly lodged in my mind, it has the power to really shape the kinds of things I harbor in my heart towards other people.
Gratefully, though, I’m also aware that I receive grace from God! It’s not like I’m merely aware of my sin, awaiting some pending judgement and trying to butter God up before he makes his decision. I live in the joy and awareness that God has already acted decisively to extend grace to me.
Many of us live fairly aware of those two things, our need for grace and how we receive it. But, we stop there, not realizing that those who need and receive grace from God are also called to learn grace from God. I want God to teach me how to treat others like Jesus treats me.
For our community of faith, that really is the critical turn. So much of our worship and conversation revolves around what we need and receive, and how valuable it is to us. But how much value do we place on what we are called to become? How much do we value a gracious spirit? May God help us to honor those among us who cultivate that spirit, who become people of heroic forgiveness, who turn back any effort to condemn others from taking root in their own hearts. May we value those who work hard to become merciful, just as our father is merciful, and may we become a place of grace for those who—like us—need to receive it.
(This is part three of a series on the Sermon on the Plain. A list of the sermons and the audio recordings are here.)