16 Jun How We Judge
“Do not judge,” says Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Those are very direct words Jesus uses and seemingly very clear ones, as well. Yet, I wonder how they are heard in a culture that claims to value tolerance yet still struggles mightily with bigotry in all its forms; in a society that routinely condemns the church for being judgmental; and in the church itself where the line between discernment and judgment is often fuzzy.
One important thing we need to do is define our terms. The truth is that we all make judgments every day, and we have to make those judgments in order to move about in the world. Will we order the turkey club or the meatball sub for lunch? That’s a judgment call. Will we buy the smaller, fuel-efficient car or the bigger SUV that slurps gasoline? That’s a judgment call. Will we let our ten-year old quit piano lessons? That’s a judgment call. So is the decision about whether we’ll follow the boss’s directive that is just over the line of ethical, or whether we’ll confront our neighbor about the midnight party, ignore it or call the police. We literally make hundreds of judgments every week.
Ah, but that is different from judging people, you’ll say. Well, yes and no. Judgments about people are also a necessary part of life. Is my dentist competent or do I need to find a new one? Is this childcare provider a safe and responsible person with whom I can entrust my children? Which of my employees is ready for a promotion? We make judgments about competence, commitment, responsibility and trustworthiness on a daily basis—and note, these include judgments about character.
Jesus is not telling us to avoid the kind of judgment (or “discernment” as we often call it in the church) that engages our critical thinking skills in order to make decisions for our lives. Jesus is telling us not to condemn one another. He is telling us that a haughty, superior attitude is mutually exclusive from building loving, supportive relationships, the kind of relationships his followers are to have with everyone, friend and enemy alike.
Where people both inside and outside the church make mistakes with this judgment business, I think, is in assuming that Jesus is advocating an “anything goes” attitude in his very terse directive, “do not judge.” Let’s be absolutely clear: he’s not suggesting anything of the sort. We are to speak the truth always—which means that we name injustice when we see it. We call out racist remarks. We shine the spotlight on abuse and exploitation. We take a stand against bullying. We do not condone immorality, hatred, violence or discrimination.
The rub comes in how we speak the truth. Humility and love must always lead us. I am a broken, flawed human being, and I must never forget that. I cannot know what is in another person’s heart. I can assess (i.e., judge) that a particular action is unacceptable, but I cannot know a person’s motive and I am never to condemn them as a human being. Calling for a change in action or attitude is different from denouncing or demeaning someone’s humanity. It’s the latter that rightly earns the label “judgmental” and that is to have no place in a disciple’s life.
Jesus is a master teacher, so it’s no surprise that he chooses a powerful word picture to illustrate his injunction against judging. It’s almost comical, actually. He wants to know, “why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but you don’t notice the log in your own eye?” In other words, we are to look at ourselves first. We’ll always find so much there that needs attention (the log) that it won’t leave us a lot of time to be examining everyone else around us. Thanks for the reminder, Jesus.
Yours for the Kingdom,