Romans 14:4, 9-10
Dr. Ian Paisley, the fiery Ulster cleric and politician was reported to have been preaching one Sunday on the End Times – and in particular on the Day of Judgement. As he reached the climax of his address he said that on the Day of Judgement “there would be wailing and gnashing of teeth”. At which point an old woman put up her hand and said “Dr. Paisley, I have no teeth.” Paisley replied “Madam, teeth will be provided”
Judging others is so very easy to fall into, even when we like to think that we don’t. Our eyes take in about 10 million bits of data per second. Our minds use that stream to make evaluations, assessments, and judgments. Judging others is as automatic as blinking. Before we know it, we’ve already done it.
In 1884 a young man died, and after the funeral his grieving parents decided to establish a memorial to him. With that in mind they met with Charles Eliot, president of Harvard University. Eliot received the unpretentious couple into his office and asked what he could do. After they expressed their desire to fund a memorial, Eliot impatiently said, “Perhaps you have in mind a scholarship.”
“We were thinking of something more substantial than that…perhaps a building,” the woman replied. In a patronizing tone, Eliot brushed aside the idea as being too expensive and the couple departed. The next year, Eliot learned that the couple he dismissed had gone elsewhere and established a $26 million memorial, now known as Stanford University.
As we heard in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells us to not judge. “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:1-2)
When we judge others, it can be very easy to end up laying a trap for ourselves. Jesus says if you judge others, you’ll be judged the same way. If someone doesn’t measure up to your standard, that standard will be applied to you. It’s like falling into a trap you set for someone else.
In the early years of World War II, Scottish scientist Robert Watson-Watt discovered that radio waves could be used to locate enemy airplanes. His invention was called radar, and it became an essential tool in the defence of the allies during the Battle of Britain. Years later, Robert Watson-Watt was living in Canada when a policeman pulled him over for speeding. The policeman caught him by using a radar gun. Poking fun at himself, he penned this poem:
Pity Sir Robert Watson-Watt,
Strange target of his radar plot,
And this, with others I could mention,
A victim of his own invention.
It’s incredibly easy to step in our own judgment trap. Someone from the other side of the Atlantic summarised Jesus’s teaching when they simply said, “You spot it, you got it.”
If you criticise what others say and do, it’s likely you say and do the same things. It’s like the person who goes on and on about
someone who talks too much, the one who complains to all their friends about another who gossips, the one who is furious with the person that loses his temper. We often find ourselves judging others what we know deep down is within us. If we find ourselves irritated by someone who is controlling, boring, or has bad breath there’s a good chance we’ve got it.
Jesus also warns us that when we judge we’re blind to ourselves. “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:3-4)
In the original Greek, Jesus compares a tiny splinter to a massive beam – a main support for a building. How can I possibly see and remove the small sliver in your eye when there’s an eye-beam as big as a house blocking my vision?
Furthermore, when we see someone in what we are judging as sin, there are two things we do not know: first, we do not know how hard he or she tried not to be where they are; and second, we do not know the power of the forces that assailed them. Neither do we really know what we would have done in the same circumstances.
Only God is aware of all the facts, and only God is able to judge. John Wesley told of a man he had little respect for because he considered him to be miserly and covetous. One day when this person contributed only a small gift to a worthy charity, Wesley openly criticised him. After the incident, the man went to Wesley privately and told him he had been living on parsnips and water for several weeks. He explained that before his conversion, he had run up many bills. Now, by skimping on everything and buying nothing for himself he was paying off his creditors one by one. “Christ has made me an honest man,” he said, “and so with all these debts to pay, I can give only a few offerings above my tithe. I must settle up with my worldly neighbours and show them what the grace of God can do in the heart of a man who was once dishonest.” Wesley then apologised to the man and asked his forgiveness.
So many of us find it so much easier to see the biases in other people than in ourselves? When we consider what we think of as the irrational choices of a stranger, for instance, we see their biases from the outside, which allows us to glimpse their errors. For example, if we drive wildly through traffic it’s because we have an important appointment or we don’t do it that often, but if someone else cuts us off in traffic there’s one simple, observable explanation: he’s a moron. Our biases are largely invisible to our self-analysis, and resistant to our intelligence.
I once saw a family enjoying a picnic as half a dozen ducks from a pond attempted to steal their food, and I saw a small child tossing them bits of food and saying repeatedly, “Oye, chico, ven aca.” (C’mere, boy.”) My first thought was that’s silly, ducks don’t speak Spanish.
What might we do? Jesus suggested that we work on ourselves first. Before we begin telling others how to improve, get rid of the eye-beam that blinds us. If we ask, perhaps a trusted friend or partner will point out our blind spots, our shortcomings, the flaws in our character – the planks that we can’t see. It’s strong medicine, yet if we listen and go to work on them, we’ll
be able to see ourselves and others more clearly.
As Robert Burns said in his poem about a louse he spotted on a lady’s hat in church:
O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
When we judge, whether other people or ourselves, we’re putting ourselves in God’s place. As we heard in our reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans, who are we to pass judgement on others when we all stand equally before God.
Only God can judge since God is the only God, and we are all God’s servants. All of us have sinned, and all of us receive God’s grace. None of us has the right to judge another. If you had an older brother or sister who tried to boss you around, who acted like they were your parent when your parents were not around you know what Paul is saying here. God is the only judge, and yet God is the very one who wants to help us stand. If God loved that person so much how can we condemn them?
This is why the cliché “Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin” is not Biblical. The first half of it, Love the Sinner, sounds compassionate, yet it subtly sets us up as superior over someone. It makes us that person’s judge. Look how tolerant, kind and loving I am to this poor sinner. It also labels a person as a sinner. Yes, they’ve sinned. So have I. So have you. Yet that’s not the whole story about any of us. That’s also not how God sees us in Christ.
The second half, Hate the sin, is also a problem. It seems to target certain sins as more deadly than others. In one sense that’s true: eating too many cream cakes does not cause as much harm as drunk driving. Yet, when it comes to our relationship with God, any sin drives a wedge between us and God – it doesn’t really matter the precise details of the wedge used on any particular occasion.
Walking away from judgement applies to ourselves, just as much to others. Earlier I mentioned our own weaknesses, and some of us are all too aware of our own frailty and brokenness. I firmly believe that God’s wish for us is not the wailing and gnashing of teeth of Dr Paisley, but healing from judgement of ourselves and others. The more I think about this, the more I find it rather reassuring that it’s God who judges, not us, because God is full of mercy and grace, far more than I believe that we can comprehend let alone offer ourselves, and that’s good news for me and for you, because we need God’s mercy and grace. It has been said that mercy is not getting what you deserve and grace is getting what you absolutely don’t deserve.
As Timothy Rees said in his hymn:
God is Love, and, though with blindness
sin afflicts our human hearts,
God’s eternal loving kindness
holding, guiding, grace imparts.
Sin and death and hell shall never
o’er us final triumph gain;
God is Love, so Love for ever
o’er the universe must reign.