SERMON: Judging is hard work

SERMON: Judging is hard work

A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley by Nikolaj Christensen on 11 March 2020

Exodus 18.13-24; Matthew 7.1-6

Judging other people is such hard work! Not only do we have to manage our own stuff, we have to have an opinion about other people’s stuff as well. It can wear you out. Moses learned that, and thankfully listened to common sense – let other people do the judging.

And yet judging others is one of our biggest temptations – a welcome distraction from our own issues, our own calling to be ‘perfect … as your heavenly Father is perfect’, as Jesus told us to be, earlier on in the Sermon on the Mount, about one chapter before what we’ve just heard. Well I might not be perfect – I might not be the perfect parent, but at least I’m not like him; I might not be as healthy or as generous or as disciplined as I should be, but at least I’m not like her. But maybe I am.

Jesus tells us: ‘the measure you give will be the measure you get’. Does that make us concerned? Okay, he presents us with a simple solution: ‘Do not judge — so that you may not be judged’ yourself.

Full disclosure: even though neither of these two passages from Exodus and Matthew even appear in the main Sunday lectionary at all, I have preached on them before, at a different church, because they appear as a more or less random pair in what’s called the Second Service lectionary which some churches use for their Sunday evening services, which goes through books of the Bible more or less continuously. So I thought I would have a head start if I preached on them again. You can judge me for that if you want.

The first time around when I preached on these passages, I was struck by what seemed to be an inconsistency between them regarding the subject of judging. In Exodus, Moses tells his subordinates to judge. He himself would then only consider the most severe, precedent-setting cases, in what was one step towards what we would recognise as a modern justice system. But in Matthew, Jesus is presented as a new Moses, proclaiming God’s renewed law from the mountain. And Jesus tells us not to judge, to leave the judging to God, lest we be judged ourselves. So in one passage, judgement is delegated to the people, and in the other, the power to judge is taken away. To me, this begged the question: Is it ever appropriate to judge? I then went on to argue that that’s actually the wrong question to ask.

But now coming back to these passages, I have to admit that my perspective has shifted just a little. In both passages, the individual is told to avoid judging – in Moses’ case: if at all possible; in the case of a follower of Jesus: don’t judge at all. Just don’t do it.

As I was saying, this rule comes near the end of the three-chapter Sermon on the Mount, and it’s no less radical than the rules that Jesus has already put forward: ‘If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away’; ‘if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also’; ‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth’; and so on.

Often we try to hold these radical demands at arm’s length. I remember when I was studying the Sermon on the Mount as an undergraduate, I had a lecturer – a German, usually quite restrained, but not this time. He made a memorable comment that he thought people often try to theorise about the real historical or theological purpose behind Jesus’ teaching not because it isn’t directly relevant for our times but because it is too relevant. As he said, it’s ‘uncomfortably topical’. It places a great responsibility on us as individuals.

So: ‘Do not judge’. I think Jesus says it in such a simple, black-and-white way because he really wants us to take a hard look in the mirror and ask: Do I instinctively jump to conclusions and judge others? Do I tend to judge in ways that I would not like to be judged myself? Do I use criticism of others as a shield against criticism of myself? One of my heroes, the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said about this passage: ‘If when we judged others, our real motive was to destroy evil, we should look for evil where it is certain to be found, and that is in our own hearts. But if we are on the look-out for evil in others, our real motive is obviously to justify ourselves’. To me, that quote is worth a thousand sermons.

We need to turn our approach around. Jesus says: don’t give as good as you get, but give as good as you want to get. And he illustrates it with this intentionally ludicrous image of someone with a log in their eye who can spot a tiny speck in some else’s eye from a mile away, but is oblivious to the log in their own eye. So much depends on the perspective. So often, as someone has said, we judge others based on their actions or the consequences of their actions, while we judge ourselves based on our intentions – or rather, excuse ourselves based on having the right intentions, even when the outcome wasn’t as intended. What if we also assumed that others had the best intentions, until proven otherwise?

The parable of the speck and the log, or the mote and the beam, is followed by a short, cryptic statement: ‘Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.’ This curious ultra-short parable – without any explanation – has mystified interpreters for centuries. But many interpreters agree that it was put there because Matthew read it in a way where it flows quite naturally from the preceding: the ‘pearls’ are our good judgements. Even if you know better than the other person, even if you were able to judge their situation and give them the right solution, don’t try to force them to take on your point of view. There’s probably a hint of sarcasm in what Jesus is saying throughout this whole passage. You may have pearls of holy wisdom, you may have the gospel truth, but it will not always be appreciated. In fact your good advice may simply be trampled underfoot. Put yourself in the other person’s place instead.

It’s rare to find a person who really lives the way of Jesus. Am I there myself? Certainly not in my own judgement. It all seems quite overwhelming and demanding. So let’s show others the same grace that we need for ourselves. I don’t think we’re too bad at that here at St Mary’s. And we need a community around us – even Moses did, and Jesus did. We need to practise living together in community – a community of grace – if we are to become the rare sort of people who don’t automatically condemn and blame other people, and who don’t force our own favourite wonderful ideas on them.