Wednesday, June 29, 2011

To Judge or Not to Judge: That Is The Question – SOTM #19

Don’t you just hate it when someone speaks out of both sides of his or her mouth; seeking, it seems, to be on all sides of an issue? One moment you are shouting, “Amen!” to their first position. The next moment you are bewildered, wondering if you should be affirming their equally fervently stated, but apparently opposite, opinion on the same issue.

Possibly, those listening to the Sermon on the Mount found themselves scratching their heads when Jesus seemed to be saying opposite things about judging others, first admonishing against judging others, then urging his hearers to judge the fruit of false prophets. A little careful reading, and some reflection will help us get around the seeming contradiction.

First we need to realize that living is judging. Consciously or unconsciously living creatures never cease, at least in their waking moments, to make judgments about the environment in which they exist and, to the best of their ability, adjust to it for their safety, comfort, and long-term viability. That process seems to go on from the simplest amoeba or sapling to the complex organism we call “man”. So, judging is a natural and necessary process.

The judging that Jesus speaks of, which Matthew records for us in chapter 7, verses 1 – 5, is of a different character than that natural and necessary process spoken of above. Jesus is speaking of a tendency of humans – perhaps humans uniquely among all creatures – to judge others for purposes unrelated to improving one’s own condition or assuring one’s survival. He really had the Pharisees and other self-righteous leaders of his day in mind. They were quick to see the “speck” in their neighbor’s eye and point it out while ignoring the “plank” in their own. Jesus calls such judging, hypocritical, and promises that those who engage in it will, themselves, be harshly judged.

It may not be so much the “seeing the speck” in the brother’s eye that Jesus condemns, as the inability to “see the plank” in one’s own eye. After all, it is sometimes a favor to a “brother or sister” to point out the piece of lettuce wedged between their teeth. But one needs to then ask, “How do I look, brother? Can you help me improve?”

Mostly, though, Jesus is concerned about the underlying motive of the one judging. In the case of the Pharisees, the purpose was to diminish the status of the one they criticized in the hope of making themselves appear more righteous. That kind of judging Jesus firmly condemns:

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way as you judge others, you will be judged, and with the same measure you use, it will be measured to you.

Later in the sermon, Jesus returns to the subject of judging. Matthew records his words in chapter 7, verses 15 – 23. Jesus begins his remarks by saying:

Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them.

These are strong and fearful words. In this case Jesus lays upon his disciples the responsibility of judging others who make a profession of being his followers. It is a fearful responsibility because it entails a judgment that affects the “safety, comfort, and long-term viability” of the one doing the judging. Equally awe-full is the realization that such judgment may have negative consequences for – may damage the reputation of – the one being judged. We dare not be wrong in labeling others “false prophets.” And, since we live in community with other believers our judgments may well affect the few or many who attend to our opinions.

But still, we are admonished, by Jesus, no less, to be on the watch for those who say, “Lord, Lord, didn’t we do marvelous things in your name?” but of whom he will ultimately say, “I never knew you.” The final judgment of false prophets will be the Lord’s to declare, but we have a responsibility to guard against them for the sake of our own souls and the souls of those we love.

We have not been left without a measure by which to judge them. “By their fruits, you shall know them.” Some simple questions can help us. Who benefits – financially, and in any other way – from their “ministry”? Who receives the glory for their lives and the things they do? Do they look like, sound like, live like Jesus? Does my spirit, instructed by the Word, and guided by the Holy Spirit, say “amen” to what I see them doing, hear them saying, and know them to be.

Most of the time we can judge quietly and make decisions – to “endorse” or not “endorse” – that are privately held. But there are times to speak openly; times when, not to do so, allows those for whom we have responsibility to be drawn into error.

In summary, to paraphrase Jesus’ teaching on judging, “Don’t be picky about your brother’s or sister’s faults; you ain’t perfect yourself. But don’t be fooled by wolves in sheep’s clothing, either. Not everyone who says, “Bah! Bah!” is a sheep.”

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