Although many of us enjoy being judge and jury, few of us want to face judgement. We like the words “judge not, lest ye be judged,” and yet it’s almost part of human nature to judge others. Therefore, we find ourselves saying: “Can you believe the way she dresses? It’s embarrassing.” Or, “Did you hear what he said? Well, I just think that’s totally inappropriate!” Or, “Did you hear that Sam went to the casino last week, and he calls himself a Christian?” In case you believe yourself incapable of such words, Jesus has an unflattering word to describe you (and me).
As we continue our journey through the Sermon on the Mount, we come to an invitation to examine closely our lives. Instead of judging others, we hear Jesus calling on us to judge ourselves. Of course, the task of facing our own inner demons isn’t an easy task, which is why very few of us answer this call. But, if we’re going to seek first the kingdom of God, then this is the road we must take.
1. Logs and Splinters
Jesus is a master of language, and his choices in metaphors cut through the noise that surrounds our lives. In this passage from Matthew’s gospel, we hear words about splinters and logs. Although we enjoy sitting in judgment of others – admit it, you like it – we’re really not in the position to render judgment on the lives of our neighbors. That’s because we have logs in our eyes that keep us from seeing the splinter that lies in the eye of our neighbor. You simply can’t pull something out of the eye of another person, when there’s an impediment so large sitting your eye that you can’t even see the face of the other. So, take care of that impediment, before trying to do surgery on someone else.
As we contemplate these metaphors, we might benefit from hearing another story, this one being from the Gospel of John. If you look at most bibles, the story of the woman caught in adultery will be in the margins or in parentheses. That’s because there are questions about whether or not it is original to this gospel, but whether or not it originally was in John’s gospel, it speaks to an important truth.
According to this story, a group of religious leaders brings this women who had been caught in adultery and challenged Jesus to render judgment. That meant casting the first stone. Jesus puts the onus back on them, and says to the accusers – “let the one who is without sin, cast the first stone.” When no one comes forward, Jesus says to the woman, no one comes to condemn you, neither do I, but go and sin no more. If we take the biblical witness to heart, Jesus is in a position to cast that stone, but he chose not to do so. Since he chooses not to render judgement, then perhaps we shouldn’t either.
2. Proper Gifts
Of course Scripture speaks of judgment, and next Sunday’s sermon carries the title “Judgement Day.” Although there is a place for judgment, it is God and not us, to whom this task is entrusted. When we try to take on the role of judge, we’re assuming the prerogative of God. Now, the reason why we should leave the role of judge to God isn’t because God is important and we’re not, but instead it’s because of the character of God.
This is why the words that follow the word about judgment are so important. Jesus tells us that if we ask, we’ll receive; if we seek, we’ll find; and if we knock the door will be opened. This is because God is faithful to God’s promises. When it comes to the promises of God, there will be no bait and switch.
Of course, we need to understand that the promises of God are related to the kingdom of God. The promise is made to those who seek first the kingdom and place their treasure in heaven. Although, there are those who would say otherwise, Jesus isn’t promising us a Lexus or a mansion, or even a check for a million dollars, not even if you promise to donate 10% to the church. But because God, who is the giver of every good and perfect gift and who will not do evil, then we can trust God. Yes, as Jesus says, God is like a loving parent, who when a child asks for bread doesn’t give a stone instead, or when a child asks for a fish, gives a snake instead. Indeed, if you, who are evil, don’t treat your children that way, then surely God, who is righteous and loving won’t either. The reason why we should leave the task of judgment to God, is that God isn’t just good, but because God’s essence is love in all of love’s dimensions.
God is love, which doesn’t mean that God is a sentimental chap, but rather, to borrow from Tom Oord’s definition of love, God acts “intentionally in sympathetic/empathetic response to others, to promote overall well-being” (Oord, The Nature of Love, p. 17). This definition of love defines the nature of God, and it also provides the context in which God acts in judgment of the world.
3. Do unto others . . .
Instead of rendering judgments that neither you nor I are prepared to offer, “treat people in the same way that you want people to treat you; this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Mt. 7:12 CEB). These words form what we call the Golden Rule, and this rule is simply a paraphrase of the second great commandment – “love our neighbors as you love yourself.” As you consider this golden rule, remember that Jesus defined neighbor to include one’s enemies, and agape love, as Tom Oord suggests, means intentionally promoting the overall well-being of those who mean to do us evil. This is, of course, no easy task, which is why few of us heed the call to love the world as God loves the world.
But, if you love in this way, then you fulfill the Law and the Prophets. You may have thought that Jesus renders the Law and the prophets null and void, but that isn’t true. Jesus never abandons either the Law or the Prophets, because without them we won’t know how to act toward others. As Stanley Hauerwas, who is known to be a rather radical sort of character, puts it: “love is the fulfillment of the Law.” And, having said that, he goes on to say that love is “a radical politics that challenges the world’s misappropriation of God’s good gift.” Indeed, if Christ embodies God’s love, then we can’t “know love apart from loving one’s enemies.” (Mt. 22:37-40). [Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew, Brazos Press, 2006, p. 89].
If we’re going to take the journey that Jesus outlines in the Sermon on the Mount, then we’ll have to give up trying to be judge and jury. Instead, of trying to be judges of others, we can begin loving our friends and our enemies as God loves them. If we’re going to join God in the work of transforming this world in which we live, then we’ll have to take the narrow pathway, which is the road less traveled.
So how do we know which path to take? Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes in his book on discipleship that we’ll know the way if we keep our eyes focused on Jesus, who walks in front of us, leading the way. Bonhoeffer writes:
He is the narrow road and the narrow gate. The only thing that matters is finding him. If we know that, then we will walk the narrow way to life through the narrow gate of the cross of Jesus Christ, then the narrowness of the way will reassure us. [Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, (Fortress, 2001), p. 4:176].
This narrow path doesn’t take the form of legalism, with a lot of senseless rules and regulations that tell us not to do this or do that or we’ll be excluded. It’s not a matter of dress codes and good manners, or even having all the right beliefs. What it does involve is living life in a way that honors God and seeks to promote the well-being of others. That’s not an easy path to take, but this is the path way that leads from what Richard Rohr calls the first half of life to the second half of life.
If we’re going to take this path then we’ll have to “let go of our own smaller kingdoms,” which we’re not always eager to do, and instead choose union with God. That means letting God lead the way. If we choose this path, and let God both guide us and judge us, then we’ll begin to think in a way that leaves plenty of room for others to join us in communion with God. As Fr. Rohr writes: “Everyone is in heaven when he or she has plenty of room for communion and no need for exclusion. The more room you have to include, the bigger your heaven will be” (Richard Rohr, Falling Upward, p. 101).
It is my prayer that each of us will let go of the need to judge others, but instead as we recognize our own need of forgiveness and restoration, that we will commit ourselves to the way of the kingdom, and in doing so, we will promote the well-being of all those who share this world with us. In this we will know the fullness of God’s presence, and that is what it means to be in heaven!