March 31, 2019: The Fourth Sunday of Lent
Throughout the entire Sermon on The Mount, Jesus has been constructing an entirely new and different world. Jesus calls this new world the Kingdom of God, and particularly in Mark’s gospel, Jesus announces that God’s kingdom is very different from the kingdoms of this world. Jesus starts The Sermon on The Mount with The Beatitudes, blessings bestowed on mourners, the sick and tired, the persecuted, and the pushed out. These folks normally find themselves at the bottom of everything, but in God’s kingdom they have been lifted up to the top. Then Jesus makes the bold proclamation that his followers are salt and light, called to preserve the good things of God in the world and bring light to show the way to God. This is a startling aspect of God’s kingdom, too, because God would not call us to this work if there wasn’t something in the world to preserve and illuminate. The calling to be salt and light is a sign of God’s love for us and for the world. After that, Jesus teaches the proper ways of prayer and fasting, practices that deepen and enrich our relationship with God who is unchanging even though everything around us is constantly and quickly changing.
Last Sunday Jesus continued build this new world as he taught the disciples, and you and me, about worry and concern. At first it appeared that Jesus was nothing more than a single guy living the beach life on the sea of Galilee with his short and flippant, “Do not worry.” But as we dug deeper into his teaching, we came to realize that Jesus isn’t being careless here; he is not telling us to give up caring for ourselves or each other. When Jesus says, “Do not worry.” he is inviting us to remember that the God who spun the planets in their courses and created everything from nothing is the same God who watches over each and every step we take. Sure, there will be worry and concern, but with God as our strength and shield, worry and anxiety do not have to dominate who we are. This makes us totally and utterly free to live for Christ, saying and doing the things he taught us to say and do.
And now, today, Jesus has another short and to-the-point thing to say to us in building the Kingdom of God: “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.”
Steven Covey, whose book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Peoplehas sold 15 million copies since it was published in 1989, tells the story of how he was riding on a New York subway one Sunday morning on the way to a book signing. Covey says he was enjoying the peaceful ride to the book signing until a man and his children entered the subway car. The man sat next to Covey, while the children ran wildly through the subway car. The children couldn’t have been more than 4 and 6, Covey says, and they ran up and down the subway car in one big mass, screaming and yelling and throwing things at each other and the other passengers. Meanwhile, Covey says, the Dad just sat there in a trance and did nothing. Covey says that he made some pretty incisive judgments about the man’s neglectful parenting as a Hot Wheels car went whizzing by his head, making a terrible sound as it hit the subway car window and fell to the ground.
Finally, Covey broke the man’s trance with an appeal that he get control of his children. Some of the other passengers on the subway car nodded in agreement. The Dad responded, though, with unexpected words. He said, “Oh, you’re right. I guess I should do something about it. We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don’t know what to think, and I guess they don’t how to handle it either.” In an instant, Covey says his attitude towards the Dad turned from judgment to compassion and how he immediately felt a deep sense of shame. Covey stayed on the subway way past his stop, missing his book signing to sit with the Dad and listen to how he had just lost his wife. Covey moved from judging criticism to compassion because he saw and heard things as they really were.
Jesus does not identify specific ways that his followers are to refrain from judging one another or even strangers. He simply says, “Do not judge,” and he leaves it at that. This was intentional on Jesus’ part because dropping judgement all together from our interactions with one another has the ability to change the whole landscape of human relationships. In courts of law, judgments are handed down when judges have enough information to determine a particular course of action that aligns with predetermined legal standards. This is most definitely not the case in human relationships. Jesus’ command against passing judgment comes from a recognition that human beings rarely possess enough evidence or information to draw accurate conclusions about one another. Behavior that is rooted in half-truths, or things that are simply not true, often results in hurt feelings and even broken relationships.
Jesus and his disciples would have known about the perils of people passing judgment on one another without all the information. After all, Jesus and his disciples and all the Jewish inhabitants of Jerusalem were under Roman rule. The Romans were colonizers, and colonizers draw conclusions about the colonized in order to keep them under control and under their power. If a colonizing power judges the population of a city or country as weak, dumb, or less than human, it is much easier to bind the people in chains and sell them as slaves or use them for manual labor or exploit the resources of their lands. The truth is, so much beautifully rich culture has been lost throughout history because of things like colonization, which is built on misinformed judgements of others. Even the location of where Jesus sits down to preach his first sermon is significant. It is now known that the mount outside of Jerusalem where Jesus preached The Sermon on The Mount played host to a tent city for Jerusalem’s poorest people. Judged for their lack of wealth, these people were forced to live in the place where the city’s trash was dumped and where Jesus would be crucified several years later.
This is the type of oppression and human suffering Jesus is trying to prevent and end when he says, “Do not judge.” He is not suggesting that we set aside our ability to look at things critically or to discern the difference between what is good and what is evil. Jesus is not suggesting that we should never try to help a friend with a gentle word of correction. Jesus is certainly not releasing us from our obligation to the seek and like the truth. God has blessed us with minds and hearts for critical thinking, minds and hearts that help us to navigate through life. Jesus does not want us to stop using these great gifts God has given to us. Jesus’ command not to judge others is instead a warning against a prideful, critical spirit that is quick to make conclusions about the character or behavior of others. Jesus is warning us against judgement like what Steven Covey passed on his fellow subway companion which, if we’re honest with ourselves, is a judgment all of us have passed many times before. In these judgments we wreck the beauty of human relationships and we deny the divine image of God that resides in every human being. This is what Jesus is teaching us to avoid.
Now, remember how I said that Jesus isn’t asking us to put aside our ability to think critically or discern the difference between good and evil? There is a certain amount of judgment that comes with being a follower of Jesus. We are called, by Jesus, to look at the world and lift up and preserve and illuminate the things that are good and right and faithful to God. In order to do this, we must judge that some things are not worth lifting up or preserving or illuminating. We are also called to work for change when a system or a group of people or a doctrine or even religious practice endangers or hurts God’s people. Jesus knows this, and so he invites us into a practice of self-reflection. It is a funny hyperbole—Jesus says that before we try removing the speck in our neighbor’s eye, we must remove the two-by-four from our own. Jesus is saying that it is ludicrous for us to make judgements between good and evil, sinful and righteous, without turning the judging eye on ourselves first. We must first look at ourselves in a critical and loving way if we ever hope to join in as God continues to transform the world.
To act in any other way, to cast judgement on people with incomplete information or to cast judgement without self-reflection, is to act like the biblical Pharisees that Jesus was always run up against. The Pharisees loved finger-pointing. They loved to play God and mercilessly judge the behavior of others. They considered themselves the moral, ethical, and religious guardians of the community. They took the bench to sit in judgement and Jesus ran up against them so often because he was always showing their hypocrisy. It is entirely likely that the “Do not judge,” part of The Sermon on The Mount was directed at the Pharisees and not at the disciples. God is the only truly righteous judge. God alone judges from a place of perfection. Jesus warns that anyone who wants to try and take God’s position, mercilessly judging others, they will become victims of the same kind of merciless judgment from God.
On night of his arrest, while Peter warmed himself by a fire in the outer courtyard, Jesus was put on trial before the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin was an assembly of 71 rabbis who were appointed to sit as a tribunal in Jerusalem, the ancient equivalent of the US Supreme Court. That night, the Sanhedrin asked Jesus if he was the Messiah. He answered, “I am, and you will the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” The high priest of the Sanhedrin tore his robe and said, “What further witnesses do you need? You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?” And they condemned Jesus to death. The Pharisees had written their own story of Jesus even before he made it to court that night. He challenged them, he showed them their hypocrisy, he preached a much truer version of God than they could possibly imagine. So they sentenced him to death. Their prejudice, and the injustice of Jesus’ trial, was driven by self-righteousness, jealousy, and fear. They could not see clearly with such huge planks in their eyes.
But consider how Jesus acted when the roles were reversed and he was asked to sit as judge. A woman who was caught in the act of adultery had been dragged out of court and thrown on the ground in a public square in Jerusalem. A Pharisee says to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” Instead of saying anything, Jesus bends down and writes something in the sand with his finger. The Gospel of John says that even while Jesus was on the ground writing in the sand, the Pharisees continued to question him. Finally, Jesus stands up and he says, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” When the Pharisees and the crowd heard it, they went away, dropping their stones behind them. Did Jesus change the law about adultery? Certainly not. Adultery is still a sin. But a greater and far more offensive sin in God’s eyes is taking a life because you think someone’s sin is greater than God’s forgiveness.
Jesus knew his followers then, and he knows each and everyone one of us, my friends. He knows that we are not immune to self-righteous judgement. He knows that we will judge one another on looks, perceived social or economic class, even how we let our children behave in public. Books are written solely on the hypocrisy of the modern church, one saying recently that the ‘church shoots its own wounded.’ Who among us here has not feigned some dramatic shock when we learn of the moral failure of a pastor or fellow worshipper, only to say, “Well, I always knew they were a little slimy.” We judge certain sins harshly and completely ignore others. We may look across this sanctuary at the gathering of God’s people here today and begin writing our own stories of where this person falls short of how that person has failed. All along, as we judge others, the two-by-fours in our own eyes grow larger and larger and the merciless judgment from God for our behavior looms closer and closer.
But it does not have to be this way. We don’t have to be burdened with always trying to figure out how other people are lesser than we are. We don’t have to be burdened with the constant need to assess the sins of others. We don’t have to be burdened with the exhausting work of making sure everyone around us is as good and righteous and holy as we are. We don’t have to be burdened with keeping score of who did the right thing and who did the wrong thing. To be sure, we are burdened with the responsibility to speak the truth, to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. But all that other stuff is only getting in the way of a better and more abundant life in the presence of God. If we believe that God has the power to raise Jesus Christ from the death after he suffered the shame and sorrow of the cross, our God is powerful enough to sort out of the sinful from the righteous, the good from the bad, without our help. What does want our help with is spreading the good news of God’s abundant love for all people and all things. And that is something we can start doing, or start doing again, at this very moment, today.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, there may not be a subway system in Enid but each day we are surrounded by people whose stories and traumas and hurts we know nothing about. To follow Jesus, to really be his disciple, is to reach out in love and compassion even if that person is letting their children run around and throw Match Box cars at your head. It is not easy to do; it is something that I am still learning each day how to do. Do not look at their sin, look on your own and remember the grace and forgiveness you have received from God. Extend that same grace and forgiveness, sprinkled with a copious amount of love and compassion, to everyone you meet…and you will be free…all of us will be free. For as Jesus says, the measure we give is the measure we get. Amen.