Dr. H. Stephen Shoemaker
Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
February 17, 2008
THE HELL OF JUDGING AND THE OF HEAVEN COMPASSION
Text: Matthew 7: 1-12
There are two ways to live, Jesus says. One is the hell of judging, the other is the compassion of heaven. “Be compassionate even as your Abba [in heaven] is compassionate,” said Jesus in Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount (Luke 6:36).
Today’s text begins with Jesus’ sharp command: “Judge not, lest you be judged.” Then he offers a comedic illustration with comic-book-like exaggeration:
Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye but do not notice the log in your own eye? How can you say, “Here, let me take the speck out of your eye,” while there’s a 2X4 sticking out of your own eye? Hypocrites, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your own neighbor’s eye.
We all suffer from the log-in-eye disease. Only as we go through the painful but healing surgery of removing the log from our own eye are we compassionate enough, wise enough, clear-eyed and clear-hearted enough to help another with the speck in their eye.
We have our own “log-work” to do before we can really help another. Who wants someone poking around in your eye - - especially if there’s a plank in theirs?
Jesus adds, “For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” Surely Jesus is not talking about God’s judgment here. If God measures us with the measurement with which we measure others, we are all lost. So Isaiah says:
Let us return to the Lord, that God may have mercy on us.... “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” says the Lord. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:7-9).
No, I think Jesus was talking about the human consequences of our judging. We will be judged by the judgment we dish out. We throw stones, and all our houses are glass.
A judgmental spirit is an increasingly shrinking room. With every judgment the walls and ceiling close in until there’s no one left but you, and the room’s so small you can barely breathe, even the breath of God. This is the hell of judging.
But there’s a deeper spiritual/psychological truth here. The judgment we give is often the judgment we have already received. We’ve internalized the judgment handed down to us, and now we pass it on, as if by passing it on we can exorcise it from our own spirit. “You’re no good,” we’ve been told; “you should be ashamed.” And we pass on the judgment, the shame, often without realizing it. If not in the words, in the tone.
The judging spirit is a wounded psyche in motion. As Marney put it, we’re “wounded wounders” all.
But isn’t there room for wise discernment about others? A healthy dose of judgment that is not judgmentalism? I think so - - which is perhaps why the next saying of Jesus was placed right after the first:
What is the context for such a saying? It seems almost jolting placed here. I think it is close to Jesus’ instruction to the disciples he sent out on mission into villages. If they do not welcome you and receive the gospel you preach, he said, “shake the dust off your feet” and move on! (Matthew 10:13-14).
Anglican theologian John Oman calls the shaking off of the dust “a sacrament of failure.” When we’ve done all we can, when our limits or the limits of others have made failure inevitable and irreversible, then shake the dust and move on! Leave them to the grace of God and move on to the grace of God for yourself. Stop beating your knuckles bloody on shut doors; find the ones God is opening to you. So I interpret Jesus’ words to mean, Do not continue to give what is holy to dogs; do not continue to cast your pearls before swine.
Marney said that it was a freeing day in his ministry when he realized that he didn’t have to be a blessing to everyone!
A caution. We should not use these words of Jesus apart from the spirit of Jesus: Quickly, easily assigning dogship and pigship to others - - such falls into judgmentalism. But be discerning. Know when to shake the dust, receive the sacrament of failure, and move on.
Next Jesus reiterates his teaching on prayer, unhindered, uncensored, free prayer to your Abba who knows you and loves you:
Ask and it will be given you,
Seek and you will find,
Knock and the door will be opened to you.
Some wishes cannot succeed, some prayers cannot be answered. Our world is full of sorrowful mysteries. But God is coming near in all our prayers, and God is at work for your highest good. God is at work in everything for our highest good. So go boldly before the throne of grace. Ask, seek, knock, freely without inhibition, without self-questioning.
Jesus uses the human analogy of parenthood. Is there anyone of you if your child asks for bread will give a stone, or if they ask for a fish will give a snake? (Of course not.) So if you human parents, fallible, limited, with a mixture of good and evil, know how to give good gifts to your children - - at least some of the time - - how much more, how much more will your Abba in heaven give good gifts to those who ask.
So ask, seek, knock. Keep on asking, seeking, knocking. Your prayer itself is an opening the door, a preparing the soil, a getting ready to receive. There is no place the love of God cannot go. It is praying like Jesus prayed: “Abba, I thank you that you have heard me. I know that you always hear me” (John 11:41-42).
Then Jesus gives us what we call the “golden rule.”
This sublime moral teaching is what God has been trying to teach from the beginning - - through the Law and the Prophets in Hebrew tradition and found in all great religious and moral traditions. Wendell Berry paraphrased it this way: “Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do to you!”
It is the law of love. It is the secret of the moral imagination: Putting yourself in others’ shoes.
A Gentile inquirer came to the famous first-century rabbi Hillel and said, I’ll convert if you will give to me the whole Torah while standing on one leg. (It’s a little like some of the questions I get at Sermon TalkBack!)
Rabbi Hillel stood on one leg, tottering a bit (he hadn’t taken yoga), and said:
Sometimes this moral command is expressed in the negative - - Don’t do to others as you would not have them do to you. Sometimes in the positive: Do unto others as you would have them do to you.
What seems extraordinary about Jesus’ version here is the word “everything”: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.” Here is the active, initiative-taking life of love. It encompasses everything and everyone - - even to the love of enemy.
Which returns me to the two ways of judging and compassion.
The desert mothers and fathers of the third and fourth century fled the cities and went into the desert to save their souls. This is what they heard God saying: “Flee the city, be silent, pray, and you will be saved.”
This verse from Jesus, “Judge not,” became a central verse of their spiritual life. One desert father wrote: “There is no other virtue than that of not being scornful.”
What they learned in the desert all alone before God was the depth of their sin and the greatness of God’s compassion. And when they returned to the city, what they gave to others was this remarkable, unconditional, unmixed compassion of God.
When you’re with people all the time it’s easy to fill your mind with judging while ignoring your own faults. But when you go to the desert - - and we must all find our way there - - and go alone before God, it’s you you have to deal with, and you are a handful. But when you go there and meet God and meet yourself as you really are, what you experience is the amazing mercy of God. And that changes how you relate to others.
The command “Judge not” became a keystone command for the desert mothers and fathers. They described it as “dying to the neighbor.” This is how Abba Moses described it
To die to one’s neighbor is this:
to bear your own faults
and not to pay any attention to
anyone else wondering whether
they are good or bad. Do no
harm to anyone, do not think
anything bad in your heart
towards anyone, do not scorn
the man who does evil....Do
not have hostile feelings toward
anyone and do not let dislike
dominate your heart.2
I will close with two stories from the desert fathers and mothers which illustrate compassion.
A brother committed a fault and was called before the council. They invited Abba Moses to join in the council, but he refused to come. Then they sent someone to get him. Abba Moses got up and went. He took a leaking jug, filled it with water and carried it to them. Water leaked out behind him. When the council saw him coming, they went out to meet him. “What is this?” they asked, as they saw the leaking jug. Abba Moses said, “My sins run out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the error of another?” When the council heard this, they forgave the brother and said no more to him.
The second story: Three old men, one of whom had a bad reputation, came one day to Abba Achilles. The first asked him to make him a fishing net. “I will not make one,” Abba Achilles replied. The second old man came and said, “Father, make me a fishing net so I can have a souvenir of you in the monastery.” But he said to him, “I do not have time.” Then the third one with the bad reputation came and said, “Make me a fishing net so that I may have something from your hands, Father.” Abba Achilles answered at once, “For you I will make one.”
The other two men asked him privately, “Why did you not do what we asked, but you promised him to do what he asked?”
Abba Achilles gave this answer:
I told you I would not make one, and you were not disappointed, since you thought that I had no time. But if I had not made one for him, he would have said, “The old man has heard about my sin, and that is why he does not want to make me anything,” and so our relationship would have broken down. But now I have cheered his soul, so that he will not be overcome with grief.
It was said of Jesus that he would not “break a bruised reed” or “snuff a flickering wick” (Matthew 12:20). He has come to us bruised reeds, us flickering wicks with the greatest compassion. And now he calls us - - this day - - to do the same...for others.
1b. Sabb. 31a
2From The Sayings of the Desert Fathers as cited in Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart: Desert Spirituality and Contemporary Ministry (New York: The Seabury Press, 1981), p. 36.
3Ibid., pp. 36-38.