March 20, 2011

Judging Others
Jason Crosby, preaching

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Matthew 5

In his book, the The Tipping Point, Malcom Gladwell explains that most of us suffer from what phychologists call the Fundamental Attribution Error, or FAE.  In simple terms, Fundamental Attribution Error occurs when we judge behavior, “human beings invariably make the mistake of overestimating the importance of fundamental character traits and underestimating the importance of situation and context” (p. 160).  One more time, Fundamental Attribution Error occurs when we “overestimate the importance of a fundamental character trait and underestimate the importance of situation and context.”  For example, in one study that proved FAE, people were asked to judge the basketball abilities of two groups of basketball players with similar skill levels.  One group of players shot baskets in a poorly lit gym.  Another group shot baskets in a well-let gym.  Who do you think the judges determined to be the better basketball players?  Those shooting in a well-lit gym.  In another experiment, people were split into two groups – contestants and questioners.  The questioners were asked to draw up a list of “challenging but not impossible questions” for the contestants based on areas in which they had knowledge.  One questioner for example was familiar with folk music and constructed questions dealing with that subject matter.  After the questions were given, both the contestant and the questioner were asked to evaluate the general knowledge of the other.  Who do you think was rated as been the smarter of the two in the vast majority of cases?  The questioners.  Gladwell points out that frequently when we make judgments about a person’s character we fail to take into consideration the broader context that we use to form the basis for our judgments.  We all suffer from blind spots that severely limit our ability to make certain judgments.  As a result, we inaccurately end up labeling people.  Such labels can then be hard erase in our minds and can irreparably damage the possibility of future relationship.

Churches and churchgoers are not immune to such blind spots in judgment.  Because some churches and some individuals have issued judgments condemning groups of people or individuals, many people are fearful of church.  Who do you know that is fearful of church?  Why do you think that is?  My experience tells me that a lot of people who are scared of church have been on the wrong side of some sort of church or church-inspired judgment.  Many divorced people are leery of church because of judgments churches have made.  Many gay, bi-sexual, lesbian, and transgendered people won’t step inside the doors of a church because of judgments churches have made about them.  In fact, because of judgments passed by churches or churchgoers, many people who feel down and out, unaccepted, and discarded would rather turn to just about any other place besides the very place where all people should be accepted.   

No wonder Jesus cautioned his disciples about judging others.  From the outset of Jesus’ ministry, Jesus realized that judgments, fraught with blind spots, could undo any good that his followers might accomplish in his name.  Jesus realized that judgments issues in his name may be what precludes people from knowing the very thing that God wants people to experience most – love and grace.  

What, then, are Christ followers to do?   Should we never judge others?  Should we not speak out strongly against those who commit unjust acts and hurt people?  Jesus’ comments on judging others don’t stop with the first three words of the first verse of Matthew 7.  The words “do not judge” cannot be separated from what follows.  “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.  For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.”  Jesus is not advising his followers to never judge.  Rather, Jesus is reminding those that will listen that, in part, when you do judge, realize that the spirit in which judge will be the way in which others judge you.   Concerning judgment, what goes around, comes around. 

Jesus employs a little humor to help illustrate this point.  Those who condemn others for a mere speck in their eye, should expect at least the same degree of condemnation, if not more, for passing such judgment while walking around with a plank in their eye.  A more contemporary equivalent is the young couple, out on their first date, where all is going splendidly.  The atmosphere is just right and conversation is flowing.  But, there is just one problem.  The young woman has a piece of spinach stuck in her teeth.  Everytime she says something, the young man across the table can’t help but notice that piece of spinach.  That spinach was the only thing standing in the way of what was otherwise the perfect first date for him.  So, he tells his date about the spinach situation.  Her face grows bright red with embarrassment.  He decides to give her a moment to regain her composure by going to the restroom.  While there, he looks in the mirror and he found that the entire front of his shirt had been stained by lasagna that had fallen from his fork while he was eating.  When he returned, the young woman, with tongue in cheek, said, “Oh, by the way, I think you may have dropped a little something on your shirt.”  Whether it is due to a plank in our eye or lasagna down our shirt, so many of our judgments are doomed to failure, and will come back around to bite us.  It is only natural, then, that how we judge others and how we treat others should be the way that we expect to be treated in turn.

Jesus does more than just warn us about the reciprocal nature of judging others.  Jesus also offers instruction as to how we may make judgments that help build God’s kingdom, rather than tear it down with judgment.  Before you judge, there is serious work to be done.  Before issuing a judgment, Jesus says, remove that plank from your eye.  Tom Long writes, “ Jesus requires that before we call for the transformation of someone else, we must be transformed ourselves.  The words “Do not judge,” when we consider the whole passage, become . . . do not judge until.”  Before you judge, you must do the deep self-reflection necessary to identify your own short-comings.  Before you judge, you must reach a genuine point of realization that you need God’s grace just as much as the person you are judging.  When such self-exploratory measures are taken, then those who judge will not be perceived as hypocritical.  When such self-exploratory measures are taken, then judgment will show others God’s love and grace and help construct the kingdom, not put others on the defensive and deconstruct God’s kingdom.

I have witnessed first-hand how this form of judgment can reintroduce people to God’s love and grace, and save a life.  It was near Christmas 2008, nearly a year after my parents had separated.  After he paid a visit to Louisville it became abundantly to me that my father, a Baptist minister, was wrestling with a serious alcohol problem.  After my siblings and I nudged, then urged, then demanded that he do something, my dad agreed to seek out some help.  He enrolled in a rehabilitation program that included a weekly group meeting with other alcoholics.  Like a lot people with an addiction, my father admits that at first he was recalcitrant and stubborn.  He engaged in the process, but reluctantly so.  Occasionally, when I would ask him how things were going, he would grumble about his weekly meeting with the group.  Knowing him as well as I do, I knew that this meant he wasn’t too happy.  Nonetheless, thank God, he stuck with it.  Week after week, month after month, now, year after year, he kept meeting with this group.  Eventually, his reluctance evolved into insistence.  He would not miss one of those gatherings - no matter what.  After some conversation with him, it became apparent to me why that was place he felt and continues to feel like he must be each and every week.  That group, comprised primarily of men who are or had been successful in professional careers, is not afraid to hold one another accountable.  That group is not afraid to critique one another’s actions.  That group will quickly call out one of its members out who they feel is stepping out of line.  That group can do so, however, because each member of that group has engaged in a process of deep discernment and has a keen sense of his own inadequacies.  Within that group, people can judge one another because everyone there realizes that he needs God’s grace as much as the next person, which builds an environment of trust and compassion.  That group, in my mind, perfectly illustrates how judgment can be used to reveal God’s love and grace and build God’s kingdom.   Judgment, accompanied by self-examination that produces true humility, is welcomed and essential for transformation.

Sometimes, however, even judgments cast in the context of deep humility will not have the desired effect.  Sometimes, people in need of transformation, won’t listen to judgments they need to hear.  Verse six reminds us that sometimes, we must stop trying to help a person who refuses to engage in the transformative process.  Sometimes, you must stop expending what is holy and valuable - your time, energy, resources - in one place if transformation looks unlikely to occur, and expend it someplace else.  This pragmatic word of wisdom does not mean, however, that transformation will never occur.  Jesus’ final words here about judgment serve as a reminder that ultimately, neither you nor I am the source of another’s transformation.  Ultimately, the world is God’s.  Where our grace may end, God’s grace keeps going.  At the end of the day, our compassionate judgments are limited, but God’s grace and potential to transform knows no boundaries.

On the heels of Jesus’ words about judging we reach the beginning of the end of the Sermon on the Mount.  The Golden Rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you serves as a sort of exclamation point to the Sermon on the Mount – the cherry on top of it all if you will.  These ancient words, words echoed by many before Jesus, if read in isolation could be interpreted to mean, if I’m nice to you, then you will be nice to me.  If I’m gracious to you, then you’ll be gracious to me.  Just as judging creates a reciprocal relationship, our general treatment of others creates a reciprocal relationship too.  Just as when we judge, what goes around comes around, how we treat others establishes a similar cycle.

However, it may be that when read in the context of the Sermon on the Mount and in the wake of Jesus’ comments about judging, that these words have some sort of greater import and meaning.  Throughout the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus informs his listeners not to become entrapped in the same old, same old relational cycles.  Instead of retaliating when abused with more abusive behavior that will likely be met with yet more abuse, Jesus says turn the other cheek – break the cycle.  Instead of giving so that others can see you and thereby you acquire even more sway and power, Jesus says give in a way that no one knows what you have done – break the cycle.  Instead of judging others at a safe distance so that you will be judged at a safe distance, Jesus says engage in deep reflection that brings you face to face with your own shortcomings – break the cycle. 

Breaking these cycles in these prescribed ways is how you and I unite with God in constructing God’s new kingdom.  God’s kingdom where a new world order rooted firmly in love and grace will be built when we break free from the old cycles of being and live according to a new beat.  Instead of fighting back, you turn the cheek.  Instead of giving so get, you give for the sake of giving.  Instead of judging to condemn, you judge only to love.

When the Golden Rule is read with the idea in mind that Jesus uses this sermon to end the old cycles of life and show his followers a new way to live that will help build God’s Kingdom, then the Golden Rule is redefined here.  The conventional way of understanding the Rule had been and continues to be how you treat others is how you will be treated.  But, remember where this all began.  Remember how the Sermon of the Mount starts off.  I know it’s been a while since we covered that territory.  Blessed are the meek.  Blessed are the poor in spirit.  Blessed are the peacemakers.  The Sermon on the Mount begins with a statement that all God’s children are blessed and all God’s children are invited to join God in some kingdom construction.  Could it be, then, that by referring to the Golden Rule at this point in the Sermon on the Mount and at this point in his ministry and life, Jesus is telling his followers, this rule is less about being nice to others so that they will be nice in return?  Instead, these words are more about helping others see the blessedness inherent in all people.  These words are not about doing something in the hopes of getting something in return – that is the old cycle.  These words are about treating others as the blessed children of God that they are, that all people are.  It is only by accepting your own blessedness that you may see the blessedness in others.  How you treat others is not just a formula that tells you how you are likely to be treated by others.   How you treat others is the cornerstone on which God’s kingdom will is built.

Last weekend a group of 24 high-school from CHBC went on a mission trip to Nada, KY.  If you’ve ever been through the Red River Gorge Tunnel, you’ve been to Nada.  Nada is the very small community that you pass through on the way to the tunnel.  Our youth did various types of work like painting, building a deck, sorting donating clothes, yardwork, picking up trash.  The following Monday, Bill Johnson showed me an article about a young woman named Charlene from Nada.  Charlene’s parents both died in the last five years.  The home in which she lived did not have running water until she was 16.  However, she will be the first person from Nada to ever, ever go to college this fall.  Because many, many groups like the group of teenagers from CHBC, have gone to Nada to do God’s work, expecting nothing in return, and people in Nada have discovered something that they always possessed, but maybe didn’t know it – their blessedness.  

This is the new rhythm of life that God’s followers are asked to live.  This is the new cycle of being that will draw God’s kingdom closer.  Treat all people as if they blessed, because they are.  The blueprint for the construction of the kingdom is before us.  May we put on our hard hats and get to work.

Malcolm Gladwell.  The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference.  New York: Bay Bay Books, 2002.

Tom Long.  Matthew: Westminster Bible Companion.  Westminster John Knox, 1997.