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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Children's Chapel:  10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM
 

Judge Not?

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, May 16, 1999

Funny thing about Scripture:

In case you haven't noticed, the words of the Bible can be used to cover over a multitude of sins (and, to be fair, to extol a multitude of virtues, as well). The very same passage that's used to "prove" one viewpoint can also be used to "disprove" it, or to "prove" a diametrically opposite one. I have heard people quote scripture (at length) both to support and oppose the reinstitution of capital punishment in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In days gone by, preachers would cite this or that Biblical passage to "prove" (or to "disprove") God's approval of slavery.

But you'd think there would be some passages about which there could be no shilly-shallying or pitched camps, whose meaning would be obvious to even the most casual hearer.

One of these, you would think, would be the passage from the gospel according to Matthew which we shared earlier: "Do not judge, so that you may not be judged."

"Judge not," Jesus says in this passage. Judge not, so that you won't be judged yourself...

The meaning of these relatively few, relatively simple words would seem pretty obvious, wouldn't you think?

Think again. When it comes to biblical passages and the uses to which they are put, nothing is obvious, and few things are simple.

Perhaps that's because life itself, as we know all too well at times, is seldom simple. Or, as Bob Marley used to sing: "The road of life is rocky, and you may stumble too..."

Recently, I read a reprint of a sermon by a Fundamentalist minister in which he "proved" (to his satisfaction at least) that when Jesus said "Judge not..." he really didn't mean it. What Jesus "really" meant to say, according to this more conservative preacher, was "judge not by the appearances of the world but do judge according to the righteousness of God". (Why Jesus doesn't say this in the gospel, however, is not made clear, but that's what he meant to say-- so this conservative pastor would have us believe.) And according to the "righteousness of God" (as defined pretty narrowly, from our vantage, at least), those two simple words-- "Judge not"-- really mean: "Go ahead and judge a whole lot of things that don't fit into our pretty intolerant strictures as far as human behaviors and lifestyles are concerned."

That's just a little too-narrow-minded for most of us, I would say. But to be fair, I think we do have to admit that we can't simply take the injunction of Jesus-- "Do not judge, so that you may not be judged." -- as an ipso facto demand that we suspend all judgments about everything, all the time.

To go through life without making any judgments whatsoever: Now, that would be interesting, wouldn't it? It would mean absolute mayhem!

We make hundreds and hundreds of decisions-- choices-- judgments-- each and every day. Some are important-- like whether to get out of bed and go to work, or whether to come to church on Sunday. Others are a little less so-- like whether to use deodorant or brush our teeth-- but they are still judgments we make that have consequences for us-- and for the people around us. Some of the day in, day out judgments we make are pretty inconsequential (which doesn't mean that we don't agonize over them more than we need to)-- like which tie to wear, or which blouse, or whether we should have tuna fish or peanut butter for lunch...

Obviously, Jesus wasn't talking about these kinds of choices when he said, "Judge not".

But what about all those other judgments we make-- beyond the realm of the practical? We're called upon to make other judgments, too-- they're just part of the baggage we carry around with us if we're alive:

If our kids want to eat Oreos and nothing else all the time-- three meals a day, seven days a week-- do we just say: "Oh, of course dear, I wouldn't deign to judge your choices in nutrition."? I don't think so.

Or, if a coworker with whom we're engaged in a project decides simply not to come in to work for three or four or five months-- leaving the whole thing to us-- do we simply say, "Oh, that's fine. I wouldn't want to judge how John (or Sally) uses his (or her) time..." I don't think so.

Or, if your minister got up in the pulpit Sunday after Sunday and announced, "I don't really have anything to talk about this week, let's just go downstairs and drink coffee for the next hour" would you just say, "Fine. I was kind of looking forward to sermon today, but I wouldn't want to judge..."? Well, some of you might say "Great idea!"-- but I hope that most of you wouldn't!

We make judgments all the time-- out of our sense of responsibility and out of our sense of plain old common sense.

And, we make some judgments based on a sense of right and wrong, too.

Now, I consider myself to be pretty liberal about almost everything. (Some of you might think too liberal; others might think not liberal enough. Whatever.) But by and large, I think that a life as free of constraints as possible is preferable to one that is hemmed in too severely.

I'm sorry-- but if there's one notion in pop culture that really gets my goat it's the idea that we shouldn't "make value judgments".

Why not? It seems to me that the only way not to make value judgments is not to have any values whatsoever. Some ethics don't depend on the particular situation, and not all moral questions are up for grabs.

Way back in 1970, Black Sabbath sang:

 

Time will tell on their power minds
Making war just for fun
Treating people like pawns in chess
Wait 'till the judgment day comes.

 

Those words are no less true and prophetic in our own day:

History demands that we make a value judgment in regards to the evil of Nazism, or of "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia or Kosovo.

Protecting our children demands that we make "value judgments" in regard to predators and pornographers and crack dealers and weapons merchants.

Sometimes, in our interactions with other people-- and other religions, and other political perspectives, and other ways of life-- we are called upon to make value judgments-- to be spiritual fruit inspectors-- as in the words of Jesus: "You shall know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit..." "You will know them by their fruits," Jesus says.

In judging the actions of others (and of ourselves, too, I think) this is the sole valid criteria we have: We can know if a tree is good or bad by the fruit it bears.

Use your powers of discernment-- your senses-- your reason-- your intuition-- to inspect the fruit around you in life. Look at it closely; maybe even taste a little bit; evaluate it: Is it good or bad? Is it sweet or bitter? Does it give life, or does it destroy life? We need to do these things to be thinking, feeling, ethical women and men.

But then, in my "spin" on this chapter in the gospel, I think that Jesus is saying: "Back off!" -- "Enough is enough!"

Use your discernment to make those choices you've got to make in life-- but don't make judging others your calling in life. And don't make judging others your sole criteria for dealing with other people-- or even, your main criteria for dealing with others.

According to Jesus, there is at the heart of our relationships with one another the command-- the imperative-- to "Love one another". Compassion, and not judgment, is at the heart of our relationships one to another. Understanding-- standing beside others-- and not standing over them in judgment. This is, in my view, the heart of the message of Jesus of Nazareth, radically compassionate and inclusive religious role model that he was.

Live your life empowered by love and beauty and the grace of God, Jesus tells us. Do not live based on judgment and fear and the need to control others.

Let me tell you a dirty little secret from my (not-so-distant) past. Up until about six months ago or so, I used to love to listen to talk radio, whenever I had the chance-- you know, in the car, or cooking supper at home, or whenever.

For some reason, it appealed to me. I found it amusing, and interesting, and exciting (if never terribly informative). I even called in a few times. {I think that the only two accomplishments I can claim in life that impress my children are that I used to drive a trolley through Boston-- and, that I was "blown up" by Howie Carr, when I called into his show and said something he didn't like.}

But "I once was lost and now and found", and sometimes, we do grow up and make positive changes in our lives. So (even though I'm not trying to judge any of you who might still like talk radio)-- I don't listen to it anymore.

Because, you see, it dawned on me one day (and it was one of those sudden "ah-ha!" experiences) that all this mindless chatter was based on values I considered loathsome-- narrow-mindedness, bigotry, self-righteousness-- and a heapin' dose of harsh judgmentalism. (So now, I listen to music instead-- all kinds of music that I like, from Prokofiev to Deep Purple-- there's so much good music to listen to. And I also discovered, in looking back over the past six months or so, that I started writing poetry again, for the first time in ten or fifteen years-- right around the same time I turned off talk radio. It amazes me how making [relatively] little adjustments like this in our lives can get the creative juices flowing again.)

But constantly judging others poisons the atmosphere around us. It severs the bonds between us. And it clogs up the flow of creativity and life within us.

The need to judge others is based on fear, and the need to control life. The more excellent way to live is a life based on love. So, the choices we make-- the judgments we make as to how we live our lives-- need to have this question (love or fear; judgment or grace) at their hearts.

Our puny little selves yearn to "better than" others and stand in judgment over them. Our deeper selves yearn to connect with others, and savor our interconnections. We discover that deeper self by crossing the bridge of love-- rather than the bridge of judgment-- and by swimming deeply in the flowing currents of grace.

If you want to play a game where you're always guaranteed an easy win, then constantly nit-pick and try to find fault with others. You know, if you're intent on finding something wrong with just everyone, you'll probably succeed. (And, in the cases of most of us, it probably won't be that difficult.)

"Forbear to judge, for we are sinners all," Shakespeare writes in Henry V. So, "Close up your eyes, and draw the curtain close."

Or, as Leo Buscaglia put it: "I will not demand perfection in you until I am perfect myself. So, we're both safe."

But perfectionism-- especially when directed toward others-- is poison, in marriages, in parenting, in all relationships. If you think you're suffering from perfectionism sickness, then find an antidote, before it's too late!

 Judgmentalism also engenders this curious "boomerang effect", which psychologists call "spontaneous trait transference". Or, as Jesus put it: "For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get." Or, as Bob Marley out it: "So while you talk about me-- Someone else is judging you."

When we criticize and criticize and criticize and judge others constantly, it's not too long before other people start identifying us with the characteristics we are criticizing in others. As Carl Jung once wrote: "We become the things we hate." Or, put more directly: The nits we are picking in others get transferred onto us instead.

Do you think that people flock to be around those whom they identify as hyper-judgmental men or women? Hardly.

But, scientists tell us, the opposite is true, too. Those who are generous in their praise of others tend to be popular themselves, as well. (As long as you don't overdo it, however. Those who are too gushing in their praise of others are perceived as insincere, "phony as three dollar bills".). You have to be sincere in your praise of others-- which isn't that hard either, I'm convinced. I think there are lots and lots of good things about all of us, too!

So, as we've said, we do make judgments all the times in life. Judgments based on our sense of what's right and what's wrong; judgments based on our need to do our jobs and meet our responsibilities and protect our children; judgments based upon living the kind of life we would each choose to live.

But: "Judge not according to appearances," Jesus says elsewhere in the gospels.

When it comes to judging according to size or shape or color or age or any other superficial, surface aspect of our humanity-- Back off!

When it comes to judging according to temperament or personality type alone-- Back off! ("I don't like you because you're not like me," wouldn't be kosher in the eyes of the young rabbi of Nazareth.)

When it comes to judging according to nationality or lifestyle or religious persuasion alone-- Back off! (We can't say "I don't like you because you don't live your life the exact same way I do, or have the same history, or the same upbringing, or the same definition of what makes a healthy marriage or healthy family or holy church.)

And when it comes to judging others without knowing the facts-- judging others based on gossip or supposition or stereotypes or sweeping generalizations or whatever other cotton candy fantasies we spin up in our brains-- we need to back off, too--

Back off, and look within, and ask ourselves: "What failing in my own soul-- what weakness that I can do something to correct or to fix-- am I attempting to transfer onto the people around me?"

 If we stop spending our time judging others-- according to appearances or temperament or lifestyle or based on gossip or innuendo or our anger at something we don't like about ourselves-- then what are we going to do with all that spare time we've opened up, and all that psychological energy we've liberated?

Well, we could spend it loving one another. Enjoying the precious gift we each are to one another. Bowing down before the god that is within you and that is within me.

We could use it helping to restore those who have fallen, and who need our help. We could be role models of love and compassion and wisdom and justice.

We could use it seeking forgiveness for the errors we've made in the past, and offering forgiveness to those who are sorry for the hurt and pain they've caused us.

And we could use it helping to bear one another's burden and bind one another's wounds. And in offering our hands to help one another:

We could use that time, that energy, making these words of Walt Whitman come alive in our souls:

 

Comerado, I give you my hand--
I give you my love, more precious than money,
I give you myself, before preaching or law,
Will you give me yourself,
Shall we stick by each other
for as long as we may?

 

Loving-- uplifting-- restoring-- helping one another. There's more than enough there for us to do to keep us busy! And how much more glorious-- and how much more amazing-- than spending our days standing in judgment over others.

So, judge not others, my friends. Instead, look into their eyes. Look into their souls. And love them-- as you love yourself-- and as they probably yearn to love you in return.

Judge not others. Love them instead.

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