Scriptures: Matthew 7:1-5, John 8:2-11
My older son was about four years old when he first noticed someone smoking. He pointed to a man on the street and said, “What’s that in his mouth?” “That is a cigarette,” I said in a hushed voice. “That man is smoking, but he shouldn’t. It can make him sick.” The next time my son saw someone smoking he grabbed my arm and said, “Dad, look, that man is smoking, and he shouldn’t.” I told him to keep his voice down, but I was pleased he had learned this lesson.
One day, however, we were at a potluck at the Lutheran Church in Potlatch, Idaho, where I was the pastor along with being the pastor of the Presbyterian Church. We were sitting across from a large man in bib overalls who had a pack of cigarettes in his pocket. Suddenly my son pointed at them and said to the man, “What are those?” The man said, “These? Well, uh, they’re cigarettes.” Before I could stop him, my son said to me in a voice that echoed across the room, “Dad, that man smokes, and he shouldn’t.” It didn’t help that he was talking about the president of the congregation.
To me this illustrates the problem that every parent has, that every Christian has: how do you hold meaningful beliefs or values without in some sense judging other people? How do you tell your children that smoking is bad without appearing to judge someone who smokes?
In our scripture for today Jesus says, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.” But it is quite clear that Jesus does a lot of judging. A few verses later in Matthew 7:15 Jesus says, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits.”
Jesus does not seem afraid to judge other people, to draw clear distinctions between right and wrong, true and false. So what does he mean when he tells us, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged”?
Two things. This will be a two point sermon, and here is point number one. When Jesus talks about not judging others, he means that our focus should not be on persons but on actions.
Recall what Jesus said about false prophets. He said, “You will know them by their fruits.” We are to judge the validity of a prophet, or a minister for that matter, not by how they dress or how they appear, but by what they do. We judge their actions, not their personhood.
This spring our church sponsored a class called Active Parenting, led by a family counselor at the Samaritan Center. We were told that when confronting problem behavior in a child, we should focus on these four steps (from the book Active Parenting by Michael Popkin):
1) Name the behavior or situation you want changed
2) Say how you feel about the situation
3) State your reason
4) Say what you want done
What is not helpful is to say,
- “Why are you so stubborn?”
- “How come you never listen?”
- “Why can’t you be more like your brother or sister?”
Parenting works best when we focus on the actions of a child that are causing a problem rather than on the character or personhood of the child.
Earlier this spring in our reading of Matthew’s gospel we heard Jesus give instructions about confronting people in the church who do wrong. In Matthew 18:15 he says, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.” The idea here is not to condemn the person but to deal with the actions of the person that are causing harm. The goal is not to condemn the person but to be reconciled.
And that brings me to point number two. Point number one: focus on actions, not personhood. Point number two: start with yourself. Jesus makes that point clearly in our scripture reading. He says, “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”
Notice how that works in our first scripture reading. A woman is brought to Jesus who was caught in the act of adultery. Of course, my first questions is “Where’s the man?” Apparently this is two thousand years before the “me, too” movement. The authorities don’t pay any attention to the man. They bring the woman to Jesus and want him to condemn her, thus taking a clear stand for morality. But notice how Jesus responds. He says, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” In other words, judging must begin by judging ourselves.
Jesus does not condone adultery. At the end he says to the woman, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way and sin no more.” Notice how even here Jesus judges the action but not the woman. That is point number one. But he also illustrates point number two. Before we condemn other people, before we say what is wrong with other people and how they need to change, we need to look at ourselves. We need to ask, What do we need to change? Of what actions do we need to repent? What does God need to do in us before we can even begin to suggest the changes that should happen in other people?
There is a great story in Donald Miller’s book Blue Like Jazz. I have shared a couple stories from this book before, but this is one of my favorites. A group of Christian students at Reed College in Oregon decided to set up a booth during a student festival. In the past this student festival had turned into a beer drinking, pot smoking orgy, so one of the Christian students suggested that the booth could be a kind of confessional. The other students laughed but one of them, a guy named Tony, said, “That’s perfect. We are going to build a confession booth.” He goes on to explain:
We are not actually going to accept confession … we are going to confess to them. We are going to confess that, as followers of Jesus, we have not been very loving; we have been bitter, and for that we are sorry. We will apologize for the Crusades, we will apologize for televangelists, we will apologize for neglecting the poor and the lonely, we will ask them to forgive us, and we will tell them that in our selfishness, we have misrepresented Jesus on this campus” (p. 118).
So that’s what they did. Donald Miller, the author, said he was sitting in the confession booth when the first student came in, a young man named Jake. Here is what happened:
“So, what is this? I’m supposed to tell you all the juicy gossip I did [this weekend], right?” Jake said.
“Okay, then what? What’s the game?” …
[I replied] “There is this group of us on campus who wanted to confess to you.”
“You are confessing to me!” Jake said with a laugh.
“Yeah. We are confessing to you. I mean, I am confessing to you.”
“You’re serious.” His laugh turned to something of a straight face. … “What are you confessing?” he asked. …
“There’s a lot. I will keep it short,” I started. “Jesus said to feed the poor and to heal the sick. I have never done very much about that. Jesus said to love those who persecute me. I tend to lash out, especially if I feel threatened, you know, if my ego gets threatened. Jesus did not mix His spirituality with politics. I grew up doing that. It got in the way of the central message of Christ. I know that was wrong, and I know that a lot of people will not listen to the words of Christ because people like me who know Him, carry our own agendas into the conversation rather than just relaying the message Christ wanted to get across. There’s a lot more, you know.”
“It’s all right, man,” Jake said, very tenderly. His eyes were starting to water.
“Well,” I said, clearing my throat, “I am sorry for all of that.”
“I forgive you,” Jake said. And he meant it. … [Then he said] “You really believe in Jesus, don’t you?”
“Yes, I think I do. Most often I do. I have doubts at times, but mostly I believe in Him. It’s like there is something in me that causes me to believe, and I can’t explain it.”
[Jake pondered this then said] “You said earlier that there was a central message of Christ. I don’t really want to become a Christian, you know, but what is that message?” (pp. 122-124).
You see? If we judge ourselves first, we may not need to judge other people. Jesus will work on them for us.