25 June 2007

Of eyes, judges, and splinters

12th Week OT (M) Genesis 12.1-9 and Matthew 7.1-5
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Albert the Great Priory


Do not judge! Don’t judge me! Who are you to judge? You are being judgmental. Let’s suspend all judgments and just share our feelings without fear of being contradicted. Judge not lest you be judged. What do we do when we judge? Quite apart from the spiritual narrative of judgment in this gospel, when we perform “judgment,” what are we doing? Sometimes we are simply evaluating the desirability of a thing’s or person’s qualities—do I like this wine, this sweater, this book, this woman? When we choose the white wine and not the red, the vest and not the sweater; the novel and not the non-fiction, the woman and not her sister, we are involved in judgment. Weighing all available evidence against a preconceived set of criteria, we all make judgments about our relative safety in a dark parking lot; the street where we want to go running; the level of intimacy to shoot for on a first date; which university to attend given money, reputation, etc. Making judgments is something we do like we breathe!

And yet, Jesus says, “Stop judging, that you may not be judged. For as your judge, so will you be judged…” In a sentence, Jesus turns making judgments into the dirty habit of the hypocrite! And then he turns on the hypocrite and tells him to get his own life together before he starts running around fixing everyone else’s life. So, now we have to be morally perfect—“See, Ma, no splinters!”—before we can help others find and pull the splinters from their eyes? How exactly are we supposed to correct one another when we sin? How do I fraternally correct one of my Dominican brothers if Jesus is telling us not to judge?

Read but little commented on in this passage is this question: “Why do you notice the splinter on your brother’s eye?” The rest of that sentence we know well: “But you do not notice the wooden beam in your own eye?” Do we normally notice that first “notice”? Other translators render the verb as “see,” “observe,” “look,” and “consider.” Here we have intent. Focused will. There is in the hypocrite’s heart a need, a desire to find fault, to seek out, find, and hold on to the flaws and imperfections in others. When you see you do more than look. When you consider you do more than look. You are in search of. . .splinters in your neighbor’s eye and this is a problem for Jesus.

It is simply not the case that when Jesus teaches us not to make judgments, he is teaching us to avoid evaluating potentially destructive attitudes and behaviors. It is simply not the case that the often tossed-off line, “Judge not lest ye be judged” means, in effect, “You cannot tell me that my beliefs or attitudes or behaviors are immoral or heretical b/c Jesus said not to judge. Therefore, all my beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors are OK.” In other words, b/c you can’t judge me, anything I believe to be true is true. This is a serious misunderstanding of this passage.

What is it then that Jesus is warning us not to do? We are not to use the bad behavior of others as an excuse for our own bad behavior. We are not to focus on the faults of others to the point where we cannot see our own faults. I am not to argue that Br. X.’s correction of my bad behavior is wrong b/c his bad behaviors are far worse than mine. In other words, my bad behavior doesn’t magically become good behavior simply b/c a badly behaving friend points out my bad behavior.

And to end on a point of absolute clarity: there is nothing in this teaching that prohibits the charitable exercise of fraternal correction. Jesus is teaching us not to allow an obsession with another person’s sin to distract us from our own sin. Get your sin taken care of and then offer your charitable, fraternal assistance to others. Always, always, always remember: presume that grace is working in us all. To fail in that is to fail in charity twice.

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