Judgment, Justice, and Mercy – November 18, 2012
Jeremiah 22:1-9, Matthew 7:1-12
November 18, 2012
I want to start of by saying that this is a difficult subject. Were talking today about “Judgment, Justice, and Mercy.” How were to think about those things as God’s people is sometimes difficult to sort out. And how those things are seen (or not seen!) in us, by the rest of the world, can be problematic, and even harmful to our message!
We’re in the Sermon on the Mount, and at the start of chapter 7, we hear these words of Jesus, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” And we get that verse coming at us all the time, don’t we? This is one scripture that many people outside the church know well, and use often. And in many cases, it’s equated with them saying, “Who are you to tell me that anything I do is wrong?” That’s a tough thing to answer, isn’t it?
I don’t know if you’ve been following this story in the news where the U. S. General in Afghanistan had an affair and was fired. It’s hard to miss! And it’s funny, but that story really broke well after I decided to tackle this subject. Yet it turns out that it’s related.
I was driving along one day this week, listening to one of those radio call-in shows, (No, probably not the one you think!) and this whole thing was being discussed. And before long it seemed that two predominant things were being said by the various callers. First, they asked “Whose business is this?” And they talked about how a lot of people in this country have the need to “feed the beast.” And the beast is the seemingly insatiable appetite people have for juicy stories. So in reaction, people were saying that maybe the whole thing just isn’t our business. And frankly, after hearing so much of it, I found myself agreeing with that.
But then the second thing many people were saying is “who are we to judge what other people do?” And, even though it wasn’t spoken, there seemed to be some of this attitude that “no one should ever judge the actions of someone else.” They didn’t say it, but I was hearing, “Judge not that you not be judged.” And I found myself wondering if that’s really true. Is that what we, as Gods people, are supposed to be thinking about all this?
The problem we have with all that is the same problem we have whenever we lift just one verse out of scripture and fail to look at the big picture. And in this case, if we look at the big picture, we find that there is no place in the teachings or the ministry of Jesus where we are told that we are never to judge. That would be inconsistent with many of things he said. He said that we are to “judge things by the fruits they produce.” He tried to teach people what was good and bad in Gods eyes which was not always what the people thought. He taught people the benefits of using good judgment, and the importance of using a related word, the word “discernment.” Those are just some of the positive ways the word Judgment is used.
But that all gets confused in our world. And often people mix that all in with the negative view of the word, and then they throw out the whole concept. And for many that’s convenient, because as I said, they don’t want to be told they’re doing anything wrong. They want to be their own determiners of that. They certainly don’t want to be held to standards any God might give. And of course, they don’t want the church to tell them to do so, either. So, what often happens is that, if they know no other words from the entire Bible, they certainly know and quote these. “Judge not, that you be not judged.” (Its sort of a spiritual sounding version of “don’t force your morality on me!”)
That’s the dilemma we face. And its hard to know what to do with all that. But I’m not letting us off the hook here! I believe what Jesus is saying about this is very important! He’s saying that we are to be careful about being “judgmental.” And that’s a real problem for some Christians, isn’t it! There is a positive and a negative use of this word, isn’t there? There’s a difference between “using judgment” and “being judgmental.” “Using judgment” has to do with something we do, and it’s a positive thing. “Being judgmental” has to do with an attitude, and it can be a negative thing. (If you’re not sure, just ask yourself this. “Would you like to be seen as a judgmental person?”)
Let me also remind you, as I said again last week, that Jesus often exaggerated to make a point. And when he did so, the point he was making was often about attitudes. And that happens a lot in this Sermon on the Mount! For example, when he said “Go into your closet and pray to God in secret,” did he really want us never to pray in public? Of course not! It was about the attitude of those who do. And that was very characteristic of the way he was preaching that day.
So now he says, “do not judge, that you might not be judged.” And he uses this wonderful metaphor of people taking the speck out of someone else’s eye when they have a log or a plank in their own! I love that! But, like those other examples, does it mean that we are never to judge? Or was he again speaking in a way that would get to the attitude! I think that would be consistent. Jesus was talking about being judgmental. And he wanted the people them to see that was a problem! He wanted them to see how it caused rifts between people, and how it was counterproductive to their being the light to the nations.
When you stop to think about it, you see that Jesus was right! Being judgmental is one of the biggest put-offs to people in this world. And that’s been getting worse over the years! And let me tell you, that if that’s what we lead with, if we start with only judging the actions of others, we will never have the opportunity to touch their hearts! Let me say that again. That’s so important! If we start with judging the actions of others, we will never have the opportunity to touch their hearts!
So, why was Jesus saying these things? When you read the Sermon on the Mount, its always helpful to ask that question. Why did he included the various things he said. Was this something the people needed to hear. Were they being judgmental? I’ll bet if you asked the Samaritans, they were! But there’s even more to this, because we have to look at the second part of that sentence. “Judge not, that you be not judged.” It could well be that Jesus was saying, “If you don’t like it done to you, don’t do it yourselves!” Wouldn’t that sound like something Jesus would say? Wouldn’t he say,” if you don’t like being judged by others, don’t do it yourself!” or “Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you.” That’s the place to start! It’s sort of like that old song “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.” Remember that one?
Now, that kind of thing is not easy, is it? And there are a lot of things like that in this sermon. “Turn the other cheek.” “Give your shirt, also.” “Go the extra mile.” And remember that we often use that one incorrectly. We think the extra mile is what we do when were already doing something good for someone, and then we just do a little more. But Jesus example was about when someone forces you to go a mile. Then you go the “extra mile!” That’s a little different, isnt it?
So where do we stand on this? What’s our attitude? Do we see the difference between showing good judgment and being judgmental? And are we careful to see how we are coming across to the world? What would people say about us in this regard?
Then let me have you consider something else here. There’s a difference between “Justice” and “Judgment”. Sometimes we think justice is something that happens when its deserved. It’s the consequence of actions. And it’s absolute. Think about that. If somebody does something bad, they get the justice they deserve. But I don’t think it’s that simple.
The more I’ve thought about this, and the more I read about it in the Bible, it seems to me that justice is about meting out judgment, but with mercy. If you think about it, that’s the basis of our court system. We don’t treat a first time offender the same as a hardened criminal when they committed the same crime. That might be judgment. But it wouldn’t be justice, would it? In Micah 6:8 we read that we are to “seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.” (Micah 6:8) That’s what he says the Lord requires of us. Yes, we are to be people who seek to know God’s ways and to let the world know what’s important to God. That’s part of how we are to be the “salt of the earth.” But we should be people of justice which includes mercy! We should remember that’s how God treats us. We deserve judgment. But God, in his mercy, gives us grace.
Well, I’ve noticed over the years that sometimes my sermons raise more questions than they answer. And I’ve also noticed that sometimes the questions raised are directed at me as much as they are you! Sometimes you tell me, “That sermon was directed right at me.” And I’m thinking “Yeah, me too!” When that happens I hope, like me, that I’ve made you think. And I hope – though I don’t always remember this myself – but I hope you will think things through with God.
I hope in all of this that you will join me in striving to be thoughtful people. I believe thats the best we can be! These things can be tough, and I hope you’ll think them through. I hope you’ll fight the natural tendency to react first and think later. That tendency is in all of us. And I hope you’ll strive to resist the other natural tendency, which is to take things personally, and to see something that might be different as an affront to the ego. There’s that “walk humbly” part!
So think about these words of Jesus. Be careful of being judgmental. Watch out for the log in your own eye. Be instead people who seek justice that judgment with mercy. And be people who love that mercy, and who walk humbly with God. Let him guide your thoughts and your ways!
Lord, help us to be people who remember Jesus’ words, and who reflect his love and grace. Help us seek justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with you. Help us to be thoughtful people, people who touch the hearts of others with your message of grace. For these things we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.