Don’t Be Judgmental!
By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
Our series on the Sermon on the Mount continues with another of Jesus’ hard sayings, “Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged.”
There’s no escaping it – we’re all prone to criticizing and critiquing and judging those around us. We do it all the time. Some of it is light-hearted and innocent – “Nice shoes, dude!” Some of it is downright hateful: “If you ask me, he’s not worth a plug nickel.”
Whether we mean anything by it or not, Jesus teaches us not to judge others, and what I’d like for us to take seriously this morning is the obvious question: How? How can we avoid being judgmental? There are four ways I can think of; the first three are old hat.
First, admit to yourself that you’ll never be able to know what another person is thinking or feeling or why; nor can you fully understand what motivates him/her to do the things he does. Who we are and how we act is complex and it goes all the way back to the moment we were conceived. It includes such things as:
• heredity – the genes we carry;
• environment – the type of home life we grew up in;
• experiences we’ve had to date – both pleasant and painful;
• the people around us and how they’ve influenced us to think and act the way we do.
No one knows how another person will think or feel or respond to a given situation. If we knew all factors that go into a person’s makeup, we wouldn’t be so quick to judge. An old Indian aphorism says it best, “Don’t criticize another man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins.”
When I was in seminary I served a little church in Prosper, Texas, just north of Dallas. It boasted of one convenience store where the owner/operator, a wiry little man named Wallace Vickers, would fill your tank, sell you a pound of bologna or fix your flat tire.
I would say it was a Mom and Pop grocery, but I don’t ever recall seeing a Mrs. Wallace Vickers. If there was one, she kept a low profile. That may have been because Wallace was pretty rough around the edges. He wore the same overalls, day after day, and took a bath about as often as he changed clothes. I never saw him that he didn’t need a shave and a haircut, or that he didn’t have a trail of tobacco juice oozing out of the corner of his mouth. The upshot of it all was that Wallace Vickers made an easy target for criticism. He was the brunt of a lot of jokes.
But not for Leta Hayes. Leta Hayes was one of my stalwart members – a saint, if there ever was one – and, when folks started coming down hard on ole Wallace, she’d look them straight in the eye and say, “He’s as good a man as he knows how to be.” As far as she was concerned, that’s all there was to it.
I think she’s right. Before you criticize or judge another person, think of someone you know like Wallace Vickers and say to yourself, “But, by the grace of God, go I.”
Also remember that what you see in others is only a part of the whole. You may know them at work or at school or around town, but there’s always more to it than meets the eye. Seldom do we get to know people in more than one or two facets of their lives.
For example, Dr. Fred Gealy was one of my seminary professors. Among other things, he had a curious habit of leaving the campus every day at eleven o’clock and not coming back until 1:30 or later. If you were trying to catch him in his office, that could be a problem. I was in the student lounge one day when one of my classmates complained, “Why doesn’t he stay on campus like everyone else?” One of the upper classmen overheard him and replied, “His wife has rheumatoid arthritis. She’s been bedridden for years. He goes home every day at noon to fix her lunch and help her with her needs.”
Then there was Chris Tibbett. She was a member of my church in Nashville, Tennessee. Chris was an artist. She designed and built the sets for “Hee-Haw,” the television show. I went out to the studio one day to see her in action. She was a real piece of work. She wore blue jeans, tennis shoes and a man’s shirt untucked at the waist. She had her hair pulled back in a bun and a pencil stuck behind one ear. She was a whirlwind of motion, working non-stop barking out orders to painters, carpenters and anyone else who happened to walk by. She took no prisoners.
But come Sunday morning, Chris was a true Southern lady, as prim and proper as anyone you’ve ever known. She and a longtime friend kept the two and three-year-old nursery. The two of them would greet the children at the door and spend the hour playing with them, reading to them, feeding them and, when needed, rocking them to sleep.
So, before you judge, just remember that what you see in another person is only the tip of the iceberg. There’s a lot more to them than you’ll ever know.
Also, bear in mind that criticism says as much about the one who is being critical as it does about the one who is being criticized. This is why, in his admonition not to judge, Jesus said,
“For with whatever judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with whatever measure you measure, it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:2)
We call this projection. We project our own faults on others. It has to do with blind spots – areas of our own lives that we’re either unaware of or in denial about. That’s why it’s not uncommon for a person who talks incessantly to criticize someone else for – are you ready for this? – talking incessantly. A poor listener is the first to complain, “He doesn’t pay attention to a thing I say.” Jesus put it this way:
“Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but don’t consider the beam that is in your own eye?… You hypocrite! First remove the beam out of your own eye, and then you can see clearly to remove the speck out of your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:3-5)
We project our hang-ups on others because they mirror the parts of us we’re not being completely honest about. This is what Hugh Prather meant when he said, “If something you do rankles me, I can be sure that your fault is my fault, too.”
Oddly enough, the tendency to be judgmental stems from a lack of self-esteem. A person who comes across as “holy-than-thou” is usually a person who doesn’t think highly of himself and so, needs to put others down. It’s as to say the more people you have under you, the higher your place in the pecking order of things.
On the other hand, a person with positive self-esteem is usually humble and the first to compliment and encourage others. This echoes what Paul said to Timothy when he wrote,
“The saying is faithful and worthy of all acceptance,
that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners;
of whom I am chief.” (1 Timothy 1:15)
How can you stand in judgment of others when you know the magnitude of your own sinful nature?
The bottom line is there are lots of reasons why we ought not judge others, but the best reason of all is that it’s not our place to judge. God, and God alone, is the righteous judge before whom we all must stand, both now, and on the Judgment Day.
In the meantime, there’s a problem. We have to make judgments every day about our own lives and decide for ourselves what’s right and what’s wrong. Exercising good judgment is part of growing up.
And it’s not as if we live in isolation. We live in community with each other, so that my judgments affect others and others’ judgments affect me. It’s not enough to look the other way, shrug your shoulders and say to yourself, “To each his own.” We have an obligation to speak up and, if necessary, confront others when they step outside the mores of the community. Paul told the Galatians,
“Brothers, even if a man is caught in some fault,
you who are spiritual must restore such a one
in a spirit of gentleness.” (Galatians 6:1)
Well, herein lies the problem: That borders on being judgmental. Who’s to say what’s right and wrong for another person? The answer is it’s not we who stand in judgment, but God, and God has made his judgment clear in the writings of the Old and New Testaments. Let me give you two quick examples.
As you all know, I bought a motorcycle a couple of years ago. It was in North Carolina, and I flew to Charlotte and took a bus up to Hickory and rode it all the way back home. When I got back home, I discovered something in the trunk that the seller and I had both overlooked – a 9mm automatic pistol, fully loaded. I couldn’t have been more shocked if it had been a rattlesnake! I carefully took it out of the trunk and examined it. Sure enough, it was the real deal.
To be honest, once I got over the shock my first impulse was to keep it: “Finders keepers, losers weepers.” It was probably worth several hundred dollars. Lucky me! I took it to a police officer friend of mine and asked him to check to see if it was stolen. It wasn’t.
I asked him what he thought I should do with it, hoping he’d say, “Keep it, it’s yours.” Instead he said, “What does the Good Book say? In my church, we’re taught to do unto others as we would have others do unto us.” A little embarrassed, I said, “I’m supposed to be the one telling you this, not the other way around.” So, I called the owner and told him what I’d found and, to his delight, I sent his gun back to him.
What does the Good Book say? That’s the question. As brothers and sisters in Christ, we don’t stand in judgment over each other; we stand together under the judgment of God and the authority of God’s Word.
A minister friend told me of a couple in his congregation who were living together out of wedlock. They were middle-aged and well thought of in the community. He considered them to be friends, but he let them know he didn’t approve of their living arrangement. He said it went against scripture and the sanctity of marriage. The woman was a high school teacher, and he questioned the example she was setting for her students. He told them that they should either get married or live separately. They accused him of being judgmental. He said he told them, “Hey, don’t blame me, I didn’t make the rules.”
It’s not we who stand in judgment of others, it’s God who stands as the righteous Judge of us all. It’s not my opinion against yours, or your opinion against mine; it’s God and the authority of God’s Word under which we all are called to live. The Good News is if this reins us in and limits the boundaries of our freedom, it also sets us free to experience the fullness of God’s grace and love, living in obedience with what scripture teaches us to do and be.
Let’s end with a story. It’s found in the thirty-eighth chapter of Genesis. The main characters are Judah and his daughter-in-law, Tamar. As the story goes, Judah has three sons, and the oldest marries Tamar but, after a relatively short marriage, he dies. So, the second son steps up and marries his brother’s widow; but he, too, dies.
Tamar asks to marry the third son, but Judah balks: “He’s too young,” he says. He tells her to go back and live with her family and, when the boy grows up, he’ll send for her. Yeah, right.
She goes back to her family and waits but, of course, Judah has no intention of sending for her. So, she takes matters in her own hands. She dresses as a prostitute and sits by the side of the road where she knows Judah will pass. Sure enough, he approaches her and promises if she’ll let him come into her tent, he’ll give her a newborn lamb. He has no idea that it’s Tamar. In the meantime, he promises to leave his signet and cord for her to keep as a pledge until he comes back.
When he comes back with her lamb, she is nowhere to be found. Three months later he’s told that she has played the harlot and is pregnant. He demands that she be put to death. On the day of her execution, she’s brought out before the whole community in ridicule. But before being burned at the stake, she asks to say a final word. The crowd is hushed. She holds up Judah’s signet and cord and says, “It is by the owner of these that I am pregnant.” Judah recognizes his signet and cord and confesses, “She is more righteous than I,” and Tamar is set free.
Friends, don’t be judgmental. Do your best to live up to the teachings and example of Jesus and encourage others to do likewise. As for any judgments needing to be made, leave them to God and the authority of God’s Word. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a log in my eye I need to see about getting removed.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2010 Philip McLarty. Used by permission.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.