May 19, 2010

The Just Judge and Us

The story of the woman taken in adultery is often cited when people are talking about the church’s responsibility to offer discernment, or even judgment, in spite of Jesus’ explicit command not to judge (Mt 7.1, Lk 6.37). It is true that this story is often misused from the liberal end of the spectrum, and people forget the final line, “Go, and do not be sinning any more.” Let us not, however, omit a crucial part of the story. After all the accusers slink away, “condemned in their own consciences” as some versions say, Jesus says to the woman, “Who has condemned you?” [i.e., Who made themselves judges over you?]. “No one,” she said. “Neither do I condemn you. Go and do not be sinning any more.”

Jesus — the only human being qualified to judge (because of Who He Is) — here refuses to judge, even in a case where guilt is clear. If he refuses to judge, how dare we presume to judge? The point of the story must be that no one who is a sinner (and all are sinners) can judge another, especially if the only sinless one, Jesus, refused to exercise that role. Jesus refuses to play the judgment game. (See also Jn 8:15-16, 12.47–49 [and 3.17–18]).

Not that he will always refuse it, nor that we will not partake in the judgment (both in the dock and on the bench). But the Judgment is reserved to the End, the Last Day. At that time, not now, Jesus and his Chosen Ones will judge the world. And his Chosen Ones include the people of Nineveh, and the Queen of the South, as well as the Apostles. (Mt 10.15, 12.41–42, 19.28; Jn 5.22-24,29, 12.48). For the time being, the world judges wrongly (Jn 16.8-11), and Jesus warns us neither to judge nor condemn on the basis of partial evidence — for until the Last Day when all is revealed, we have only partial evidence, having, as Paul says, imperfect knowledge. (Mt 7.1–5, 12.7; Luke 6.37, see also Rm 2.1–5, and Jn 7.24.)

I served jury duty over the last several weeks, and one of the instructions the judge gave at the beginning of the case was that we were to form no conclusions until we had heard all of the evidence, and then to deliberate on the basis of that evidence. (The case settled before we reached that point.)

How much better the church would be if instead of condemning and judging others we looked into our own hearts and confessed our faults (which are many) to one another, seeking the help and support of our companions in pilgrimage? And waited in patience for all to be revealed?

Here is my prayer for the church:

What kind of church we are to be? Shall it be the “O.K. Club” or “St Saviour’s Hospital”? The church of those who are at ease in Zion, or those who dwell in the exile of Babylon? Will it be the church of the Pharisee or the Publican? Of those who bind burdens, or those who liberate? The church of Caiaphas, secure in his skill, or of Cephas, who knew his failings? The church of Paul at his worst, or Paul at his best? Will it be the church of those who close the door on others, or of those who are trying to get in? Will it be the church of those for whom the Decalogue, the Summary of the Law, and the Golden Rule are not enough, or of those who know how hard it is to follow even these high standards? Will it be the church of those who are prepared to cast stones, and were condemned by their own consciences, or those whom they accuse, and whom Jesus refuses to condemn? Will it be the church of those who sit in judgment, or of those who love much, and minister to Jesus by washing his feet with their tears?

I pray our church will be a wing of St Saviour’s Hospital. There are no outpatients there, and everyone who arrives is a terminal case: they die to self, in order to rise to life everlasting. For the church is not a society of nice people who obey the rules. The church is the Body of Christ. There is no salvation in the Law. None. The Law did not and will not save us. Jesus did and will.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


rick allen said...

Toby, I am not sure I understand your point. Are you saying that Jesus' injunction not to judge means that the Church should not undertake to judge what is right and what is wrong and proclaim accordingly?

Christopher (P.) said...

This exact point came up in our Baptismal Covenant class last Sunday. But alongside the story of the women taken in adultery, is the story of the cleansing of the Temple. And I can't get my minds around both. The words from John--"I came not to judge the world, but to save the world" stand next to the prophetic words that do call us to judgment--that are words of judgment--and are used by both progressive and conservatives to remind us of how far short we are of God's kingdom. So how do I say, then, to the conservative
"don't judge" when he might as well say to the progressive, what about Martin Luther King? To me it becomes an issue of when to be silent, when to speak up; when to forebear, when to say "no."

Gary Paul Gilbert said...

People of a judgmental turn of mind love to put themselves in Jesus's place when he says, Go and sin no more. But in the story, Jesus sends all the accusers away before he talks to the woman. The righteous ones didn't hear what they said. But of course, we are the readers, and so heroes of the story.

Murdoch, Gary's husband

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Rick, a qualified Yes. I think it enough for the church to proclaim what is right without judging what is wrong; to proclaim a positive model of virtue -- and actually to enact it in itself! -- rather than publish a catalogue of errors. Sadly, the church seems on the whole to take the latter approach rather than model Jesus' positive moral commandment. ("Do unto other..." The primary command is to forgive, not to judge.

Christopher, this answers, to some extent, your concern, too. Proclaiming justice in the land obviously contains an implicit rebuke to injustice, but the focus is different. This is somewhat the Bonhoeffer dilemma.

Murdoch, that is precisely when judgment becomes blasphemous -- recapitulating the sin of Eden: to assume the place of God, to be like God, knowing good and evil -- and then presuming to judge others.

Erika Baker said...

I always thought that the "judgment" and the conversation about sinning is between Jesus and the woman who got it wrong.

It is our own shortcomings we're being asked to deal with, not those of others.
In our relationship with others, the story about motes and specks of dust is to be our guiding tale.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Exactly, Erika. Jesus gives us the leeway to be as hard on ourselves as we would like -- even to the point of tearing out eyes or amputating limbs.

rick allen said...

'I think it enough for the church to proclaim what is right without judging what is wrong"

I am not sure how one can make the one judgment without the other. The Church should say that no one should be judged by the color of his skin, but refrain from saying that racism is wrong?

"to proclaim a positive model of virtue -- and actually to enact it in itself! -- rather than publish a catalogue of errors."

Again, the one seems to implicate the other. Granted, to proclaim only the prohibition, without regard to tact, encouragement, or pastoral sensitivity, would do harm. But that takes "judgment" as well.

As to the Church "enacting" its own teaching, yes, of course, we hope our clergy embody the ethics they teach, but we also need to understand that just by virtue of being clergy they are not thereby exempt from the temptations and failings that affect us all. If the Church must remain silent until its clergy entirely reflect the teaching of Christ, then it will never speak.

"Sadly, the church seems on the whole to take the latter approach rather than model Jesus' positive moral commandment. ("Do unto other...""

Jesus' commands are both positive and negative. Example? "Judge not...."

"The primary command is to forgive, not to judge."

But you can only forgive what's a sin. And how are we to know what it a sin or not unless we exercise judgment, or unless we teach our children what is and is not a sin?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Rick, it seems to me that you are describing the tangle that is inevitable when one seeks to be a judge. I can only advise letting go of that and accepting Jesus' gracious offer of forgiveness received in proportion to forgiveness given. The forgiveness is not a generic forgiveness of abstract sin, but of the sin done against us -- the harm done to us.

Virtue does not particularly lie in condemning -- or avoiding -- vice, even in oneself. Virtue is not about personal purity, but doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly, and above all doing to others as one would be done by. It is not simply the avoidance of sin, but the practice of the good.

By "the church" I was not referring to the clergy per se, but to the systemic problems that arise when any religious body sets itself in the place of God -- as judge. This leads to hubris and the hypocrisy that actually cultivates and conceals sins within the structure itself. It is the attitude Jesus critiqued again and again. And it is unnecessary.

I do not see imposing judgment as a corollary to proclaiming virtue, nor did Jesus. How do you think he would answer your questions?

Erika Baker said...

Isn't it a question of a general attitude towards other people and your role in their lives and in their relationship with God?

I could believe that divorce is wrong without passing judgment on my divorced friends, without feeling superior to them, without condemning them and without wanting to exclude them from my church.

I could want to influence them towards trying to make their marriage work, but I would know that the final arbiter of the rights and wrongs in their lives is God, not my idea of what God might think.

Grant said...

It seems to me that what is meant by "judge" (the verb) is important. If we mean simply making an internal moral assessment, then the command not to judge seems impossible (as Rick points out). However, if by "judge" we are referring more to the way in which we act (e.g. condemning, sentencing, etc.) in relation to our moral assessments it may not be so problematic.

I think the story cited in this post is actually a good example of this. Clearly, Jesus does make some sort of moral assessment of the situation; he does, after all, tell the woman to change her behavior. So, if Jesus is to be our example in this story, making that assessment doesn't seem to be a problem. What he doesn't do though is act on his assessment. He doesn't condemn the woman. The condemnation is the "judgment" from which we are discouraged.

With this in mind, it becomes easy to see how this command could play out in real life. When we make negative moral assessments of people and their actions, we must examine how those assessments are played out in our lives. Do we retract our friendship from people whose actions we've deemed immoral? Do we ostracize them? Or do we act toward them with the same love and compassion as anyone else? I suspect Jesus' model is to do the latter, regardless of whether or not we make positive moral assessments about a person.

Paul said...

I turn to the Greek where judgment is krisis from krino, to discern. To see reality for what it is and to name it for what it is: that is, perhaps, what we are called to. One can do that without assuming a harsh and critical attitude (discern and critical both being cognates with the Greek). I know I am mixing metaphors but I see the Last Judgment as standing before Jesus while he peels every last layer of the onion of my life in pure light, revealing everything about me - glory and shame alike - as it truly is. This would be devastating if it were not viewed through the loving eyes of Jesus. When there is nothing left to hide my freedom from delusion and deceit should be complete. (Rambling here but I think it is relevant.)

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Paul, your comment provides a guide to balance Grant's thought above. The reason Jesus can be perfect judge is based upon his also being perfect Mercy and Truth. We dare not put ourselves in his place, certainly not in any ultimate way, and accept that we can only imitate him so far. Can we, must we, discern, advise, even critique? Yes -- but I suggest always stopping short of the final judgment of condemnation. Keeping it internal, and aiming it at ourselves, seems the best course., coupled, as Grans says, with outreach in love and compassion, and, when the evil is directed against us, love and forgiveness.

Paul, ramble any time you like!

rick allen said...

"Isn't it a question of a general attitude towards other people and your role in their lives and in their relationship with God?"

I don't think that Jesus' statements about judging are absolute prohibitions against it. We judge others all the time, not always voluntarily. Toby got picked for a jury. He could have stated that his religion prohibited him from judging between two parties (and that's precisely what a jury does, at least as to disputed facts). But rather than disclaiming judging, he did the right thing, in my view, committing to judge as fairly and as fully informed as possible.

Both the saying in Matthew and the saying in Luke have more than "Don't judge." As I read them they are less a prohibition of judging than a warning that we will be judged by the standard by which we judge.

So I don't think we are warranted in any way in being contemptuous of anyone, and we happen to be excluded from seeing the thoughts of the heart, the compulsions that drive others, the temptations, the fears, the mitigating factors that may make manifest sin less culpable in the eyes of God than our own more secret failings.

But still we must use our judgement, our understanding, our critical reason, our moral compass, in looking both inwardly and outwardly. And an honest view of ourselves should check our natural self-righteousness.

Jesus, at the end of Matthew's gospel, charges his disciples to go to the end of the earth, teaching his followers to keep his commandments. It is part of the charge to the Church.

Some of this is admittedly old Cathlic/Protestant stuff that I certainly don't want to rehash. Luther made the law/gospel distinction more absolute than the Catholic Church does. Trent affirmed that Jesus is lawgiver as well as savior. That's part of what's going on here, and I don't want to re-argue it. Toby, I think, is an excellent exemplar of an essentially Lutheran view of the law.

But I think both Protestants and Catholics can agree that "judgment" in the sense of grasping an objective standard of right and wrong, and feeling that it has universal application, is not the same as "judgment" in the sense of condemnation of others, or any sense of moral superiority.
I don't think that Jesus was condemning the former, but the latter.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Rick, the jury is to judge the evidence, not the person. In fact in the elimination process the plaintiff's attorney asked me, "You're not allowed to judge people are you?" (I was wearing clerical!) I answered, "! can make an unbiased judgment on the basis of evidence." She responded, "So you can judge evidence but not be judgmental about the person." That seems to have summed it up!

All I am pointing out here, and I think this is what Jesus was addressing, is that the tendency to think one is acting as unbiased and objective judge of the facts all too easily spills over into judgmentalism of one's brothers and sisters. That is the moral danger against which Christ warned -- and I think Catholics and Protestants (and Anglicans, too) fall into that ditch.

June Butler said...

What strikes me is that condemnation of others brings us no freedom but rather is a heavy burden to bear. In throwing off the burden of condemnation, one is freed.

Take it from one who knows the difference and who still lapses into condemnation from time to time, more's the pity.

Paul Davison said...

Tobias, you were not there to judge the spiritual nature of the person. Neither was the judge in that case.

A few years ago, I served as a judge in a court-martial in the Air Force. (I'll avoid the detailed terminology of slight interest only to military lawyers.) I was thus appointed by legal authority to decide whether this individual had committed a crime and, if so, what punishment was to be imposed on him.

It was the hardest thing I had to do in a 28-year military career. What I concluded was just what I said above--I wasn't appointed to judge his sinfulness or his relation to God, just the infinitely more limited task of decide whether it had been proven that he had done these things that equaled a crime. Not easy, but far easier than trying to judge where someone is in relation to God.

I think we are warned to use the same measure on others that we wish used on ourselves. I am comfortable that I did so that day. I'm also glad that this was a one-time event.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Good distinctions, Paul. Thanks!

Tim said...

Pinging Rick in particular: The Church should say that no one should be judged by the color of his skin, but refrain from saying that racism is wrong?

The two ways of saying it can go together. I'd say that the "judging" question revolves around identification, discernment, analysis are care. The first three are spotting what's right and wrong on larger scales - racism is a general, large-scale, thing; the latter is a per-human thing - when you have two or more people coming to consult you in the church.

Not that any historical Jesus is likely to have said anything written in John anyway, of course. Let's not forget the figure is a product, a projection, from the Johannine community culture of its day.

Mesh it with "wily as serpents but innocent as doves" if you wish. :)