Aren’t we getting another sudden leap from one subject to another here?
Yes, it’s a big jump from not worrying to not judging. There’s no obvious continuity with the latter half of chapter 6. But if we look just a bit further back, we’ll find one. “Do not judge so that you may not be judged” is very reminiscent of “If you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (6:15).
Even so, how can Christians live up to these commands? There are occasions when judgments have to be made. Sometimes other people’s thinking really is screwed up. Sometimes their actions really are bad.
Part of the point, I suppose, is that word “other.” We all like to think of ourselves as free of the faults we condemn in others, when in fact we are often guilty of the same things or, if not the exact same, at least equally screwy ones.
If we take these sayings with excruciating literalism, Christians would have to refuse almost any public office, especially juridical ones. But quite apart from that kind of literalism, we all spend a sizable chunk of our ordinary time judging one another and questioning one another’s sanity. It’s worse than ever in American culture right now, but it’s hardly new in our world—just more exaggerated.
Given the overall context of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus seems to be aiming here at broader issues. He’s doing what he does all through the Sermon on the Mount—trying to change our basic perspective on life and religion. We’re all familiar with the tendency of the religious, both on the right and on the left, to become judgmental—not just willing but eager to pass judgment and ready to do so in perfect confidence that they’re right. After all, God told them so. Jesus is saying, “No, God did no such thing.”
So, should we get rid of religion?
It might be worth a try if it had any chance of success, but there is plenty of evidence to show it doesn’t. Generally, if you drop one religion, something else will show up pretty quickly to replace it. And the religions of consumerism or free marketism or ethnic purity or Marxism have proven at least as deadly as Christianity or Islam or Judaism or any of the other traditional offerings. We human beings can work up the enthusiasm for judgment in all areas of life and we can always find something in our current ideology to justify it. To date, fascism and soviet Marxism seem to hold the world championship for sheer bloodiness.
In other words, this is a universal problem of the human spirit?
Yes. It’s part of the same picture with our eagerness to prove our piety in public, our temptation to fudge our bets by worshipping all the available gods of Mammon (just to keep on the safe side, of course), and our propensity to worry ourselves into a stupor. What better companion to these traits than our willingness to jump on the failures, mistakes, and inadequacies of people who don’t see things our way? That gives us a kind of catalogue of what Jesus has covered in the sermon.
Christians are not exempt. There’s ample documentation in the New Testament of people judging one another over issues of leadership, spiritual gifts, circumcision, keeping kosher. And, of course, the people judged their leaders and the leaders their people. Nowhere in Matthew’s Gospel does Jesus accuse Judaism of being specially prone to judgmentalism. Every thing he says on the subject is equally applicable to every human being on earth of any religion or (if that’s really possible) none.
Okay! Okay! But then there’s another leap. Where do these dogs and swine come in? And what are these holy pearls we’re not supposed to throw before them? And how do you recognize them if you’re not allowed to pass judgment?
Hmm! Being a bit difficult, aren’t we? Do I need to have a look in your eye to see if there isn’t a speck there?
Well, no. Actually, I’ve always had the same reaction to vs. 6. But, lately, when I ask myself, “What does Jesus treat as holy here in the Sermon on the Mount?” the answer that keeps coming back is “the intimate relationship of love and trust that God is offering you.” It’s the holy center of true human life. And taking it seriously means that our lives become centered on it.
Jesus has been telling us not to risk this relationship by seeking a reputation for public piety, or by building up this-wordly credits, or by falling into anxiety and the worship of idols or—just now—by setting up as the arbiters of good and evil for everyone around us.
“Do not cast your pearls before swine” is another way of saying “You cannot serve God and Mammon.” The love of God on Tuesdays and the love of shopping or the workers’ paradise or my own wonderful self the rest of the time? No. No effort at compromise will succeed. You will only lose your relationship with God without gaining anything in its place.
But life is more complicated than that. You can’t just go to church and skip the rest of life. There are real dangers and real responsibilities.
Well, Jesus seems to sense the need for an answer to that, as he goes right on with “Ask, and it will be given to you.” But it may not be quite the answer we’d like. What, exactly, will be given to us? Not wealth, not security, no guarantees of long life and easy circumstances. Jesus, after all, had none of these. Rather, it’s the things we ask for in the Lord’s Prayer: that God’s kingdom will be realized to some degree in our lives, that God’s will for peace and justice will be done, at least within the ambit of our lives, that we will find the day to day sustenance that makes life worthwhile, that God’s great gift of forgiveness will spread through the human family, that we will find strength for the tests we cannot evade and freedom from even those evils that we cling to most tightly in our lives. Maybe at some point we’ll even get the bonus of finding that we’ve lost the log in our own eye.
The Golden Rule (7:12) is the guide Jesus offers us for this life. When he says, “This is the Law and the Prophets,” he’s saying, “This is the whole message in a nutshell. Everything else has to be understood in terms of this one criterion.” In another place, he’ll say essentially the same thing about a similar formulation, the twin commandments to love God with our whole selves and to love our neighbors as ourselves (22:35-40).
That sounds awfully loosey-goosey. People use “love” to justify all sorts of mischief and mayhem—more like the road to Hell than the narrow gate to Heaven.
Which is easier, loving other people as we love ourselves or obeying a well-defined set of religious rules? And just think about those punctilious guardians of religion—the inquisitors of past and present—who have managed to persuade themselves that the rules require that they torture you and then claim they’re only doing it because they love you. If they started with love instead of the rules, they would have a much harder time getting to their ghastly conclusions.
And Jesus has already indicated that this business of loving our neighbors also involves forgiving a lot of things, some of them damned close to unforgivable. I suppose that inevitably follows if I hope to be forgiven my own wrong-doings and I’m trying to treat my neighbor as myself.
That’s hard to do.
Yes. as Jesus says, there are broad paths and narrow gates. The path of love has not, typically, been a crowded one. We often get Jesus’ image backwards here, assuming that the narrow gate is for the real sticklers, the people focused on the rules. Actually, no. The word “narrow” here applies to the gate, not the people trying to get through it. Narrow people are likely to have trouble sticking with the the path of love, and they won’t find the narrow gate easy to get through. Maybe they’d rather stick to polishing their reputation for piety. It’s either that or get a radically different perspective on life in this world.
Next up: LOVE, NOT RELIGION, IS THE POINT