Lisa Simpson: “Doesn’t the Bible say, ‘Judge not, lest ye be judged,’ Reverend?”
Rev. Lovejoy: “Uh, I suppose that’s somewhere near the back…”
What could Jesus ever have meant by saying this (Lk 6:37)? The Taizé website has a helpful section on questions on the Bible and the Christian Faith that has a response to this perhaps unexpectedly difficult query. The response warns us about the dangers of judging. When we judge others, we often manifest barely acknowledged feelings of envy, and our judging becomes a way to neutralize perceived threats to our social position or even imagined competitors for God’s favor. I can also judge others to “reassure myself of my own worth.” Who, after all, can be more free from their own doubts than someone who is preoccupied with loudly denouncing various “unbelievers”? This is why Jesus asks us, “Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own?” (Lk 6:41). Finally, as the website reminds us, “A desire to dominate can also cause someone to judge. … Whoever judges their neighbour makes themselves his or her master, and in so doing takes the place of God.” We are instead called to “humbly regard others as more important” than ourselves (Phil 2:3).
But are we left with a bland message of inclusivity? Shouldn’t we correct one another? Doesn’t St Paul tell us to “admonish the idle” (1 Thes 5:14)? Should we be nothing more than passive before egregious sinners?
The brothers of Taizé go on to tell us that judging others actually makes it impossible to constructively correct or admonish them. St Paul recognizes this when he writes, “Let us no longer judge one another, but rather resolve never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother” (Rom 14:13). The Desert Fathers recognize the dangers of becoming a judgmental “stumbling block” for our brothers and sisters – the harsh and destructive judgmentalism usually comes from an inattention to others that is itself the product of self-absorption. In his book about them, Rowan Williams writes,
There are several variants of a story in which some young monk goes in despair to one of the great “old men” to say that he has consulted an elder about his temptations and been told to do severe and intolerable penance, and the old man tells the younger one to return to his first counselor and tell him that he has not paid proper attention to the need of the novice. If I don’t really know how to attend to the reality that is my own inner turmoil, I shall fail in responding to the needs of someone else. And the desert literature consistently suggests that excessive harshness, a readiness to judge and prescribe, normally has its roots in that kind of inattention to oneself. Abba Joseph responds to the invitation to join in condemning someone by saying, “Who am I?” And the phrase might suggest not just “Who am I to be judging?” but also “How can I pass judgement when I don’t know the full truth about myself?”How do we distinguish judging others from guiding them from just being worthlessly passive? The brothers of Taizé wisely begin an answer with another story from the desert:
Here is an example drawn from the correspondence of Barsanuphius and John, two monks of Gaza in the sixth century. After having reprimanded a brother for his negligence, John was sorry to see how dejected he was. He is hurt again when, in his turn, he feels that his brothers are judging him. To remain serene, he then decides no longer to criticize anyone else, but simply to take care of the things for which he alone is responsible. But Barsanuphius makes him see that Christ’s peace does not mean withdrawing into oneself. He quotes some words of Saint Paul to him several times: “Correct, rebuke and encourage with tireless patience and the concern to instruct” (2 Timothy 4:2).
Leaving others alone can be yet another subtle way of judging them. If I only want to worry about myself, could it not be that I do not consider others worthy of my attention and my efforts? John of Gaza decides not to correct any of his brothers any longer, but Barsanuphius realizes that, in fact, he is still judging them in his heart. He writes to him, “Do not judge or condemn anyone, but admonish them like true brothers” (Letter 21). John will become able truly to be concerned with others when he stops judging them.
“Do not make any premature judgments; wait for the Lord to come” (1 Corinthians 4:5). Paul recommends great restraint in judging. At the same time, he appeals to those to whom he writes to take care of one another: “Admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, assist the weak; be patient with everybody” (1 Thessalonians 5:14). By experience, he knew that reprimanding without judging could be costly: “For three years, night and day, I did not cease admonishing each one of you” (Acts 20:31). Only charity can accomplish this kind of service.