When Jesus says, “Do not judge,” we don’t really think he knows what he’s talking about. Or at least that’s what our actions often communicate. Many of us struggle not to judge, condemn, or correct someone else’s sins—or we make exceptions in “this particular case.” This sermon explores the reasons why and offers a remedy based on what Jesus did for us on the cross.
Sermon Text: Luke 6:39-49
The following is my original sermon manuscript.
Did you hear that Miley Cyrus broke the internet last week? Well, not really, but public reaction to her performance at the MTV Video Music Awards last Sunday garnered over 300,000 tweets per minute on Twitter. There was no way to avoid the story last week: on TV, Facebook, Twitter, and all over the web.
It made me wish for a moment that I were Amish!
Look: MTV, and Miley Cyrus, and Robin Thicke, and their sponsors participated in something that was deeply cynical, calculated, greedy, and degrading. Indeed, it was sinful. But let’s put things in perspective: What’s the worst sin you’ve committed in the last month… or in the last week… or even yesterday? Anyone want to volunteer? Now, imagine that sin being broadcast to millions of people all over the world. Imagine that sin being discussed and ridiculed endlessly in millions of Facebook threads and Twitter feeds and blog posts. Imagine that sin being talked about over a million coffee tables, or in a million break-rooms, or around a million dinner tables.
The sort of public condemnation that Miley Cyrus received feels familiar. Wasn’t it just a few months ago when TV chef Paula Deen lost her Food Network show and her sponsorship deals because this native of south Georgia told the truth and admitted under oath in a court deposition that she had used the N-word. When that controversy erupted I thought, “She grew up white in the Deep South in the ’50s and ’60s. If she hadn’t used the N-word, that would be very unusual. Even as late as the ’70s, as a kid in the suburbs of Atlanta, I often heard the N-word! At home sometimes. At school. At family reunions and get-togethers. While I rarely used the N-word myself—it was a “bad word” I wasn’t allowed to say—I certainly felt prejudice toward blacks. I heard and repeated racist jokes when I was young. Who am I to judge?
Besides, I thought, “If my parents were still alive, and they were put under oath, and they were asked if they ever used the N-word, the way Paula Deen was asked, they would answer ‘yes,’ too.” And I love my parents. I would hate to think that if that happened to them, the whole country would judge them, and ridicule them, and condemn them for it. Because while I know that they were prejudiced, I also know that as bad as their sin was, it didn’t define who they were. They were mostly good and loving people. They were so much more than this particular sin. But when we judge people, we have this way of reducing them down to the very worst thing about them. We define them and their character in terms of the sin. To say the least, it’s deeply unfair.
And haven’t we done the same with Miley Cyrus? Don’t you imagine that there are people in her life who, unlike us, know her and care about her deeply, and love her as much as I love my own parents—my family, my people—and they know that this shameful, demeaning publicity stunt in which she participated doesn’t define who she is, either! And these people would say to us, “This is not who she is! If only you knew her the way we know her. If only you could see in her what we see in her.”
My point is: when we truly love people, we become very reluctant to judge them or condemn them. When we fail to love people, that’s when the judgment and condemnation usually takes place.
When you judge or condemn, you are failing to love!
This is what the apostle Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians 13, when he says that love “believes all things” and “hopes all things.” He means that when we love people, we always look for the good in them, and not the bad. We always assume the best. We always give people the benefit of the doubt.
Last year, our summer vacation corresponded to the Summer Olympics, and we watched a lot of Olympic coverage. And I had this thought: I don’t know a thing about gymnastics, to speak of. I watch about a half-hour of it once every four years. But put me down in front of the TV, and let me listen to the expert commentators, and before long I begin to think that I’m some kind of expert: “Can you believe that gymnast actually wobbled a little on the balance beam just then in order to regain her balance? That’s a tenth of a point deduction right there. She is the worst.” Never mind that she did all those twirls and somersaults and back-flips on a beam that’s four inches wide—in front of a worldwide audience. She’s terrible. “Can you believe she didn’t stick the landing? What a loser! I mean, how hard is a quadruple back-flip off the balance beam that you would stumble a bit on the landing? Scandalous!” There are like a thousand things that these gymnasts do exactly right in every routine, but if they wobble a little, or fall off the beam, or fail to “stick the landing,” suddenly they’re just terrible?
No. I’m hardly in a position to judge Olympic gymnastics, but I do it all the time. And just think: Human beings are much more complicated than Olympic gymnastics, and we probably judge them far more than I’d like to admit.
Jesus tells us, “Do not judge,” but that’s only because he doesn’t know what excellent judges you and I are! Of course judging other people is usually wrong—and by all means you shouldn’t judge me—but in this particular case, I possess this almost other-worldly ability to see into this person’s heart, and know beyond a shadow of a doubt exactly why they did what they did. So I’m going to make an exception to Jesus’ rule in this particular case.
Last week we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s profound and powerful “I Have a Dream” speech. If I could humbly suggest a small change to that speech based on Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, I would say that we shouldn’t judge one another based either on the color of our skin or the content of our character—because we’re not really in a good position to judge the content of someone else’s character. Only God is, and he will—so we leave that kind of judgment up to God!
Judging the content of someone’s character is precisely the kind of judging that Jesus’ words rule out. Other kinds of judgment are O.K. So if we supervise people, it’s perfectly O.K. to judge their performance on the job, as long as we leave it at that. “Sally did not meet the following objectives, therefore we’ll take the following steps to try to improve her performance.” That’s a perfectly fine way of judging. The bad kind of judging is saying, “Sally did not meet the following objectives because she’s lazy, and she doesn’t like to work!” Likewise, if you’re a teacher, it’s perfectly O.K. to judge a student’s work and assign a grade based on tests, exams, and homework they turn in. And—given recent headlines—as commander-in-chief, it’s even O.K. for President Obama to judge whether or not President Assad of Syria poses such a threat to his people or others that military intervention might be necessary to stop him. Whether the President’s judgment is right or wrong—whether any of our judgments is right or wrong—is beside the point. The point is, Jesus doesn’t say we can’t make these kinds of judgments based on objective standards and information. But we ought to do so without passing judgment on a person’s character. We leave those judgments up to God.
So I said earlier that I believed that Miley Cyrus, Alan Thicke, and the MTV people all participated in something that was sinful. Was I doing the wrong kind of judging there. No. It’s O.K. to identify sin as sin. It’s when we go beyond that and say, for example, that Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke are sexually immoral people, for example, based on the way they danced, or what they wore or didn’t wear, or what they sang. Do you see the difference?
A YouTube video went viral recently. It’s made some national headlines. It was a video of a Baptist pastor named Jim Standridge in a small town in Oklahoma who, in the middle of his sermon, called out a parishioner for falling asleep during his sermon. He walked down in the congregation and scolded him for going to sleep. He told the congregation, “You say, ‘He won’t come back.’ Well, he ain’t here now.” Just for the record, as your pastor, I will never do this if you fall asleep. But I will go to Wal-Mart and buy one of those Super-Soaker water rifles and fire it at you! Anyway, this pastor went on to scold other parishioners by name for other bad things. The title of the YouTube video is, “Jim Standridge has a hissy fit.” You can probably imagine how he was mocked and ridiculed by all these people on the internet, including many Christians, including many pastors. I think I’m supposed to wag my finger and call him a jerk or a bully or worse, but on what basis can I do that? Just because I wouldn’t have chosen to do or say the things that Jim Standridge did or said in church. But I’m not a Baptist pastor in Skiatook, Oklahoma. I have no idea what the congregation was like or how they were behaving. To this pastor’s credit, he knew his flock and called them by name. As far as I could see, he cared deeply about them even as he called some of them out.
At worst, he seems to be having a bad day. Been there, done that! Yet for most people in the world—if he’s remembered at all—he’ll be remembered as that crazy pastor who lost his cool in church. Is that fair? Of course not. And this is why we don’t judge.
Besides, as Jesus makes clear in today’s scripture, don’t we have more than enough sin in our own lives to deal with? I mean, honestly… If you don’t think you have a lot of sin in your life, then judge, or condemn, or correct someone else’s sins, and they will be glad to tell you all about your own. “You think I got a speck in my eye? Let’s talk about that giant log protruding from your eye.” You know this is true: think about the arguments you get into sometimes. You get defensive when someone accuses you or criticizes you or judges you, and what’s your first impulse? “But what about you? What about the things that you do? You’re just as bad or worse!”
Jesus says: “How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the giant wooden beam in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the giant wooden beam out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” According to these words, the biggest problem, surprisingly, is not that we have sin in our lives; the biggest problem is that when we judge, or condemn, or correct other people for their sins, we are acting as if we don’t.
“Acting” is the operative word, too, because that’s what the word “hypocrite” means. The word comes from Greek and it means a stage-actor. In ancient Greek theater, actors literally wore theatrical masks that expressed what their character was feeling. These masks helped actors pretend to be someone they weren’t. In the same way, we are hypocrites when we pretend to be someone we’re not. It’s as if we’re wearing masks to communicate something about ourselves that isn’t true—namely, “I’m a better person than you. I’m more righteous than you. I’m not as big a sinner as you are.” The moment we judge or condemn others is the moment that we judge and condemn ourselves. Because the people in the world who are better than us, who are more righteous than us, who are less sinful than us, are the kind of people who would never imagine that they were better, more righteous, or less sinful. It wouldn’t cross their minds!
Why? Because they know what’s in here, and they know that they have more than enough sin of their own to deal without fussing over other people’s sins.
I’ve talked a lot about not judging other people. And maybe you’re thinking, “Easier said than done.” Because we don’t have to actually say anything about Miley Cyrus on Facebook or Twitter or on a blog to feel judgmental toward her. Right? The real problem, as I’ve said throughout the sermon series, is the heart. How do we change that?
The first step is dropping the mask, letting go of pretending to be someone you’re not. Remember who you are. Remember that you are a sinner. Saved… Redeemed… A child of God… By all means. But still a sinner. We have no reason to hide this fact from one another. Why? Because Jesus himself took that giant wooden beam sticking out of my eye and the giant wooden beam sticking out of your eye and had himself crucified on it. We have nothing to be ashamed of because Christ took our shame away and nailed it to the cross! We have nothing to feel guilty about because God took our guilt and nailed it to the cross. Amen?
You know how in the Gospels the disciples are always doing something foolish, or boastful, or self-righteous, or smug—on nearly every other page? Do you know how they’re often exposed as doubters and frauds and phonies? Do you know how they’re often shown to possess very little faith? Where did these stories in the Gospels come from? On whose eyewitness accounts were most of these stories based?
That’s right: the disciples themselves. They didn’t pretend to be something they weren’t. They didn’t care if the world know that they were sinners. They didn’t let shame and guilt keep them hidden behind the masks of hypocrisy. They were transparent. And they weren’t afraid to be that way because of what God did for them on the cross!
Every sin we’ve ever committed or will ever commit, every shameful thing we’ve done or will ever do, everything we’ve done to hurt ourselves and other people—God took these things away from us and nailed them to the cross of his Son Jesus. So we don’t have to be guilty or ashamed anymore. “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
Who cares if other people condemn us for our sins and failures and shortcomings? Who cares if we condemn ourselves for our sins and failures and shortcomings? Although we got to stop doing that too! But who cares because the only One whose opinion of us matters tells us, “There is now no condemnation. You are a beloved child of God.”