Bottom line: There are two ways to avoid judging others: Denying the existence of right and wrong or facing ones own wrong choices. One method works; the other does not.
Once a guy ran into an old friend. He was amazed because the last time he saw his friend, the man was overweight and now he was quite slim. After a few pleasantries, he asked: "How did you lose so much weight?" The other said, "It was easy. I did it by avoiding arguments." "What?" He said, "That's crazy!. No one can lose weight by not arguing. It's impossible." The other gently replied, "You are right. It is impossible."
Now, I don't know if avoiding arguments will help a person lose weight, but most of us would agree that it is a good idea to avoid fights, if you can. In today's Gospel Jesus goes even further. He tells we should not only avoid conflicts, but we should steer clear of the judgments which cause so much enmity.
"Stop judging," he says, "and you will not be judged." To underscore his point Jesus repeats the same idea with different words: "Stop condemning and you will not be condemned." This is one of Jesus' most memorable sayings. People, who know little else of what he said, can quote it, usually in an older translation: "Judge not lest ye be judged." Or they might say something like, "Mom, why are you criticing my drinking buddies? Stop being so judgmental."
Still, we do judge each other. Really, how can you avoid it? Let's face it. People are constantly doing things which are dumb, irresponsible, mean and two-faced. How can you help but make judgments on certain types of behavior? I'd like to talk about that this Sunday. As far as I can see, there are two ways to avoid making judgments: one which works and one which doesn't.
I would like to start with the way that doesn't work because you hear it so often - and because, on the surface, it seems very attractive. Many will try to avoid judgments by saying that, when you come down to it, everything is relative. What's right and wrong varies from culture to culture and even from person to person. This of course is true - up to a point. However, there is a limit. Let me explain.
A person who does not believe in an objective standard of right and wrong is called a relativist. If you meet such a person - and you probably do every day - it is best not to argue with him. Just try to be a good, sympathetic listener. Sooner or later the relativist will mention things he feels strongly about. You will notice there are certain things which he not only feels are wrong, but which he believes everyone should recognize as wrong. There is a standard of right and wrong which applies to the rich and famous, as much as it does to people like you and me. And even the relativist will use that standard to judge others. When he uses words like irresponsible, unfair, outrageous, manipulative, selfish and narrow-minded, he is expressing more than a personal feeling. He is making a judgment which he feels every honest open-minded person should accept. Do you see what I am saying? Relativism, in the long run, will not free a person from judging others.*
There is, thanks be to God, a different way of avoiding judgments - a way that actually works. It is the method Jesus offers: "Stop judging - and you will not be judged." When you are tempted to judge someone else, remember the judgment on yourself. St. Augustine said it this way: If you want to stop thinking about the other person's failings, the thing you have to do is to focus first on your own faults. Augustine was not talking about becoming scrupulous or morbid. What it involves is taking a deep breath and before I fly off the handle about someone else, to ask myself: How is it I so quickly see the other person's laziness or hypocrisy or greed? Could it be that I have similar faults, maybe even worse ones? When Jesus said that he came not to condemn, but to save, he was referring to you and me - as much as anyone else. Do not condemn and you will not be condemned. When you see something wrong, Jesus does not want you to take on the role of chief prosecutor, Jesus wants you to become the defense attorney. Judge not lest ye be judged.
This method requires great effort, but it does work - sometimes even in extreme circumstances. An amazing example has emerged from the life of Ronald Reagan. On March 30, 1981 a young man ambushed the president. He fired six shots wounding Reagan and three others. When they wheeled him into the operating room, Reagan had an image of the gunman crouching in the darkness. The image filled him with rage. But he immediately got hold of his anger and said to himself, How can I expect God to forgive me, if I don't forgive that man? Later, President Reagan tried to visit John Hinckley. The doctors, however, advised that it would not help the young man's recovery.
This incident sums up what we should do when rage overcomes us. Remember that we too will be judged. Only mercy can free us from condemning others. This is a difficult to grasp - and harder still to live. Fortunately, this Wednesday we begin a forty day season to reflect on our need for salvation - and to receive the mercy of God.
Let me try to sum up: There are two ways to avoid judging others. One way is to deny the existence of right and wrong. That way does not work because right and wrong - and the necessity of choosing between them - have ways of reasserting themselves. The method which does work is the one Jesus proposes. It involves facing my own wrong choices and confessing them the one who came not to condemn, but to save. Then, remember that mercy when I am tempted to criticize someone else. This way of avoiding judgment of others is hard - and I can't say I have practiced it well for even a day. Still, like AA members say, It works if you work it. It may not help a person lose weight, but it will give any of us a lighter heart.
*Recently a man named Richard Dawkins wrote a popular book which asserts there is no such thing as right and wrong - or human freedom. He believes evolution explains everything - and that religion and morality are simply one more product of materialistic evolution. Still, even though the author argues that everything is pre-determined and there is no such thing as right and wrong, he strongly condemns a certain group of people: those who take religion seriously. He calls us dangerous fundamentalist fanatics - and he wants the school system to teach children how wrong we are. Now, while Dawkins is a good example of the flaw of relativism, I would avoid using it in a homily. Our culture has made it hard to talk about evolution in a nuanced way without people jumping to the conclusion that one is "against science." In an earlier essay I discussed this difficulty and pointed out three different meanings of the word "evolution."
From Archives (Homilies for Seventh Sunday, Year C):
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Bulletin (Ash Wednesday, Lenten Confessions, Archdiocesan Day of Reconciliation & Cathedral Walk)