Suspended Judgment

SJF • Proper 21B • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save and to destroy. So who, then, are you to judge your neighbor?
We continue our reading this week from the epistle of James; and doesn’t it strike you once again how closely James follows the teaching of Jesus? We saw a few weeks ago how James echoed Jesus’ reminder of the royal law of Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And in today’s reading James echoes another of Jesus’ teachings, “Judge not lest you be judged.”

This is an important reminder for us in the world as well as in the church, for it addresses a very common tendency. And I don’t just mean the tendency to judge others. It goes deeper than that, down to whatever it is that drives our desire to render such judgments.

What I’m talking about is the tendency we all have, upon feeling that we’ve achieved some goal, to look back on those who are still struggling with a certain degree of — well, contempt is probably too strong a word, though it may sometimes take that form — but a certain degree of self-satisfaction that seems to relish saying, “I’m better than you are.”

I suppose smugness sums it up in its least nasty form; a kind of pleasure mixed with just a hint of malice. This vice doesn’t have a name in English, and so it is a bit hard to pin down; I suppose it is kin to the feeling the Germans call Schadenfreud — pleasure at someone else’s misfortune. But even without a particular name we know this vice well, this vice that is the mirror image of envy. In envy we despise others because we lack what they have. Here envy is turned about into a kind of pleasure in succeeding where others have failed, or in having what others lack. Even for want of a name, it is no less a vice than envy, and it is similarly ridiculous, and similarly dangerous.

As for the ridiculousness, I recall a hilarious scene in the film comedy, The 12 Chairs, in which chubby comedian Dom Deluis plays a renegade Russian priest who, on hearing an elderly woman’s confession that she hid the crown jewels in one of a set of dining room chairs “before the Revolution,” sets off on a quest to recover them. At one point he wrestles the last chair, the one that must have the jewels, from another treasure hunter, and in his ecstatic joy climbs his chubby self up a sheer cliff, to the pinnacle of a stone tower in the desert, waving the chair over his head and chanting, “God likes me! God likes me!” Of course, when he rips the upholstery open and finds there is no jewelry inside, his estimation of God’s approval slumps considerably.

So much for the ridiculousness of this vice — and laughter is a good defense in our efforts to resist the devil — for he has no sense of humor. But this nameless vice is no less dangerous than those that do have names, like envy and pride, it’s close cousins. In its most innocent form, it may simply be an expression of gratitude — “there but for the grace of God go I.” And if an honest thanksgiving for a grace received, perhaps it is not so bad. But you can see, I’m sure, how easily this sentiment can glide over into the Pharisee’s, “I thank God I am not like other men.” If misery loves company, then success seems to enjoy solitude, looking down on those who have failed.

The problem with this vice, even at its most trivial, is the provisional nature of all our successes. Who can say, ultimately, who has succeeded until the trial is over and the final verdict rendered? Who is to say that because I stand today I may not fall tomorrow? However well I may judge myself to be positioned on the chessboard of life, I don’t see the whole chessboard the way God does; and in life’s card game I don’t know what cards the other players may have, however good the hand dealt me — in short I am in no position to judge even myself let alone anyone else, in God’s great scheme of things. And it is also good to remember that God is more than a mere kibitzer in this game of life!

The proper attitude for us to adopt, rather than judgment, is as James suggests, for all of us to submit ourselves to God, in our awareness that God is watching over us as we journey through this life; to resist the devil, yes — but not to critique other people’s struggles with that selfsame devil, except to help them when and how we can; to draw near to God so that he might draw near to us — again without worrying how close or how far others may be, but rather — if we feel we are ahead — not to gloat in self-satisfaction, but to use our advantage to throw out tow-lines from the stern of our little boats, to pull others on board; to cleanse our own hands before we presume to try to wash someone else’s. And above all, not to speak evil against another or to judge another.

For we are not judges in God’s court; we are not even plaintiffs — we are defendants, all of us. So, as James says, who are we to judge our neighbors? The pot may call the kettle black, but the cook puts them both on the fire!

This theme is taken up in our gospel today in a different way, but one that is much to the point, in our Lord’s commandment to place no stumbling block in the way of one who believes in him — to create no difficulties for others in their journey to God. We are called to consider to what extent our judgment of others places a stumbling block in their way. To what extent does one person’s disapproval discourage others, or even worse lead them to despair, rather than reformation. Think for a moment of how the other poor sinner felt when he overheard the Pharisee’s words, “I thank God I’m not like other men, even like that one over there!” Who is really helped by someone saying to them, “You can never do anything right.” Does this kind of attitude really help to bring reformation — even assuming we can tell who needs it more than we do? We see only the outside, after all, not the inner workings of the heart. Two weeks ago we heard James’ warning about not being overly impressed by a richly dressed person or turning away one dressed poorly: for the Lord looks on the heart, not the haberdashery.

A story is told of a gentleman traveling by ocean liner discovering himself to have been berthed in the same cabin with a fellow passenger he thought looked suspicious. So he went to the purser and asked if it would be any trouble if his gold watch and extra cash were kept in the ship’s safe. The purser responded, “No trouble at all sir, especially considering that your cabinmate has just asked for the same service.”

When we presume to judge others we are just as likely to be mistaken in our judgments; and as our Lord promised, we will be judged by the same standards we apply to others. So best not to make such judgments — best not to look at others doing their best to serve the Lord and say, “Let us stop them, because they aren’t one of us.” Jesus has powerful words to say against those who place a stumbling block in the way of others seeking to do their best to follow him — powerful words of a terrible fate: to have a millstone tied around your neck and to be cast into the depths of the sea. If you are moved to be high-handed towards another — cut off that hand, for that high-handedness will bring you down. If you are moved to kick another when he’s down — cut off that prideful foot and root out the spirit of judgment from your heart, for that foot will trip you up. If you are moved to roll your haughty eye at someone else’s failings — tear it out, for that eye will draw you to the place where all judgment is reflected back to you and you see yourself as you really are, with all your imperfections revealed, and that eye will weep at the sight. For it is better for us to enter life maimed or lame or half-blind than to end up in that place of dreadful perception, forever to contemplate by the sultry light of unquenchable fire the many causes of stumbling to which our judgment gave occasion.

So when the spirit of judgment rises in your heart, cast it out and instead of judging, forgive. Instead of laying a stumbling block, bring that cup of water to the one who faints with weakness. If I am truly better off than he or she, this will show it, and this alone. So let us speak no evil against another, brothers and sisters, but rather place ourselves under the same mercy we desire for all, the mercy of the just judge, the judge eternal, throned in splendor, who alone can purge us and our land of bitter things, and whose dominion alone can bring healing; the one who is our everlasting judge, but who is also our only mediator and advocate, Jesus Christ our Lord.+