Sunday, February 24, 2019

Non-judgmental Judging

Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

Two Sundays ago, I mentioned that we were in for a rare treat. For the first time after a number of years, we would have the chance to listen to and consider, a set of readings which would otherwise be very rare. Today’s set is by far the rarest. The last time a priest would have preached on this text would have been in the year 2001, and I wasn’t even a priest then.

And what a treasure trove we have today –everyone’s favourite topic – Is it Christian to judge? And I believe the congregation would be divided in giving an answer. I guess almost everyone agrees that being ‘judgmental’ is always necessarily a negative trait, but does that mean precluding all types of judgments? If it does, then would any discussion of morality in today’s context be considered judgmental? And since religion, including the Catholic faith, is pretty much about morality, would that mean that we are a judgmental lot? It was the Protestant best-selling author and mega-Church pastor, Rick Warren, who beautifully summarises the Catch 22 situation we face, when talking about morality today, “Our culture has accepted two huge lies. The first is that if you disagree with someone’s lifestyle, you must fear or hate them. The second is that to love someone means you agree with everything they believe or do. Both are nonsense. You don’t have to compromise conviction to be compassionate.”

Just a few weeks ago, someone at one of my RCIA sessions asked me why topics like abortion are almost never preached from the pulpit. He had made a valid point and I confessed that I had failed miserably in this area. My excuse was that the congregation may take things the wrong way, especially when a homily is a one-way communication, with no room for clarification. Here’s the Catch 22: Say nothing and people would plead ignorance. But say something and they accuse you of being mean, hateful and judgmental. There is really a deep-seated irony here. Never mind that the very ones who are telling us not to judge are enacting a moral law in their very act of banishing moral law; they are making a judgment in the very act of forbidding judgment. Logic and rational consistency do not seem to be necessary in times like these.

So, this begs the question, “Can we judge without being judgmental?” And the answer is “we most certainly can and we should”. Firstly, we make judgments all the time. It’s part of being human. If I see water falling from the sky, I make a judgment, “It’s raining.” If I see an attractive girl, I make a judgment, “Wow! She’s really beautiful!” All this is stating the obvious, of course. But we also make judgments with regards to what we consider “good” or “bad” for us or even others. I don’t smoke because I know it’s bad for my health. That’s a judgment. When you see your young child run into the street, you will stop her for fear that she may get hit by a car. That’s making a judgment. But let’s take this a step further. If I see my friend’s husband sleeping around with other women (provided that I have clear proof and not just making a conjecture or based my conclusions on hear-say), can I make a judgment that this is not good for his marriage and family and that it is not morally good for him too. Can adultery ever be a good thing or is it neutral? And if it is always a bad thing, wouldn’t that be making a judgment?

It is clear from these few examples, that making judgment is something necessary and is essentially what makes us human. However, though we may make judgments about things, situations and a person’s actions and words, we are in no position to judge their motive or the interior of a person, the heart. Only God can make that judgment. Our Holy Father, Pope Francis gives us an important reminder, “Each person’s situation before God and their life in grace are mysteries which no one can fully know from without.”

Today, we live in a culture that preaches non-judgmentalism, by which they mean one can never impose one’s own set of morality on another. We would agree that we should not be judgmental to the extent that we should not be judging someone’s intention or soul as we were privy to this. But to choose to suspend all judgment is simply wrong. Judgment is necessary especially when love demands it. And this is love: to will the good of another. Being free of sin and on the road to salvation is the ultimate “good” for the other. Sitting back and saying nothing, however, is not the loving thing to do. Indifference does not equal love. We can be nice and polite to people who make bad choices. We may even tolerate their decisions. But do we really “love” them? In the end, such a mentality of “tolerance” encourages us to be unconcerned about the people around us and neglect our responsibilities toward them.

But that’s not how our Lord lived. Jesus was anything but indifferent to others. He didn’t say, “well, it’s not my life … whatever works for them … different strokes for different folks!” No, our Lord shows us the two essential sides of love, a soft side of mercy, compassion, and acceptance, and a firm side that constantly calls us to conversion. Truth is not the antithesis of Love or vice versa. Charity seeks truth and truth serves charity. On the one hand, our Lord loved everyone, even in their weaknesses – He came for sinners. On the other hand, our Lord persistently challenged people to repent from their evil doings. And He did this because He loved them and knew they would be happiest when they live according to God’s plan.

At the end of last week’s gospel, our Lord challenged us: “Be compassionate as your Father in Heaven is compassionate!” True compassion must always be at the heart of judging. That is why it is so important that we recognise and address the plank in our own eye before taking issue with the splinter in our brother’s eye. “Can one blind man guide another?”  Our Lord was not asking us to disqualify ourselves from making any judgment since no one is perfect. Our Lord is setting out a vision of the integrity between what we are and what we say, which is not merely for the good of others, but also for our own good. Being judgmental is actually being inconsistent. We claim the right to judge others but we refuse to be judged. If we face the truth about ourselves (the so-called “plank” in the eye) and acknowledge our own daily struggles with sin, we are less likely to set ourselves up in judgment over others in a “judgmental” sort of a way. If we recognise how much we need God’s mercy then our hearts will be much more compassionate when we encounter other people’s faults. St Bernard tells us that, “if you have eyes for the shortcomings of your neighbour and not for your own, no feeling of mercy will arise in you but rather indignation. You will be more ready to judge than to help, to crush in the spirit of anger than to instruct in the spirit of gentleness.”

We are called to be judges, but all too often we are unfit to judge. But nevertheless, we must judge between good and evil; we cannot shirk our duties to correct error and to rebuke sin in others. In fact, our Lord gave us an important cue with regards to making judgments – “every tree can be told by its own fruit” which repeats a theme found in the first reading. We can and we should judge, but if we are to judge, we do so based on the actions and words of the other rather than presume that we can read minds and hearts. If we are to judge, let us first judge ourselves. And just as we are called to correct, we must also be open to correction ourselves. Above all, if we are to judge, let us do so with compassion and love, knowing that all of us would have to meet our Lord on the Last Day, who sits in judgment over both the living and the dead, and He judges justly and mercifully.

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