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Sermon on the Mount – PART 4

You Be the Judge

Exodus 24: 12 – 18
Matthew 7: 1 – 29

Transfiguration Sunday

Delivered by Rev. Ron Coughlin

Holy Spirit,
through you, may we experience
the wisdom of God’s word
and the power of God’s presence,
this day and forever. Amen.

Scott and I were away for a week of sunshine and rest and relaxation. We were in Key West, Florida and enjoyed warm weather and days of snorkeling, kayaking on the ocean, biking around the island and time at the beach. I read 4 books while I was away. Now one of the things I like to do is read the newspaper over breakfast. The Key West newspaper is very slim – about 5-6 pages. So I read it cover to cover. Although I don’t usually read it, I even read the Ann Landers column, now called Annie’s Mailbox. I thought Anne Landers had died and when I checked it out discovered that Anne Landers was a pen name for the woman who for 56 years wrote the column until her death in 2002. She did not want the column to continue under her pen name and so it has been changed to Annie’s Mailbox now penned by her previous editors.

Well, while I was in Florida there was a raging debate going on in the Annie’s Mailbox column. It began when a check-out clerk in a grocery store wrote a letter of complaint: she had seen shoppers with food stamps (meaning those on welfare) buy luxury items like birthday cakes. The angry woman went on to say that people on welfare who treat themselves to non-necessities were “lazy and wasteful.”

Well, a few days later the column was devoted entirely to people who responded to the grocery clerk with letters of their own. One woman wrote: “I didn’t buy a cake, but I did buy a big bag of shrimp with food stamps. So what? My husband had been working at a plant for fifteen years when it shut down. The shrimp casserole was for our wedding anniversary dinner and lasted three days. Perhaps the grocery clerk who criticized that woman would have a different view… after walking a mile in my shoes.”

Another woman wrote: “I’m the woman who bought the $17.00 cake and paid with food stamps. I thought the check-out woman would burn a hole through me with her eyes…..The cake was for my little girl’s birthday. It will be her last. She has bone cancer and will probably be gone within six to eight months.”

Jesus said, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged”.

Jesus had been making quite a name for himself. He was teaching about the good news of the kingdom of God and he had been curing people from all kinds of illnesses. No wonder great crowds had begun to follow him wherever he went. But Jesus wanted to get away from the crowds and so he goes up the mountain and his disciples, the twelve, follow him. Jesus teaches them through a series of proverbs and parables which we today call the Sermon on the Mount. So we listen in on this set of teachings, reflecting, and wrestling with what it means to live into the life described by Jesus in this Sermon.

Like all good speakers, he begins by capturing their attention. He offers good news to the poor, the oppressed, the sad. These are called the Beatitudes. I could imagine the nods of agreement and pleasure moving through the crowd like waves. Yes, this is an exciting teacher who proclaims good news.

When did the smiles and nodding stop? Did they begin to exchange puzzled looks when Jesus told then that they might be thrown out and trampled underfoot like useless salt? I am sure there was bewilderment and frowns when he told them that if they were angry at a brother or sister, it was a bad as murder. Did some in the crowd begin to leave at that point?

If we hung in until now, perhaps our time is leave is when we hear this impossible and difficult demand that we not judge others. Do we not all make judgements? Who is in, who is out? Who is first, last, up, down, best, worst? Who is the insider, and who is the outsider?

Watch children at play, and you discover that, very early in life, we begin to judge others. Children love to make up teams or groups. They make selections deciding who will be a part of the group and who will be excluded. The criteria for inclusion or exclusion will be as varied as the children – everything from gender, to height, to athletic ability. The ability to throw or hit a ball means you will judged as worthy of being on the team or not. It hurts to be the one who is banished from a team. I should know; it happened many times in my childhood.

Of course it is not just children who judge others. Our whole world seems to be based on the need to judge, whether it be in politics or sports, or in churches. So what are we to make of this command of Jesus that we do not judge”?

We should take note of three things about this passage. The first is that Jesus here is not speaking to the crowds in general, but as specific advice for the disciples who were already living in close community. It answers questions like: How are Peter and Andrew to live on the road with their old fishing rivals James and John? How is Matthew, the-sell-out-to-the-Romans-tax-collector, to sleep around the same camp fire with Simon the-freedom-fighter-Jewish-zealot? Should Mary Magdalene be on the road with us? How to deal with the bumps and bruises of living in close community and having no way to get away from one another? This is the same issue as on a sports team or a submarine crew or a blended family or a Church Board or a marriage. How do we get along with people just like us? The first rule is: give up judgments! Focus on my character before God, not theirs before me. It is a small step from looking down on others to looking up to yourself.

The second thing to notice is that Jesus himself judged others. Remember the time he drove the money changers out of the temple with a whip, saying “you have made this house of prayer into a den of robbers.” You see what Jesus is talking about is unfair criticism or uncharitable evaluations. He is talking about dealing harshly with others, but not dealing with our own faults.

There is a delightful, but challenging Peanuts comic strip in which Linus has his security blanket in place and his thumb resting in his mouth; he looks troubled. Turning to Lucy, he asks, “Why are you always so anxious to criticize me?” She replies, “I just think I have a knack for seeing other people’s faults.” Linus throws up his hands, “What about your own faults?” he says. Without hesitation, Lucy explains, “I have a knack for overlooking them.”

The third thing to notice is that Jesus uses humour here to get across his point. Mechanics tell car jokes, preachers tell church jokes, and Jesus told jokes from his life as a carpenter. A carpenter could get a splinter in the eye, but it is quite silly to think that someone could have a log in their eye. It was a deliberately ridiculous question. It is intended to be humourous – an outrageous exaggeration. Jesus was good at that. He often made jokes through examples which were ridiculous and funny. Like the story of the camel going through the eye of the needle or the example of the religious leaders nit-picking so that they notice a flea in their cup, but swallow a camel.

The idea behind these humorous examples is to catch our attention, and help us remember that while we cannot do these things on our own, with God all things are possible. If we can laugh at our own foibles, perhaps we can be generous with the other person. With God’s help, perhaps we can stop ourselves from judging too quickly and begin by saying, “Am I able to walk a mile in their shoes?”

You see, the Sermon on the Mount calls us live in the kingdom of God, here and now. It calls us to see as God sees, with God vision. But our vision this parable tells us, is hindered by the logs in our eyes. A log in our eye would crush us. That is the whole point. When we walk around with a log in our eye, it does crush us.

To see with God vision, is to live into the love and respect with which God accepts us. We are called to love our neighbours as ourselves, as Jesus says later in the Sermon. It does not mean that we cannot challenge people and call them to account. But it does mean that we are to leave the judging up to God. We have been invited by our great teacher, Jesus the Christ, to gather at the table. With overflowing, abundant grace he gathers us together and proclaims forgiveness and mercy. He commands us in turn to greet our brothers and sisters with that same forgiveness and mercy. Our judgements are replaced with blessings. We acknowledge that we are all one body in Christ Jesus.

Judge not, let grace abound, thanks be to God.


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