|Anonymous, David and Bathsheba, High Rhine, Mid-17th Century|
For many people today, a favorite saying of our Lord is found in the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew, 7:1-2, where Jesus warns his listeners, and us: “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged …”
It’s a recurrent theme in folktales: the king, judge, or official who decrees a punishment for someone else only to find himself condemned by his own decree when by some twist of fate the positions are reversed. In the Book of Esther, for example, the evil royal counselor Haman ends up being hanged on the very same gibbet he’s had constructed for the hanging of Mordecai the Jew.
“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged.” Our readings for this morning vividly illustrate this dictum in different ways. In the Old Testament reading, from the second Book of Samuel, King David has committed a particularly heinous crime by arranging the death of Uriah the Hittite in battle so that he can take his wife Bathsheba, for whom he’s lusted.
Sent by God to confront the king, the Prophet Nathan tells David the story of a rich man with many flocks and herds, and a poor man whose only possession is one little lamb. But when called upon to provide hospitality to a stranger, the rich man, instead of taking a lamb from his own flocks, takes the poor man’s lamb. Thinking that the story is true and that Nathan is asking him to render judgment as king, David becomes exceedingly angry: “The man who has done this deserves to die; and he shall restore the lamb fourfold.”
At this point, Nathan springs the trap that he’s set: “You are the man … You have smitten Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have slain him with the sword of the Ammonites.” Truly, the judgment that David has pronounced is the judgment with which he is himself judged.
We encounter a similar boomeranging of judgment in today’s Gospel. The host of the dinner party, Simon the Pharisee, presumes to judge both a woman of the city and Jesus himself—the woman for being a sinner, and Jesus for apparently not recognizing this: “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.”
Yet Jesus demonstrates that he’s indeed a prophet, for he knows exactly what Simon is thinking. So he tells the story of two debtors forgiven by the same creditor: one for a small amount and the other for a large amount. Which one, he asks, will love him more? When Simon answers correctly, “The one to whom he forgave more,” then just as Nathan did with David, Jesus proceeds to spring his trap. He proceeds to hold the woman up as a model of the hospitality that Simon has failed to show him. So, having taken it upon himself to judge both Jesus and the woman, Simon finds himself the one judged and found wanting – and precisely in comparison with the woman he’s presumed to judge.
“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged …” This saying is often misinterpreted to mean that we should refrain from all judgment. But that conclusion would be simplistic. Every day, we cannot avoid making numerous evaluations of other people’s statements, actions, motivations, and intentions. Can I trust this person? Does she really mean what she says? How do I assess what he’s just done so that I can respond appropriately and fairly?
In today’s readings, it is not only King David and Simon the Pharisee who exercise judgment, but also Nathan the Prophet, and our Lord himself. Moreover, both David and Simon the Pharisee give good judgments in response to the stories told them by Nathan and Jesus respectively. Jesus even says to Simon, “You have judged rightly.” The choice, then, is not between judgment and non-judgment, but rather between good judgment and bad judgment, between right judgment and wrong judgment.
In the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus says “Judge not, that you be not judged,” he is really warning us against the hypocrisy of judging others when our own sins are as bad if not worse than theirs. Hence he follows this saying with the admonition that before we attend to the speck in our neighbor’s eye, we need to attend to the log in our eye.
The message is not that we should avoid judging others, as if that were possible, but rather that whenever we exercise even legitimate judgment we generally stand condemned by the very same standards. Whenever we call others to account—as indeed from time to time we must—we need to remember that we speak only as the greatest of sinners ourselves. We may not have committed exactly the same sins, but the ones we’ve committed are bad enough. We’ve no grounds for any posture of self-righteousness or moral superiority.
And that realization enables us not only to judge but also to forgive. In today’s readings, the final word is not judgment but forgiveness. When David confesses his sin to the Lord, the prophet Nathan proclaims: “The Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die.” And Jesus says to the woman of the city: “Your sins are forgiven … go in peace.”
Judgment, then, is an inescapable component of all human relations. We cannot interact with other people in any setting without constantly evaluating and judging them. But we gain the ability to judge rightly through the humility of recognizing our own sins and shortcomings first. When we know ourselves to be forgiven sinners, our judgment becomes more gentle, forbearing, and compassionate. And together with the knowledge by which we judge rightly, comes the capacity to forgive, as God in Christ has forgiven us.