A few weeks ago, I was heading home after the Sunday worship service here at WGLC, and since I park on the east side of our building, I drove through parking lot of the mechanic shop next door and I was going to turn right from there on to 88th Avenue. The traffic was very busy at that time, so I checked both ways for pedestrians, and then I looked to my left and waited, and waited and waited. Finally, there was a break in the traffic and I let my foot off the brake and began to accelerate. My eyes scanned back to the right so I could make my turn and that is when I saw the skateboarder who was about to pass in front of me. Fortunately, this skateboarder was very capable. He saw me begin to move and abruptly stopped, and danger was averted.
When I reflected on what almost happened, I realized that I believed an assumption that was not true. The view to the right is obstructed on that driveway, and I had assumed that no pedestrian could cover the distance on the sidewalk that I could see in the time that I had been waiting. I had never even considered the possibility of a skateboarder being on the sidewalk. A skateboarder could cover that distance in the fraction of the time someone walking would take. Because of my assumption, I was blind to how things really were and I did something that almost resulted in tragedy. That tragedy was averted, but my assumptions needed to change or, in time, the same thing would happen again, and next time the outcome might not be as fortunate.
Being willing to change our assumptions and beliefs is daunting because it is very hard work, and there are a couple of reasons why that is so. First, it often means uncovering things that we didn’t even know we believed, and those things do not tend to get uncovered unless there is some kind of pain or conflict in our life that draws our attention to it. Second, changing our assumptions and beliefs is hard because it means letting go of something that we have held on to for a long time, and that does not feel safe to us. But if we don’t do the hard work of examining our assumptions and beliefs and changing those that need to be changed, we will continually misjudge the situations we face, make bad decisions and, sometimes, that will result in disastrous consequences.
God wants something more for us than the life that we are now living. God wants us to see things how they really are so that we can make good decisions that not only help us to thrive at life, but also help others to thrive at life too.
Today we are going to be looking another story from the life of Jesus. But before we do that, we need pause for a moment and reflect on the word “judge” because it is a word that shows up in the reading that we are going to be looking at.
Decades ago, if you asked people which is the most recognizable verse from the Bible, the answer likely would have been John 3:16: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. Today, the verse that people are most likely to recognize as coming from the Bible is Matthew 7:1, where Jesus says, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” No one likes to be judged, but people use this verse to say, “I can do whatever I want and you have no right to say anything about it.” But is that what Jesus really meant when He said this? Because in the passage we are going to look at in a few moments, in John 7, Jesus says something different about judging. He says, “Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly.” (John 7:24) So in John 7 Jesus is telling us to judge and in Matthew 7 He is telling us not to judge. How are we supposed to understand what Jesus is telling us?
The first thing that we need to clarify is that there is both a broad and a narrow definition for the word “judge.” In the broad sense, all of us judge all the time. As we go through the day, on a moment-by-moment basis, all of us are assessing the situations we face and then we make decisions about how to respond to those situations based on our assessment. That’s what judging means in the broad sense.
But judging is also used in a narrow sense, such as when a judge finds someone guilty of a crime and sentences them to time in jail. Judging in the narrow sense has a connotation of condemnation.
So let’s turn to Matthew, chapter 7, verses 1 to 5. Here Jesus says, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Mt. 7:1-5) Jesus is speaking about judging in the narrow sense, in the sense of condemning someone. When Jesus says, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” what He is effectively saying is this: Do not put yourself above someone else and pretend that you know all that there is to know about them or that you know what their eternal destiny will be. When you do that, you are putting yourself in the place of God. God is the only One who knows all that there is to know about a person. God is the only One who will decide what a person’s eternal destiny will be. Let Me help you deal with the issues in your own life first, and then together we can help that other person deal with the issues in their life. But don’t put yourself above other people and don’t pretend that you are God.”
Now we turn to John 7:1-27 and we see in this passage that Jesus is in conflict with a group of Jews called the Pharisees. The Pharisees are often mentioned in the Bible as being opposed to Jesus, but there were many good things about them. They were upright, moral people. They believed many of the same things that Christians back then and today believe. The Pharisees believed that all of the Hebrew Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament, was from God and was important to know and to follow. They believed that God will raise people from the dead on the Last Day, and they also believed in angels and other spirits.
But where the Pharisees and Jesus came into conflict was over the issue of how God saves people. The Pharisees believed and taught that only people who kept all of God’s commandments, not only those commandments that were written down in the Old Testament, but also of the laws that were passed down in the oral tradition, only if you kept all of the laws from God would be saved by Him. Jesus believed and taught something that was quite different. Jesus believed and taught that salvation was a gift from God, given through faith to everyone who believes in Jesus.
Even though many of the Pharisees opposed Jesus and some of them wanted to kill Him, Jesus still loved the Pharisees and He still reached out to them. Jesus knew that this was more than a difference of opinion about a theological issue. Jesus knew that because the Pharisees were focused on external obedience, they were blind to the more important issues that were prominent in people’s lives beneath the surface. Therefore, they were continually misjudging situations and making bad decisions. Jesus’ words to the Pharisees are words of love as He refers to judging in the sense of making decisions in everyday life and says, “Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly” (John 7:24).
The event that started this conflict was when Jesus healed a man at the Pool of Bethesda. John records that event in chapter 5 of his biography of Jesus. The Pharisees considered healing to be work, so for them the most important thing in that situation, when Jesus encountered this man who had been ill for 38 years, would be for Jesus to keep the law and not heal the man on that day, which was the Sabbath, the Jewish holy day. Jesus was sent to seek and to save that which is lost (see Luke 19:10) and that included this sick man. For Jesus, the most important thing in that moment was to love this man into the family of God, and that is exactly what Jesus did by healing him.
Jesus knows that every human heart is broken in some way, Jesus knows that all our human natures are twisted and for us to try to keep God’s laws perfectly in an impossible task. It only crushes us when we try. Our external obedience is not what Jesus looks at, Jesus looks at the human heart. Because of the great darkness that He sees inside of each and every one of us, Jesus, the Son of God, became fully human so that He could take all of that darkness away from us and give us His light, His forgiveness, His place in God’s family, and His love. And this is only the first step in God’s two-part gift, because a day is coming when Jesus will come back to this world and make the salvation that He has already given us fully complete. Now we live in a broken and hurting world and our bodies age, break down and eventually die. Then we will live in a renewed and restored earth that is reconnected with heaven and we will have bodies that will never grow old, never get sick and never die. We are going back to the garden and this time we will have free and open access to the tree of life that stands at the centre of the garden.
Jesus loves you and accepts you unconditionally. You are a beloved, forgiven child of God. You have eternal life with Jesus and the Holy Spirit dwells within you. Your body is His temple. All of this is a totally free gift from God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Dear friends, I encourage you to fully open the gift of life that Jesus has given to you and live it to the fullest. What do I mean by that? There is a temptation to think that because Jesus has forgiven us, it is okay for us to keep judging things, that is, to keep using our old assumptions and beliefs to make decisions, just as we were doing before. But if we keep doing that we will always be misjudging situations, we will always be making bad decisions and we will never be able to live the rich, full, abundant life that Jesus wants to give us.
Imagine for a moment, that you are in a conflict with someone else. I am asking you to think of a conflict because it is when we are in conflict that our true beliefs and assumptions rise to the surface. When you are in a conflict, what is the most important thing for you? If you are like me, when I get in a conflict the most important thing that rises up within me is for me to be right. When I let that be the most important thing in my life in that moment, I will sacrifice everything else in order to make that happen. Now here is another question: When I do that, when I allow me being right to be the most important thing in the middle of a conflict, who am I being most like, Jesus or the Pharisees?
I am being like a Pharisee.
Jesus is calling us to suppress and shed our old Pharisee ways and embrace loving other people closer to Jesus at the most important thing in our lives. It doesn’t mean that we won’t have conflicts, but it will change our conflicts into opportunities to love other people closer to Jesus. We still speak truth, but we speak it with a different motivation because we want the person with whom we are in conflict to grow closer to Jesus, and we do it in a different way because we love them, and we speak the truth with love.
This is why Jesus called all people in the Christian Church to love one another. It is not easy to love someone when you know some of their faults and foibles, or when you have been hurt by something they said or did to you, or by something they said about you to others. But God uses that hard work of loving our sisters and brothers in Christ to help us examine our inner beliefs and assumptions and change them. It is through the hard work of loving our fellow sinners in the Church that we grow to become more loving people. And prepares us for the even greater task Jesus has for us of loving the world. We are part of the Body of Christ in the world, and it is through us that Jesus will share His saving love with the world. When loving other people closer to Jesus is the most important thing to us deep down in our heart, then we will make much better decisions. Jesus helps us to judge by true standards. Amen.
(This message was shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church at Langley BC on May 6, 2018. It is based on John 7:1-27.)