2 Mar 2014
“He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will manifest the motives of our hearts.” (1 Cor. 4:5) In the name …
People can be pretty bad at making judgments. That’s not me saying this. It’s not St. Paul saying this. It’s scientists who study people making judgments saying this. They’ve discovered that it’s pretty easy to play with the process actually. You can affect a person’s answer to a question about global climate change and if the earth is getting hotter by just putting them in a warmer or a cooler room. How a person thinks about the entire earth’s weather is influenced by how they personally feel at the moment the question is asked. Lawyers know that a jury is swayed by how they dress the defendant. A murderer may still be a murderer, but if he’s well dressed and polite he seems less threatening. And politicians have to have the look. It’s actually said that Abraham Lincoln could not win an election today because he would not be photogenic enough for television. Whether we know it or not, we’re electing people to run our country whose first criterion is to look good on television.
We all make snap judgments too. I know I do, but I also have learned not to trust mine. I am not a good first judge of people. I am constantly being surprised. We also are constantly judging ourselves. This sounds like it should be obvious. Who knows us better than we do? But a lot of the time we see ourselves in some kind of fun house of mirrors. Our image is all distorted. Sometimes no one else sees us like we imagine ourselves. And sometimes it’s with tragic consequences. I can’t help but think about the 19 year old who committed suicide in the woods of Stanley Park last week, less than a mile from my father’s house, in the woods where I used to play when I was a kid. He was a sophomore at Westfield State University. How he saw himself could not have been as bad as others saw him. Sometimes our self-judgments are more off the mark than our worst judgments of others.
This is why Paul says today, don’t sweat it. This doesn’t mean don’t care about what we do or don’t do. It means don’t sweat the next step, the compulsion to pass judgment – on others or ourselves. That, says Paul, belongs to Jesus. Jesus sees things that we don’t. He sees things that we can’t. “He will bring to light,” Paul writes in First Corinthians, “what is hidden in darkness and will manifest the motives of our hearts.” All those bad judgments we tend to make, all those silly little factors that can sway our judgments, and how often we can’t even judge ourselves fairly, this is why moral judgment belongs in the hands of Jesus. That’s why a lot of people applauded, Roman Catholics and not, when the Pope said, “Who am I to judge?” He hasn’t changed any of the moral rules of his church, but he has moved away from a culture of judgment and has embraced instead a message of compassion. This has resonated with all kinds of people of faith and even people of no faith.
The work of the church, the work of Christians, is to spread God’s compassion, not to pass God’s judgment. Again, the reason is because we don’t judge well, and by now we should recognize this. There have been too many scandals throughout church history where judgment has damaged the church. There has never been, however, a protest against the compassion and mercy the church has shown. Our sign outside reads: “All are welcome here,” and we have to mean it. As the saying goes that Carolyn Rapelye sent me recently, we're called to be witnesses, not judges. Jesus says to us today as we continue reading from the Sermon on the Mount: “‘Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness ...’” (Matt. 6:33) Judgment is the last step in a moral life, and it belongs to God. The first step that belongs to us is to seek God and to help others seek God. That’s why that sign outside is so much more than an advertisement to fill pews. It’s an invitation to seek Christ with us.
This seems to be an appropriate jumping-off point to get us ready for Ash Wednesday which is only three days away. Lent is the season that prepares us for and culminates in the Passion and death of Christ. The cross is not about judgment; it’s about our chance to seek Christ. Last Sunday we heard Matthew’s Jesus say, “‘Be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect,’” but we also heard that Luke thought it would be a lot less complicated to say instead, “‘Be merciful just as your [heavenly] Father is merciful.’” I have to say I agree with Luke. If we get bogged down in judgment mode, then that charge to be perfect becomes impossible to satisfy. Sometimes people can obsess on this. Good people can become convinced that they are only sinners in the eyes of God because they are not perfect, and the church can take advantage of this sometimes for her own purposes. Sin is a cheap way of keeping people dependent upon the church. It’s been said that perfection is the enemy of good. It strips away any sense of merit. We’re called saints in the New Testament, but too often all we hear is how sinful we are. That is not the purpose of Lent. Lent is not to discourage, but to encourage. It’s not to call us sinners. It is to call us.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is seated on the mountain side and He sees the presence of God in the birds of the air. They neither sow nor reap, yet the heavenly Father feeds them. Won’t He do the same for us, Jesus asks. Look at the flowers of the field, Jesus says in awe. They’re more beautiful than a king in all his raiment. If God cares for each flower, won’t He do the same for us? Jesus saw and embraced the good and merciful God who was all around Him. He didn’t let some imaginary perfect detract from the good that He saw. As we stand in the shadow of Lent, let us not see those quickly approaching 40 days through a prism of judgment and sin, but of the opportunity to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. And for this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo