Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. — Mt. 7:1-2
A priest said something fascinating in his homily a number of weeks ago. He said, “Don’t judge me because my sins are different from yours.” The point he was making, while in some ways quite simple, was also very subtle and powerful.
In part, he meant that when I take notice of another’s failure or wrongdoing, my first and reflexive response should not be ivory tower condemnation that says, “I would never do such a thing!” Instead, the one who judges should hold in mind a vivid awareness of his solidarity with another’s sin. The only difference between us is our unique spin on sin; or that I’ve lived a life more sheltered from certain influences and temptations than you; or maybe that one of us got caught and the other didn’t (yet). To that last point, I remember my dad once saying, “I think one of the most frightening things Jesus ever said was, ‘nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed, nor is anything secret that will not become known and come to light'” [Lk. 8:17]. Then he added, with his characteristic wit, “Let’s just hope he waits until the next world, because people here aren’t as understanding.”
“Don’t judge me because my sins are different from yours” is, of course, also the same basic argument Jesus made to the scribes and Pharisees when they were prepared to stone the adulteress in John chapter 8 for the sin she got caught committing. He did not simply say to them, “She’s innocent” or “Don’t judge her.” Rather, he said that if they wish to pronounce a verdict of just judgment on her sin, they must do so with a profound awareness of their own guilt; that her sinful plight is a plight they share. To sharpen this point, Jesus, by writing on the ground (vs. 6, 8), seems to have made it clear to them he, the Reader of hearts, knew their guilt quite well. And like the man forgiven a great debt (Mt. 18:21-35), Jesus expects the scribes and Pharisees to confess their own immense debts and choose the path of pardon.
When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the eldest, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are your accusers? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again” (8:9-11).
How many times in my own life, after severely judging others for their moral failings or derelictions of duty, have I found myself guilty of, or very nearly succumbing to the very things I had once so easily hurled righteous condemnations against. In one such case, having fallen, I found myself dropping the large stones I discovered I still held tightly in my soul against the person I had once so harshly judged. No, I didn’t excuse either of us for having done what we did. But I did, in this case for the first time, see myself with him in the pit into which he had once fallen. No longer did I stand at the edge of the pit looking down arrogantly and angrily on him. My prayer went from “damn you!” to “save us!”
O see, in guilt I was born, a sinner when my mother conceived me. Yes, you delight in sincerity of heart; in secret you teach me wisdom. Cleanse me with hyssop, and I shall be pure; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. (Ps. 51:7-9).
There’s a story among the desert fathers that I have long loved, that makes this same point. It’s the story of Abba Moses the Black, who had been a violent criminal before his conversion to Christ and entry into the monastic community of the Egyptian desert.
A certain brother committed an offence in Scete, the camp of the monks, and when a congregation was assembled on this matter to pronounce judgment, they sent after Abba Moses. But he refused to come. Then they sent the priest of the church to him, saying, “Come, Abba, for all the people are expecting you.” He rose up and came.
He took a basket with a hole in it and filled it with sand, carrying it on his shoulders. Those who went out to meet him said to him, “What does this mean, O Abba?” And he said to them, “The sands are my sins which are running down behind me and I cannot see them. Yet I have come this day to judge shortcomings which are not mine.”
And when they heard this they set free that brother and said nothing further to him.