The philosopher Don Cupitt highlights that in the parables, “Jesus sharply criticizes and even ridicules ordinary people's ideas of justice and equity.” (2009, 78) Part of this radicalism, the Catholic Church teaches, is that “Jesus identifies with the poor of every kind and makes active love towards them the condition for entering the kingdom.” (1994, §544) Another part is the irreverence that he displayed toward the claims over morality made by religious authorities, which has been characterized in the joke on the Good Samaritan parable: “You know why the priest didn't cross the road to the wounded traveler? He could see that he had already been robbed.” (Quoted anonymously in O'Collins, 1999, 114.)
As we saw in the previous installment, Jesus's ethics holds that in addition to outer, more material concerns, justice of an inner, spiritual kind is also essential. Because justice is an interpersonal concept it may sound strange to speak of an "interior justice," but this is simply a justice in our intentions toward others. The chief way in which Jesus addresses this is by teaching a virtue I call "nonjudgmentalism," which is the the subject of this essay. In the next installment, we'll look at the wider social aspect of Jesus's teaching on justice, and examine the ascetic virtue that Keith Ward terms "nonpossessiveness." Other than through justice, these two topics are also connected through Jesus's teaching on anxiety, which I introduce at the end of this .
In part 5 of this series, I mentioned that the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 8:9–14) is a good example of the parable medium because it is polyvalent and speaks to different themes. Because one of these themes is judgment, we will pick up from there before we turn to different gospel passages. The pharisee's prayer, you will remember, indulges a judgmental attitude toward those not as pious as he, and especially toward religiously designated outcasts such as the tax collector. As Gerald O'Collins SJ points out, the pharisee “judges and justifies himself” (1999, 140) while the tax collector, in his simple humility, realizes that what “is decisive is here and now” rather than having to “run up an excellent record, on which we can congratulate ourselves” (142). This may be why Jesus says it is the collector—who does not judge himself, let alone others—who is the more justified one (v. 14).
Though we should be careful not to equivocate between the concept of judgment in general and sentencing judgment in particular, it is because the last verse of the Wheat and the Weeds (Matt. 13:24–30) is suggestive of the Last Judgment that it has traditionally been connected to judgment. As discussed in PEL's podcast on the parables, the shock/reversal in this story is that the householder defies convention by not having the weeds that are growing up among his wheat crop gathered in. There is prudence in his reasoning: “for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest” (v. 29-30a). The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr interprets this as teaching
…that a great deal of evil may come from the selfish actions of men, but perhaps more evil may come from the premature judgments of men about themselves and each other. … Consider how much more evil and good, creativity and selfishness, are mixed up in real life than our moralists, whether they be Christian or secular, realize. How little we achieve charity because we do not recognize this fact.
I think this gets right to the point of the parable, and it becomes especially plausible when we consider Jesus's infamous line “Judge not, lest you be judged,” to which we shall come shortly. There are other allegorical interpretations of this parable of course, including Jacques Maritain SJ's macroscopic reading as the intertwining of good and evil in the progress of world history, demonstrated in movements such as Soviet Communism. A microscopic approach, on the other hand, is taken in a Catholic teaching that “In everyone, the weeds of sin will still be mixed with the good wheat of the Gospel until the end of time.” (1994, §827)
A particular kind of this sin in all of us is our disposition toward being judgmental, and this is why it is often preached that “There is something of the pharisee and something of the tax collector in all of us.” (O'Collins, 1999, 143) The Jewish scholar Amy-Jill Levine develops this notion; she thinks that the pharisee characters in the gospels need not be read as representing some or any Jews—and where they have, that has fed antisemitism—but instead as representing the (typically Christian) audience themselves. As a critic of the misuse of religion, Jesus would have been concerned that people did not identify themselves as his followers in a judgmental way. Hence, we can be rather confident he would have disapproved of the way in which canards of the Religious Right such as "What would Jesus do?" and "Christian Values" are used in US political discourse. (Caputo, 2007, 31) But it is easy to judge our enemies. Reading the parable naturally gives us the temptation to judge the pharisee, and in order to resist that, we need to see ourselves in him. (Levine, 2014, Ch. 6) It is in this way that, whereas the vice of judgmentalism precipitates alienation from other people through (often mutual) suspicion, the virtue of nonjudgmentalism functions, in Ward's phase, as a “background commitment to seeing the best in people.” (Ward, 2011, 119)
What does Jesus mean by saying, in the Sermon on the Mount, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged” (Matt. 7:1)? Verse 2 appeals to a principle of reciprocal fairness: “For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” But how is it that we will be judged if we judge? Ward offers an existential interpretation, which locates judgment here and now rather than in a postmortem state, and which identifies our judges as ourselves. It is therefore another inward, microscopic reading, and is as follows:
- (Elsewhere) Jesus commends mindfulness of, and honesty to, oneself (i.e., in daily prayer).
- But one cannot sustain such self-knowledge if one is rigidly judgmental about standards of behavior, because we all suffer from moral weakness, and thus a judgmental attitude will lead to feelings of guilt, which may become obsessive. Perhaps this is similar to what William James meant when he said that one's conscientiousness may “be so tense as to hinder the running of one's mind.”
- Many religious people deal with this by falling into a cognitive dissonance over their self-knowledge, whereby they pridefully refuse to believe that they suffer from moral weakness like everyone else.
- Therefore, in order to maintain mindfulness of our conscience and of our weaknesses while avoiding the trap of excessive self-judgment, we must eschew the vice of judgmentalism. (Ward, 2011, 121)
This conclusion is integral to a chief moral project I believe Jesus had, namely, defending the correction of sin in such a way that includes people and releases them from their guilt and anxiety, rather than increasing it. (Cf. John 3:17) While Ward's interpretation might be seen as an eisegesis, one that is overly sophisticated for the text, it is congruent with the virtue ethics approach of reaping the character you sow, and also fits with Jesus's other "justice statements" on humility (Matt. 20:16/Luke 13:30), good works (Luke 6:38), violence (Matt. 26:52), sacrifice (Matt. 16:25–26), and forgiveness (Matt. 6:14–15). A final point in its favor is that this interpretation is also coherent with Jesus's statements against legalism, because the problem it addresses is another effect of holding the same set standards above everyone.
These verses are followed by another figurative statement on judgment, which this time appears to be a straightforward metaphor:
Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, "Let me take the speck out of your eye," while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. (Matt. 7:3–5)
Rather than simply giving a negative message against hypocrisy, this passage is also open to more positive interpretations. I think that taking “the speck out of your neighbor’s eye” is about helping him or her to see more clearly, about correction. (Cf. Gal. 6:1) After all, our perception of the world is made up of our judgments, in the broader sense of the word. It may be easy to gloss over this passage as more "judging is bad," but the last verse hints at the possibility of a just judgment. Does Jesus think we should “be perfect” (Matt. 5:48) before we judge others? The Johannine Jesus thinks we should in the case of the Woman Caught in Adultery (“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”, John 8:7), but even if that incident is historical, capital punishment is thankfully a rather atypical case of our judging of others. Hence, it does not show that Jesus demanded perfection. Rather, Matt 7:3–5 is another passage where Jesus uses hyperbole to commend an attitude, in this case to think about the correction of ourselves before the correction of others. This is not because we should mind our own business (indeed, prudence requires seeking correction for ourselves from others), but because this is how we will help others best. Thus, despite what is commonly believed, Jesus did not teach never to judge others, at least not in the sense of offering correction.
We can also interpret this passage so as to draw encouragement to begin our judgments from what is good about ourselves rather than what is bad about others. As O'Collins says, “Jesus wants us to see the grain and not spend all our time moaning over the terrible weeds.” (O'Collins, 1999, 154) If we start with the "grain" in ourselves, then we will be better placed to see it in others.
Another section of the Sermon on the Mount is about dealing with bad thoughts or anxieties (Matt. 6:25–34). The verses preceding these address wealth but are arguably part of the same section, although not often categorized as such. More specifically, verses 22–23 seem to be a metaphor about the perspective one takes:
The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!
Because one's experience of the world is mediated or constructed through one's perspective and the judgments one makes, living with the wrong perspective is like trying to see with a lamp that gives off only darkness. (This is congruent with how I interpreted an earlier eye metaphor in the Sermon, Matt. 5:29, in part 5 of this series.) Bookended by verses with a more ascetic tone about the choice between worldly and heavenly wealth, it would be reasonable to read Jesus here as being particularly concerned with the superiority of a spiritual perspective on life over a materialistic one. (Something which we will return to in the next part.) But of course, the perspective that one takes will also affect the anxieties one has and how one deals with them. Hence, as discussed above, if our perspective on life places high importance on judging people to rigid standards, we will be anxious about our own (in)ability to live up to those standards, as well as being frustrated at others for their failings.
Our perspective also shapes our character, and by extension our sense of identity. If we look to the pharisee parable one last time, O'Collins says: “The pharisee… needs to compare himself if he is to maintain his misguided self-image.” (1999, 139) Indeed, I would interpret two important messages of the parable to be: 1) do not make comparisons the basis of your identity; and 2) avoid comparing oneself with others (except empathetically). Perhaps it is more obvious in today's hyperconsumerist society, but human nature is such that misplaced comparisons with others have always formed a large part of our anxieties; as the saying goes: "To compare is to snare." Although Jesus does not express this explicitly in his counsels against worrying, it is reasonable to surmise it would have been part of his ethics, given the emphasis on avoiding jealousy in the Hebrew Bible, most notably in the Decalogue (Ten Commandments). Moreover, Jesus seems to be hinting at this in the final verses of the parables of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11–32) and Laborers in the Vineyard (Matt. 20:1–16), both of which have characters who are jealous of the good fortunes of others while failing to see that the circumstances of those others are different from their own. Hence the message could be that rather than comparing yourself with others, you should compare yourself with you as you want to, or ought to, be.
Whatever perspective we bring to these and other parables, we can be sure that they will haunt us, and that with every attempt to judge them, we will be forced to confront our own hypocrisy, and find the words judging us instead.
The Bible: New Revised Standard Version, (1993), Geoffrey Chapman, London
Caputo, John D., (2007), What Would Jesus Deconstruct?, Baker, Michigan
Catechism of the Catholic Church, (1994), Geoffrey Chapman, London
James, William, (1898), "The Gospel of Relaxation," www.uky.edu/~eushe2/Pajares/jgospel.html [Retrieved 18.08.15]
Levine, Amy-Jill, (2014), Short Stories By Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi, HarperOne, New York
Maritain, Jacques, (1957), On the Philosophy of History, Scribner's, New York
Niebuhr, Reinhold, (1974), Justice and Mercy, Harper & Row, New York
O'Collins, Gerald, (1999), Following the Way: Jesus Our Spiritual Director, Harper Collins, London
Ward, Keith, (2011), The Philosopher and the Gospels: Jesus Through the Lens of Philosophy, Lion Hudson, Oxford