Watch out for that log, that big piece of firewood, in your eye. You’d think that would hurt a little. Before you try to remove the speck from your neighbor’s eye, deal with your own woodpile!
Facebook has lately had postings where you can discover your personality type, which animal represents you, what Star Trek or Star Wars character, or even Downton Abbey character are you most like? Usually you take a quiz, but now you just push a button, it claims to analyze your postings on Facebook, and give you some self-analysis. This week I saw the caption, “How pleased is God with you?” I hesitated to push the button. Do I really want to know? Would you push the button?
I pushed the button. It turns out God is 90 percent pleased with me! That is awesome. I knew it all along, God really loves what I put on Facebook! Whatever God thinks about the rest of my life, I’m glad to have found Facebook favor. In real life, 90 percent seems a bit high. With Jesus as my example of comparison, if God is happy with two-thirds of what I do, that seems pretty good. Which is why I would rather compare myself to corporate lobbyists. 90 percent would just be awesome. Except that someone else, a Facebook friend who shall remain nameless, got 96%. Who are they, Gandhi? Someone else, also anonymous (but in the choir) got 93%. Preaching to the choir just took on a whole new meaning to me. I could feel bad about this, even intimidated, but its just Facebook right!? Or I could see it as I’m preaching well enough that the congregation’s righteousness is surpassing my own.
I wonder if someone posted this on Facebook just to stir the pot. This points out a nearly universal truth. If we stay focused on our own path, make our best effort and decisions, we are likely to be at peace with ourselves. But as soon as we start comparing ourselves with someone else, things get messed up. We may diminish our own accomplishments, and and feel unworthy. Or we start down the road of saying, “Who do they think they are?” I know they are not really like that. Why do you think the human psyche is so quick to judge others, and want to take them down a notch?
Psychologists call it a defense mechanism. We protect our ego with our judgments. Carl Jung said, “That which we do not like in ourselves, we project onto others, and then try to kill it.” I call it the crab pot theory of human personality. My in-laws live on the Northern Shore of Virginia and can throw a crab pot off their boat launch. You put a little biat in the cage, like chicken necks, and the crabs crawl into the cage and get trapped. When I first looked at at the cage, I was perplexed, because there isn’t anything preventing the crabs from just finding the hole and crawling out. Then I watched the several crabs in the cage up on the dock. When one tried to climb out, as they started up the side of the cage, another would grab its leg and pull it back down. They don’t play “Follow the leader,” and look at the lead crab and Moses crossing the Red Sea to safety. Instead its more like “You think you are better than me? I’ll show you.” (Its like watching a Presidential debate.) The human ego has claws, and it is so much easier to tear someone else down rather than be better ourselves. It is a lot of work to be a good person. Practicing virtue, taking the high road, engaging in the fearless moral inventory to examine where we have fallen short, knowing when to apologize, to make amends. Who has time for that? Who has the courage? The sad fact is we get a little self-esteem rush from taking someone else down. It’s the moral equivalent of smoking crack. The more you do it, the more often you need it, and eventually it is all you can think about.
The teachings of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel have lots of warnings about being judgmental. My first big surprise is that this section of Matthew never appears in the three year lectionary cycle from which we draw our main themes. I looked for hymns about overcoming our judgment, and I really couldn’t find any, even in the Lent section. Don’t you think we should sing a song about being less judgmental at least once a month? It’s a big truth, perhaps now more than ever. A recent survey asked people in their 20s what was the first word they thought of associated with Christianity. It was “Judgment.” We have terrible “branding.” Its why we go to great lengths to say every Sunday, “Welcome whoever you are, wherever you are, believer, questioner, questioning believer…” We have centuries of hellfire to overcome, of spiders hanging over flames. (note that only a few brave souls will sit to my left!) At the first meeting of our vision team, one of the most important things the group said we need to do, is work at overcoming this gap, between perceived judgmentalism and narrow-mindedness of all religion. We hope we are different. How shall we live to make it as clear as possible?
Keeping the words of Jesus front and center in our minds helps. Get the log out of your own eye. We need the nudge to remind us. Jesus put this principle into practice in other teachable moments in his ministry. In Matthew 18, Peter and Jesus have an intense discussion about forgiveness. Peter says, “How many times should I forgive my brother, 7 times?” His brother must have been a real pain. Jesus blows his mind, saying, “70 times 7 Peter,” because some people will take a constant state of forgiveness, otherwise you would probably kill them.
Then Jesus tells this parable often called the “Wicked, Ungrateful Servant.” The short version is that a servant owes 10,000 talents (meaning several million dollars, which seems like a ridiculous amount of money to lend to your servant) He can’t pay and his tearfully begs that he and his wife and children not be sold into slavery. The King has mercy on him. The next day the servant encounters a friend who owes him 100 dollars, and grabs him by the throat and takes him to court. Word gets around and the king is furious at the lack of mercy, and it all gets ugly from there.
Jesus is very good at using this big exaggeration of debts owed to show how easy it is to think, “I deserve the benefit of the doubt, because I am a good person. Therefore, I get the get out of jail free card, But I’m not so sure about you. I think you need to be held accountable.” We have heard this in our political rhetoric, dividing people into Makers and Takers, the tax payers and the moochers.
Jesus puts the message into practice when a woman about to be stoned to death for adultery. We don’t know where her “partner in crime” is. That it odd. Jesus says whoever is without sin, go ahead and throw that first stone. I’m a little surprised no one followed through and let it rip. We have heard the history of the Salem Witch Trials and the hysteria that can grip a crowd and lead to terrible things. I wonder what went through the minds of the crowd in those few seconds, while deciding what happens next. Who dropped the first rock and walked away? Did someone think, “If we stone her, I could next. That isn’t a world I want to live in?”
I can think about 5 more places in Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus challenges people who think highly of themselves, and praises those who face their own shortcomings honestly, and know that we all live by grace, we all have to cut each other some slack or we will just be perpetually angry, resentful, and judgmental and lonely.
So what can we do to minimize our own judgmentalism. I’m a list maker, so here’s a few suggestions:
Gratitude is one of the best equalizers. If we know that life is a gift, that we are not totally self made, and we would be dead in the water without those who helped and guided us, our hearts will be more flexible.
Confession – If we all took 5 minutes at the end of the day, and acknowledged our short-comings to God, and let them go, apologize where necessary, and be gentle with ourselves, we would be so much happier. We don’t need to protect our ego so much if we can let go of our mistakes, learn and move on.
Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. Pause a moment and try to imagine someone else’s reality. And if that is hard to do, just ask them. Instead of reacting to someone negative behavior, start with asking, “What just happened? What is making you so angry right now? Most of the time, if you listen to someone, you all learn something.
Foster curiosity. Ask questions instead of rendering judgments. Make a point to proactively understand people who are different than you. Next time someone is giving you their annoying and seemingly uninformed political opinion, just ask, “Tell me why this is important to you? I try to read one article every day that I know I will disagree with, so I don’t end up in my own echo chamber.
A log in the eye sounds painful. Better to be grateful, better to admit fault and let it go, free ourselves from the burden of needing to be right, and instead be curious. Specks come out of other people’s eyes rather easily. Just let them blink a few times, and a couple of tears and its over. Its not our responsibility anyway. Our job is the log rolling.