Condemning Unfairly & The Golden Rule

Inspired by Matthew 7:1-12

Jesus is still on that same mountain—the same mountain that he has been on for three weeks now, at least to us. For the last three weeks, we have been reading what has come to be known as the Sermon on the Mount, which covers three whole chapters of the Gospel of Matthew. And today, we come to the end of it. The sermon has been chock full of many wise sayings, lessons, the Beatitudes, as well as some pretty tough teachings that are just as hard to hear today as I’m sure they were then. Today’s reading has hope and promise, as well as some harsh warnings from Jesus. This first sermon of Jesus’, which is sort of a springboard for the rest of his ministry, may leave us scratching our heads at times, and I’ll warn you again, that head scratching is not going to end today.

But in spite of that, there’s one thing that we can take away from it that’s certain: Jesus means business! I want you to hold on to that over the coming weeks because it will come in handy as we wrestle with some very tough passages from this Gospel, some very tough words from Jesus himself. Jesus could sense that his ministry on earth was not going to last long, he was making too many enemies too fast. And so, when he finally gets this opportunity to tell the world what God wants them to hear, he knows he’s only got so much time to do it.

And so, there are times when he might sound harsh, but I think it was just his all-business approach to his work that we are hearing. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not making any excuses for Jesus. Jesus can take care of himself. And to be honest, not even this helps me with some of Jesus’ harshest lessons. And that’s ok, we don’t have to agree or understand everything that Jesus said. That’s where grace comes in.

So, let’s tackle today’s reading. Jesus begins this third and final chapter of this sermon with a lesson about judging others. Taken at face value, we have what seems to be an unrealistic command, something that we just can’t humanly accomplish. Jesus said, “Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged.” Is Jesus setting us up for failure here? By all means, raise your hand if you have mastered this so you can teach me! None of us can do this. We all judge! So does that mean we are all doomed?

Well, from everything else we know about Jesus, I think it’s safe to say that he did not mean that we are all doomed. So what does he mean? Whenever you come across a Bible passage that just doesn’t make sense, or just doesn’t seem right, that probably means that there’s a puzzle piece that you’re missing. Maybe it’s a translation issue, or something about the context that we don’t know, or the culture, or the original audience or any number of things. My advice in those instances, trust your instincts, and start asking questions.

In this case, it’s a translation issue. With all the translations out there, you’d think this would be a less common problem that it is by now but alas, even the newest translations fall short too often. In our reading today, the trouble is with the word “judge.” Now you might be thinking, how hard could it be to translate the word judge. Well, that same Greek word, kreno, is translated no less than 14 different ways in English! Judge, determine, condemn, sue, question, and regard, just to name a few. So, how do you determine which one to use? Well, context is key, but also cultural, literary, and social factors are involved. So, when scholars take all those factors into consideration, many have determined that simply using the word “judge” here is inadequate. It’s just not strong enough of a word.

Which makes sense because our initial problem with what Jesus says here is the fact that we know we all judge which made it sound like we were all doomed. Now many scholars think that a more accurate word would be "condemn," "do not condemn." One scholar in particular, Ben Witherington, takes it a step further to mean, do not unfairly condemn. I mean, I think if we just didn’t condemn people at all that’d be great! But what I think scholars like Witherington are doing here is reacting to the larger point that Jesus is making. It’s not just about judging, or condemning, but it’s about applying critiques, evaluations, suspicions on people that we won’t allow to be applied to us.

This is about making condemning judgments on people unfairly, uncharitably, especially when we are not willing for that to be done to us. That’s what Jesus is getting at here. This is something that we are all guilty of and it’s something that we really need to address, especially in light of the fact that we now have this awesome welcome statement, that we now have the responsibility to live into. So, I want to show you a video, the source of which is HBO, and there is one bad word, the s-word. Oh boy, the s-word in church, what’s the world coming to. I believe this video highlights a modern day example of what Jesus was trying to get at here.

Do not condemn unfairly. And so you don’t think that I’m picking on white people, this was just one example of this in today’s world. As a straight male, I have to constantly keep myself in check whenever I encounter people from the LGBTQ community or women. I have to recognize that my straight maleness carries with it the stain of an abuse of power, power that I didn’t earn but was simply granted to me at birth, when I entered a world that has treated those other two groups unfairly, and that unfairness is built into the system.

Am I personally at fault for that? Not exactly, but do I carry the responsibility to change the system for the better? You better believe it, which is why Jesus takes it a step further! Jesus doesn’t stop at saying do not condemn. But he sums up his entire sermon, the entirety of scripture actually, by saying, “treat people in the same way that you want people to treat you; this is the Law and the Prophets.”

The Golden Rule, “treat people in the same way that you want people to treat you.” But in order to do that, it takes some intentionality. Intentionally asking yourself, “Is what I’m feeling or thinking about someone, in any way, influenced by prejudices that have been ingrained in me since birth? Is what I’m about to say or do, what I would say or do to anyone, or is it different because of our differences? But we have to constantly be asking ourselves these questions. We have to be ever vigilant about what goes on in our heads subconsciously. This doesn’t come naturally! What comes naturally is unfairly condemning people. That comes very easy to us. And Jesus knew that! Jesus knew that because Jesus was one of us!

There is so much pain and suffering in this world. Let’s not add to it senselessly. We have enough to address with things like hunger, and homelessness, and the sick and dying. Racism, homophobia, sexism, xenophobia, there’s just no need for such things. But make no mistake, you can be a good person, and still contribute to any of those isms unknowingly. The only way they will end is by keeping ourselves in constant check for such things, by learning all we can about them, by listening when given constructive criticism, and by heeding Christ’s call, to treat others the same way we’d want to be treated—remembering that it doesn’t come naturally, and that we are going to fail at it. Thankfully, we have a God who never gives up on us, nor condemns us unfairly. Thanks be to God. Amen.

When God Doesn't Forgive

Inspired by Matthew 6:7-15

The Lord’s Prayer has been a staple for so many Christians around the globe for centuries. For many of us, it was one of the first prayers that we memorized. And odds are, we didn’t memorize it as an assignment in Sunday School, but rather we memorized it here, meaning in worship, as we recited it together, with the many generations surrounding us, each and every Sunday. Not all Christians do that though.

Some are even very much against the reciting of prayers in worship, claiming that prayers must only be done extemporaneously. I have a lot of respect for churches like that because they value authenticity, and there is certainly a lot to be said for that. However, since I grew up Lutheran, reciting the Lord’s Prayer is not only second nature to me, but I also know the value of reciting it each and every Sunday.

So when I saw that this reading from Matthew was coming up I thought to myself, oh, this one will be easy! It’s so familiar to most of us! I’ll just take it line by line and boom we’ll be done! Ha! As my dad always says, “Nothing can ever be easy.” Maybe you can guess the part of today’s reading that I’m talking about. Yeah, the ending. Jesus finishes teaching them how to pray and then just has to add, “If you forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you don’t forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your sins.” Jesus! What’d you have to go and say that for! Couldn’t you have just said “Amen” and been done with it? But no, you just gotta stir things up don’t you Jesus! Just can’t leave well enough alone!

Now, before we get into what Jesus meant by such tough words there are two side notes that I think we should cover, two tangential topics that came to my mind as I was thinking about this sermon that I don’t think we don’t talk enough about in the church. The first one is all the gendered language in today’s reading. The Bible translation that we use here is pretty good about using non-gendered language when the author is referring to anyone, not just men.

But sometimes, it’s just hard to escape, especially when the pronouns refer to God. In today’s reading God is referred to as Father no less than five times in our short eight verse reading. In my own personal, private spiritual life, the part that only occurs in my head, I don’t have a problem with this. But if Jesus has taught me anything, it’s that it ain’t all about me. I bring this to your attention for two reasons.

One, there are many in our society that have not had any positive male figures in their lives. For many people, maleness is automatically a negative. For some, maleness is downright evil, depending on how bad a person’s experiences were. So, by only using male pronouns for God, we are inadvertently putting some huge roadblocks in front of some people’s journey with God. And why do we continue to do that? Just to satisfy our own preferences, our own way of thinking that we really don’t want to change—because it’s comfortable for us. But again, if Jesus has taught us anything, it’s that it’s not all about us. And sometimes, we are called to sacrifice our own preferences as we care for a hurting world. Which is something we’re well practiced in! I see that in you all the time! And this is just another way of practicing that.

And the other reason I bring this to your attention is simply because only referring to God as a male is simply not good enough. It limits how big our thinking about God can be. Personally, I think God can be both genders. I think God can be no gender. And everything in between! Trying to place God in our human-sized labels like "male" is only doing a disservice to us and our ability to experience God for who God really is. I believe, with all my heart, that we can be much more imaginative about God, than a white old guy with a beard sitting in the clouds. Surely, God is more than that right, bigger than that, more comprehensive than that? The Bible is very creative with the way that God is described! And if the Bible can be, I think we can too.

The other side note is more of a heads up, or a downright warning really, and it has to do with Jesus’ tough words about forgiveness in this reading. I met with our Journey of Faith leaders recently, Journey of Faith is what our new member process is called here at Bethlehem, and we were going over some of the upcoming Sunday Bible readings that are coming our way over the next few months. And let me tell you, we are in for one heck of a ride! My goodness, if you think today’s reading is tough, wait till you hear what’s coming!

At one point the Journey of Faith leaders asked, “Can’t we just read something else pastor?” It’s tempting, let me tell you! But we won’t, and here’s why. Tough Bible passages are meant to be wrestled with. God invites the struggle. Because in that struggle we will learn more about God and each other. And is there any better, safer place to wrestle with the Bible, to wrestle with God for that matter, than right here? And if after the struggle you still don’t like what God has to say, it’s ok! God can take it!

Ok, now, about that God not forgiving you business. Jesus said, “If you don’t forgive others, neither will [God] forgive your sins.” What the heck Jesus! I thought you’d forgive us for anything! That’s not the Jesus we’ve come to know! We have this tendency, and I’ve talked about this before and will probably need to in the coming weeks, we have this tendency to make everything about salvation or damnation, to make everything either the best case scenario or the worst case scenario, leaving little room for anything in between. And I think that the church would be well served, if it had a bigger imagination than that.

Because the truth is, very little in the Bible is actually about going to a heaven in the clouds, or a hell below the earth, after we die! God has been spending most of God’s time, for thousands of years, on helping us figure out this life, in the here and now, that there hasn’t been much time left for anything else! That’s where Jesus comes in. Jesus enters the scene to remind us that, the next life, the afterlife, is already taken care of. Don’t worry about, especially because, nothing you can say or do will have any effect on it anyway, lest we fall into the belief that we can earn our way to heaven. Let’s focus on the here and now, Jesus says, where we can have an impact, and let’s leave the rest to God.

So with that in mind, what does Jesus mean when he says that God will not forgive our sins if we don’t forgive others? Well, it depends on what we believe about forgiveness. Now, I’ve preached on this before so if any of this sounds familiar that’s why, but it’s certainly worth revisiting. I mean, forgiveness is kind of a big deal to our faith right? And if you want a more in-depth refresher just ask me later and I can tell you where to find that sermon. But forgiveness is not a feeling, in the same way that love is not a feeling.

Forgiveness is an action, more precisely it’s a decision, a decision to move beyond something that’s getting in the way of a relationship, a decision to not allow whatever it is that’s getting in the way of that relationship to dictate, to have power over that relationship moving forward. It’s the decision to say, I may not be able to forget this, but this relationship is too important, and I’m going to decide to move past it. This will no longer define us. That is what true forgiveness is. It is not a feeling, it is not liking a person all of a sudden that has hurt you, it’s moving forward, it’s moving past it.

Let me give you an example of this from my own childhood when I learned this lesson. I shared this story in Bible study a couple months ago and I’d like to share it with you all now. So, I’m probably around ten years old. And I’m at a family get together at a relative’s house in my hometown of Vacaville. I was there with my parents and the uncle whom I was closest to was there as well, my Uncle Dennis. At some point in the evening’s festivities, my dad, said something that really hurt my Uncle Dennis’s feelings.

I had never seen these two argue before, they were like brothers up until my Uncle died last year. So to see them at odds was quite traumatic. To this day I don’t know what was said but my uncle and his wife, my Aunt Ann, angrily left and went back home to the Bay Area. We go home as well. It’s late. I’m about to go to bed. And there’s a knock at the door.

My ten-year-old nosy-self got up to see who was at the door at this hour, and I watched my dad open the door to see my uncle standing there. My uncle was at least six and a half feet tall, so there he was, this large than life being to me, standing at the door, with bloodshot eyes, clearly upset, and he looks my dad in the eye and says, “We need to talk.” I don’t know what happened after that, I wasn’t privy to their conversation they had that night. My dad probably told me to go ahead go to bed.

But what I do know is that after that night, they were ok. Whew! What an impression that left on me—to see someone that I looked up to, literally and figuratively, drive back from the Bay Area that night, to make things right with his brother in law—to see him put their relationship above any hurt feelings—to see him not be able to go to sleep that night until they were ok! What an impression that left on me.

I believe that God operates in much the same way when it comes to forgiving us. God does not want our wrongs to come in between our relationships, either with God or, more importantly, with each other. So when God says, if you’re not going to forgive others, if you’re not going to make things right, if you’re not going to move past this, then neither am I. God will continue to hound us until we do! If we are going to live in the past, and not move forward, then God is going to stay there with us.

But God doesn’t want to be back there! God wants to move on, move ahead, move forward with us. And so God stays there, gently, and sometimes not so gently, urging us, pushing us, prodding us, to move past whatever is getting in the way of our relationships with others, and to forgive, remembering that forgiveness is not allowing it to define the relationship anymore, forgiveness is not allowing it to have power anymore. But God, who is ever faithful, will stay back there with us, as long as we’re back there. Thanks be to God. Amen.