One of my favorite prayers of the Orthodox faith is the Prayer of St. Ephraim. It is well-known as we pray it during Lent as part of our weekday services including the Presanctified Liturgy. The prayer goes like this: “O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk. But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant. Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother, for blessed art Thou, unto ages of ages. Amen.” The prayer as a whole ties in nicely to our themes this morning- having a judgmental spirit and self awareness.
Judging others and a lack of self awareness or, perhaps better, self examination go hand-in-hand and both are challenges that we are all in a battle to overcome. Our own lack of self reflection and a judging attitude go back to our earliest history. Consider the story of Adam and Eve. Once in paradise, they are given one commandment- don’t eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This commandment was really less about the fruit than about self awareness in relationship to God. He is God, we are his creation. It is the natural order. The one commandment was really about honoring God. But, of course, we failed and have continued to fail in this endeavor since the initial partaking of the forbidden fruit.
And so after our grand failure, God goes to Adam and Eve and questions them. We are all familiar with the story- it is the first account of “passing the buck”... Adam immediately blames Eve (and God himself!) for the disobedience. “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” Not to be outdone, Eve, when confronted, passes the buck onto the Serpent- “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” Both Adam and Eve missed the mark- not just because of their disobedience- but because of their lack of self reflection, accountability and remorse over their own choices and a tendency to point the finger elsewhere.
We are really no different, and so in our Gospel readings this morning, Jesus raises the same concerns. Our reading this morning comes towards the end of a long series of teaching that begins in Chapter 5 of Matthew, with the Sermon on the Mount and continues until the end of Chapter 7. The teachings are about how to obtain the Kingdom of Heaven and they cover a variety of does and don’ts for the Christian life. In our reading this morning, found at the beginning of Chapter 7. In this passage, Jesus tells us not to judge, lest we be judged and in the next breath, gives us an example of pulling the log out of our own eye before pointing out the speck of dust in anothers.
Here we see a spirit of judgment being used in the same context as a lack of self examination. We are instructed not only not to judge, lest we be judged- but also are instructed that we should not judge the small speck in our brothers eye when we have a log in our own eye. A couple of words about this. First off, a word about judgment. Judging is not the same as discernment. We are called to be discerning, as Paul states in his Letter to the Phillipians, “And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in knowledge and all discernment, that you may approve the things that are excellent, that you may be sincere and without offense till the day of Christ…”
So what is the difference? Judgment implies condemning. Judgment implies a power differential- where one person is criticizing another and condemning them as a person. It implies an ego trip for the judger- one is I boosting oneself up at another’s expense. An example of this would be the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. The Pharisee judges the tax collector in his prayer, “I’m so thankful I am not like this other guy because I pray and fast…” The pharisee is boosting his own ego up while condemning another. Jesus condemns this behavior, saying the tax collector, who was humble and repentant, went away justified while the pharisee was not.
Discernment is our cognitive ability to make decisions on what is good and bad for ourselves. It is also the ability to see what is best for another without condemning them. We can all discern that lying is bad. Discernment implies helping another to see the harm without condemning them as an evil person.
We see a lot of judging in our political arenas right now. People are judging the overall character of others based on who they voted for (or will vote for), what their opinions of the protests and riots are and a host of other things. BUt what we need to see, as Christians, is that we can be discerning and disagree with other people’s choices without condemning them as individuals. We are to see that all people are God’s good creation.
In the Lord’s Prayer, we say “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” The idea is that we will be forgiven to the measure we forgive others. The same principle is at work when Jesus says “Judge not, lest you be judged.” The statement does not mean that by avoiding judging others we will utterly avoid any judgment on our own sins. But it is a warning that if we are condemning towards others, without self examination and repentance, our own judgment before God will be harsher because we have not shown compassion, mercy, and charity.
We see this in the story of the debtor who begged his master for mercy on his great debt. The master extends forgiveness, but then the forgiven servant goes out and harshly treats a fellow servant who owed him money. When the master hears what the servant has done, he is thrown into prison because he didn’t show mercy. When we show charity, mercy, forgiveness, and compassion to those around us and do not judge them- we open ourselves up to God’s mercy and charity towards us. The measure we give is the measure we will receive.
Finally, Jesus teaches us to carefully examine our own conscience and to judge ourselves. Rather than worrying about trivial sins of others and judging them, we need to look at our own failings and fix them. St. John Crystostom addresses how judging ourselves is for our own spiritual benefit, while judging others is to our detriment.
You who are so spiteful as to see even the little faulty details in others, how have you become so careless with your own affairs that you avoid your own major faults? “First remove the plank from your eye.” You see that Jesus does not forbid judging but commands that one first remove the plank from one’s own eye. One may then set right the issues relating to others. For each person knows his own affairs better than others know them. And each one sees major faults easier than smaller ones. And each one loves oneself more than one’s neighbor. So if you are really motivated by genuine concern, I urge you to show this concern for yourself first, because your own sin is both more certain and greater.
We certainly can show genuine concern for others by helping them to discern, not judge, their own failings, but before we endeavor to do this- we need to examine ourselves critically, repent, and work on our own sins. If we cannot see our own sin, how can we possibly be ready to genuinely and lovingly help others to see their sin? This is why many of the great confessors of the Church have lived humble lives of self reflection and repentance. It is why many of them have been given a strong gift of discernment of others' sins- because they are constantly searching their own heart and repenting.
As we move towards the presanctified gifts this morning, let us examine our own hearts and entreat God for forgiveness. Let us repent of judging others and entreat God to forgive us for condemning our fellow creations. And let us endeavor in the days and weeks ahead to remind ourselves to constantly be examining our own hearts and to avoid judging others. Rather, let us, in the words of St. Ephraim, seek a “spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love.”
Glory to Jesus Christ, Glory forever!
- Deacon Kevin HaanSaturday June 20, 2020