Thursday, August 8, 2013

Lumbering Along in a Difficult Time

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.
Matthew 7: 1-6

Reflection – So now we come to the one part of the Sermon on the Mount that everyone can quote from memory: judge not, lest ye be judged! In our age of moral relativism and sloppy thinking about right and wrong, good and evil, this one verse, taken out of context, has indeed been misused as a way of giving divine sanction to a confused false tolerance that rejects clear moral teaching.

Of course it is not that at all, as a close and careful reading of the text itself reveals. The Lord is not calling into question the existence of sawdust, planks, and specks, but merely pointing out that all of us are suffering from a bit of the old ‘wood-in-the-eye-syndrome.’ He is certainly not calling into question the existence of a binding moral law, real good, evil, and sin (the rest of the sermon would collapse into incoherence if he was), but merely pointing out that none of us are in much position to lord it over anyone else. We’re all a little besmeared and bloodied in the battle of good and evil, and no one is in a position to be harsh and judgmental of anyone else. But we live in a world that either tries to deny that this battle exists or insists on redrawing the lines of the battle in arbitrary or nonsensical patterns.

To stay with the sawdust, etc., imagery, we live in a world that denies the existence of lumber, not simply the relative proportions of planks vs. specks in various eyes. And so the Church and other people of biblical or traditional morality is put into this very difficult position. We are not to judge anyone; but we are also not to deny the material cause of judgment, namely human sin and a moral law that we all violate to some degree.

Some would argue that there is indeed right and wrong, good and evil, but who are we to know what it is, and how dare we tell anyone that this or that action is definitely wrong? But both faith and human reason acting in concert with faith tell us that the God who is author of the moral law must want us to know the moral law. It would be gravely unjust of Him to impose a law on us that we cannot be sure of. Meanwhile, there is a vast sweeping agreement among human cultures and religions about the main lines of the moral law, you know (C.S. Lewis’ Tao, in which he aligns moral texts from multiple religions and cultures, holds up well here).

And in areas where there is some disagreement among world religions and cultures—details about laws of marriage and sexuality, for example—the Catholic Church simply believes itself to be the bearer of God’s Spirit to teach God’s truth in these matters, and presents its teachings as such.

But there is no question that this has all become very anguished and perilous today. When so many reject the traditional moral wisdom of humanity and either embrace outright relativism or (much the same thing) make up their own private moral law, the very teaching of a binding and absolute moral law sounds like, and feels like, judgment. And there is a great call, then, not to water anything down, but to personal humility and holiness in all this. Every human being is my brother, my sister. We’re all in it together, all challenged to rise to a level of justice, purity, integrity that eludes all of us to some degree. Nobody is in any position whatsoever towards anyone else of superiority or haughtiness.

I’m not sure where the ‘pearls before swine’ part fits in. The Lord’s imagery is pretty harsh there (not that I’m criticizing!). It does strike me that we have to be careful about how and even when we present certain teachings to people. If someone is not ready to hear it, it may do them and us more harm than good, as the Lord so strikingly tells us in that verse. But great discernment and wisdom is required here.

The main thing is to humble our hearts before the Lord, to know deeply the truth of our own sinfulness and the deeper truth of God’s infinite mercy, and to strive for purity of heart and righteousness of action first. Then, and only then, will we be able to truly help our brothers and sisters in their own moral struggles in this most difficult and confusing time in which we are all called to live, and preach, the Gospel.

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