Saturday, February 21, 2015

You Know, It Turns Out That We're NOT Supposed to Judge, After All!

O Lord, Master of my life, grant that I may not be infected with the spirit of slothfulness and faint-heartedness, of ambition and vain talking.

Grant instead to me your servant the spirit of purity and humility, of patience and love.

O Lord and King, bestow upon me the grace of being aware of my sins, and of not judging my brother. For you are blessed forever and ever. Amen.

O God be merciful to me a sinner, and purify me. (3 times)

Yes O Lord and King. bestow...

Lenten Prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian

I made reference to this prayer on the blog yesterday. It is an integral part of our MH Lenten observance, incorporated into our daily morning prayer. We prostrate ourselves after each petition of the prayer, standing to make a metany during the three 'O God...' petitions.

There is much that can be said about this prayer (in fact, I did a whole series on it a couple years ago - if you're interested, you can search for 'Ephrem' in the little search box at the top bar and see what I said about the whole prayer. But today, in light of the new blog format and the 'Sunday Catechesis' slot I'm trying to fill, I want to talk about the last petition of the prayer and what the Church actually teaches about judgment and sin, moral truth and our relationship to it in regards to ourselves and others.

So often, of course, the Gospel passage in question (Matt 7: 1-2) is badly misinterpreted. It does not mean that we cannot say that a specific type of human action is morally wrong. It does not mean that we cannot know the truth about the moral law--both what we can reason our way towards and what God has revealed to us about these matters. If it meant that, then this one verse of the Sermon of the Mount would, among other things, contradict the rest of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus tells us all sorts of things that we should or should not do. It would also contradict the whole of Scripture which in its entirety reveals to us a God who is very concerned to tell us what sort of things we should or should not do, which is precisely what is meant by the phrase 'moral good or evil'.

So if Matthew 7 is not a prescription for moral agnosticism or relativism, then what does it mean? Well, it means quite a lot, actually. The Church has always maintained a strict distinction between the objective wrong of an action and the subjective guilt of the performer of that action. The former simply is what it is--certain things are wrong to do, and cannot become right to do through various circumstances: they are intrinsically evil deeds. And they are wrong because they damage us in some way, even if the damage is not immediately apparent, or is far outweighed in our minds by the immediate benefits or pleasures attached to the act.

The subjective guilt of the actor is determined by his or her knowledge of what the action is, that it is wrong, and his or her freedom in consenting to that action. And those things we can barely even know about ourselves, don't you think? How on earth can we know them about another person, even if we think we know the person very well?

So no, we cannot judge. Jesus--the same Jesus who condemned adultery (Matt 5:32, 19:9) and upheld the commandments of God (Matt 19:18)--has also commanded us not to judge one another. We can, and indeed must at the peril of our souls, teach what the moral law is, in general and in specifics. We can, then, by strict logical necessity say of this or that person doing such and such an action, 'They are doing something wrong, and this is truly a terrible state of affairs.'

But we cannot say, of another human being, 'this person has committed a sin'. Sin pertains to the subjective guilt of the person, and there is no way we can determine that, nor is it any concern of ours to do so. Absolutely not, and by doing so we become just as much law breakers as they are.

Not to mention that even if we see someone doing something terribly wrong, we must remember that's all we are seeing: we did not see, say, the terrible struggle with temptation beforehand, the deep darkness of mind and heart during, the grief and compunction afterwards. Of all of that, we know nothing. No, we are not to judge. Leave it to God. 

And for our own part, if we do indeed for various reasons have to take some interest or involve ourselves in the affairs and problems of other people, our clear call as Christians is to err profoundly and radically on the side of mercy, charity, assuming the best, always allowing for every possible extenuating and mitigating factor, quick to excuse, slow to criticize, never to condemn.

"O Lord and King, bestow upon me the grace of being aware of my sins, and of not judging my brother."

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