Who am I to judge?

In order better to understand the words of the prophet, I want mercy, not sacrifice (Hos 6:6), I turned to Jesus’ statement about the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and fidelity. I am approaching these three essential requirements of the covenant through the lens of the original Hebrew words that lie behind them (mishpat, chesed, and emeth respectively).

Last week I wrote about mishpat/judgment. Mishpat is in the first place the quality a ruler needs in order to recognize what is right and just in each of the tangled and complex situations that are presented to him. More generally it is the discernment that every member of the covenant people needs to recognize the concrete demands of the covenant in all the complex and difficult situations of life. Mishpat requires both the assistance of divine grace, attained through prayer, and the hard work of thinking things through.

Still, in our time we have forgotten about the importance of ‘judgment’ as a quality needed to live in fidelity to the covenant. Indeed, we are likely to hear the word ‘judgment’ and think that Jesus warns us against judging others; so we shrug our shoulders and say, “Who am I to judge?”

The Jesus who says, Judge not lest you be judged (Mt 7:1), spoke of judgment as one of the weightier matters of the law, neglected by the Pharisees. (cf. Mt 23:23) So we need to consider well both the need for judgment, which makes it a weightier matter of the law, and its limitations such that we are in some manner forbidden to judge.

First of all, we need to learn to be good judges of right and wrong and prudent and foolish in actions. The commandments are very general and in that sense impractical. We are usually not tempted to kill another person, but how to respect, honor, protect, and foster the good of life in others is a much more difficult, but very necessary, question. We can hardly consider that question without having concrete examples before our eyes, concrete examples of how people treat one another for good or ill.

If, faced with the actions of others, I refuse to judge whether they are good or bad, if I say, “who am I to judge”, then I will not learn about what is good and bad, concretely and practically. Further, since by my own refusal to judge I will fail to develop the quality of mishpat, I will be unable to help, guide, and even correct those for whom I have some responsibility.

Still, the very quality of mishpat requires that we recognize the limitations of our ability to judge. Sometimes it is clear that what John Doe did was wrong (or right), but at other times it seems that what John Doe did was foolish (or prudent), but we need to recognize that we might be missing a decisive piece of information that John Doe had and which changes the character of the action. We need to be ready to say “it seems to me”, rather than “it is”.

We need to make judgments about actions, but actions are performed by persons. Can we judge persons?

Again, in some way we must judge persons. A father might have to judge that he does not want a certain young man hanging around his daughter.

In general we need to make practical judgments about the trustworthiness, reliability, and sincerity of others. When we fail to do so we open ourselves to manipulation and abuse and often fail in our duty to protect. We need mishpat to judge wisely of other people’s character.

Once again, though, true misphat recognizes its own limitations. When it comes to judging character we must be careful to make use of legitimate criteria. Wealth, beauty, health, and race do not provide us with information about a person’s character. A person’s manner of speech, tendency to violence, lack of respect for people’s property, and yes their sexual proclivities, do reflect on their character.

Even then we have to be careful to avoid rash judgments. All too often we quickly judge someone because of mere appearance or some word or action taken out of context. Sometimes we have to judge quickly, but often we make snap judgments when there is no reason for us to make any judgment at all. In general it is better to err on the side of generosity than on the side of suspicion.

Further we need to be careful to maintain a tentative quality in our character judgments. Even the hardened criminal can change. We might be right in expecting some real evidence of change before we treat a person accordingly, but we must not rule out the possibility altogether.

Indeed, there are real ways in which people do change. That means (apart from questions of just reparation for damage) we should judge a person by who he is now, not by his past failures.

Finally, each person is created by God, in his image; each person is loved by God; each person is called by God to share in his grace and in eternal life; finally in each person there is a secret sanctuary known only to God. God alone searches the mind and heart. We must never dare enter that sanctuary by means of our judgment. We must recognize that even our judgments of character, for good or ill, are only touching the surface. (Next week: mercy/chesed)




Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.

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