Recently I was asked to write a magazine article on the thorny matter of Jesus’ prohibition of judging in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. Clearly, Jesus did not get himself crucified because he had nothing to say in judgment of the status quo. So what do we make of such a prohibition in Matthew 7? To this end, I have brought many recent thoughts together in the hopes of offering some answer to this paradox. As always, I welcome your feedback, whether critical or supportive.
In 1744, King Louis XIV of France fell dreadfully ill. Fearing imminent death, he prayed to the patron saint of Paris, St. Genevieve, for a miraculous recovery. As his condition proceeded to worsen, King Louis tried to twist God’s arm a bit more by making a solemn vow: If God would spare his life then he would be rebuild the Church of St. Genevieve to make it worthy of her honor. The King did indeed recover and made good on his vow. The cathedral that he built, now called the French Pantheon, stands today as one of the crown jewels of French architecture and history.
Because of the grand beauty of the cathedral, French geniuses and luminaries began to be buried within its foundations in the 19th century. These include the great writers Voltaire and Victor Hugo, the composer Rousseau, Marie Curie – the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry – and Louis Braille, who invented the alphabet for the blind. Western societies would look different today had these prodigies not lived. An inscription above the door to the French pantheon reads, “For the Great Men.”
There is a newly prominent artist who started out painting illegal graffiti around the city of Paris before switching to photography. He goes only by the name, JR, he is never photographed without a disguise of some sort, and his work is growing in fame around the world. The French government recently commissioned his latest work, dubbed “The Pantheon of Selfies.” JR has covered the French pantheon, inside and out, with thousands of selfie photographs of everyday people. The photographs line the floors, the dome, and the outside of the building so that they are visible from miles away. If the selfies were laid out on the ground, they would span multiple football fields.
What is the message of this national art installation? Whether direct or indirect, it seems clear to me, and it is a message of the ultimate demolition of Christian civilization. The message of the “Pantheon of Selfies” is that there are no great men anymore. There are no great voices among the chatter of the masses. We once burned one another at the stake over whose ideas were superior. Now, we are drearily all the same.
The Greatest Voice
In all of history, no single body of teaching has approached the impact of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. Icons as diverse as Ghandi and Martin Luther King relied on the Sermon on the Mount for their resistance movements, effectively changing history as we know it. In this speech, Jesus claims to be the greatest voice when it comes to the art of living. If we do not believe in great men and great voices, Jesus’ teaching will be insensible to us.
Even the context of the sermon is laden with meaning. Just as Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the 10 commandments and the Torah that would serve as the constitution of the nation of Israel in the Old Testament, so Matthew depicts Jesus climbing a mountain to deliver the supreme, authoritative body of teaching for the Church of the New Testament. There is no feigned humility, no self-deprecation in Jesus’ words. Jesus claims that there is a great voice, the voice of God found in the Law and the Prophets, and that he is now the true echo and interpreter of that voice. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Bold words.
Throughout the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is picking a fight with the Pharisees. Over and again he tells the people what they have conventionally been taught, then claims a greater authority with a new teaching. In what many scholars consider the thesis of the entire sermon, Jesus lays down the hammer. “Unless your righteousness is greater than the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the Kingdom of heaven.” Bold words.
Today, of course, we would find Jesus’ words arrogant. We might expect him to say something like, “Here is the voice of the Pharisees and their interpretation. It is a fine and valid interpretation, it’s just different than mine. I’m contributing to the conversation.” Jesus offers no such soft edges. He believes in greatness, that his teachings have come to embody true greatness. His instructions on every subject in the Sermon on the Mount – anger, lust, divorce, hatred, giving, prayer, anxiety, money – are tough as nails. Bold words.
And yet…right at the point when Jesus’ followers are ready to barnstorm the world with this new Sermon on the Mount lifestyle, Jesus applies the brakes. After He has aggressively deconstructed virtually every societal norm, thus creating a new society, Jesus reminds them that conventional methods are not going to effect any such change. Somehow Jesus’ followers must discipline themselves to embody this new way of being, to spread this new message, to publically shine like a “city on a hill” for the whole world to see, without casting judgment on others.
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. (7:1-2)
A Non-Judgmental Movement
Jesus calls His followers to enroll in a movement that lives radically counter-culturally and yet refuses to judge detractors. In the following verses, He makes it clear that this posture against judgment should take place both within the Christian community and toward outsiders. We are called to help our brother or sister to clear their eyes, but not without the greater attention turned on ourselves (vv. 3-5). We are also to be careful not to presume that outsiders (sometimes called “dogs” or “pigs” in Jewish tradition) will respond favorably to our values (v. 6). When it comes to this challenge, how are we Christians doing today?
I recently saw the hit Christian film, “God is Not Dead.” If you have not seen the movie, perhaps you should. It is something I would gladly watch with my children were they old enough to understand it. For me, the film is important because it is written for Christians, especially Christian youth groups. Because of this audience, the film is representative of the way Christians are thinking about themselves these days. If so, we are in trouble, because the movie embodies a terribly judgmental posture, one that we Christians should be running from. This posture can be summarized in stereotyping, villifying, and simplifying.
The film tells a series of stories in which Christian characters interact with nonChristian characters. There is an atheist professor whose sole job in the classroom is to demean and belittle Christians. There is a Muslim man who beats his daughter and kicks her out of the house when she listens to Christian preaching. There is an environmental activist who viciously attacks evangelical Christians in her journalism. Do such people exist? Of course, but they are not the enemy and sweeping generalizations based on media personalities are irresponsible. Those images are powerful and we Christians should be the first to oppose them because they objectify people Christ loves and died for.
In an age in which Christians are increasingly stereotyped as anti-gay, judgmental, and hypocritical (I would argue that we are none of these things, but that the Church’s “light of the world” mandate is actually getting along quite well), we should maintain a constant vigilance when it comes to stereotyping. If I understand the basic teaching of Jesus, we certainly should not fight stereotyping with stereotyping.
We must stand guard against stereotyping because its sister is the next step in the process of judgment: vilifying. The late Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, famously wrote that we tend toward turning “I and thou” into “it.” There is something about human nature that is rabidly fed by an objectified “other.” We often use this objectification to mark out what we most believe about ourselves. This is important. Our beliefs are not like atheists or Muslims. But can we be comfortable and clear on these differences without vilifying and creating opponents?
Too often we Christians have wielded the sword of Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane, wildly (and somewhat blindly) swinging away at whomever appears to be an enemy of Jesus. It’s the scientists! The atheists! The gays! The communists! Jesus, however, seemed to recognize that “they know not what they do;” that on a practical level the power of groupthink had prevailed in his death. The majority who lynched him were just following orders. All that to say, should we be interested in increasing the preexisting tensions between us and Muslims or us and atheists? How would this glorify God? Yet it is so easy to fall into, in our society where conversation gives way to the shouting matches of the cable news wars.
Finally, to embody Jesus’ nonjudgmental attitude means to beware of simplifying. There is always the tendency to see people we disagree with as two-dimensional, along with their ideas. More often than not, everything is complicated. Rather than being baited into the same old hot-button positions, shouldn’t Christians be the primary voices of reason and nuance in the marketplace of ideas?
The Impossible Road
In the end, the way of the Sermon on the Mount is so difficult because it requires fierce passion for the correctness of the way of Jesus alongside the refusal to judge those who disagree. Instead, we leave that up to God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer summarized the dilemma thusly:
To give witness to and confess the truth of Jesus, but to love the enemy of this truth, who is his enemy and our enemy, with the unconditional love of Jesus Christ – that is the narrow road. To believe in Jesus’ promise that those who follow shall possess the earth, but to encounter the enemy unarmed, to prefer suffering injustice to doing ill – that is the narrow road. To perceive other people as being weak and wrong, but to never judge them; to proclaim the good news to them, but never to throw pearls before swine – that is a narrow road. It is an unbearable road.
Indeed, to depart the masses of selfies and enter the cathedral of Jesus’ teaching is to enter through an archway that bears this inscription, “For the Great Men.”