Last night, as I was reading today’s Gospel (Matthew 7:1-8) which includes Jesus’ hugely challenging words on not judging, and dealing with the log in our own eye rather than the speck in our brother’s eye, something suddenly struck me. This may be stating the obvious, but it may be worth stating. As someone who is all-too-easily prone to judge and who, in some situations, is rather good at it, I have realised that where I find it most difficult to not judge is in a situation where I am being judged – and judged unfairly according to my own perceptions. And my judgement is, then, a sort of self-defence, a weapon that I use to defend myself, even if only in my own mind.
Judging, in this context, is a hitting back, a lashing out, and it is, I suppose, what we humans do. Indeed we see it in all sorts of communications. As I witnessed some rather unpleasant words on Twitter yesterday, I was reminded of how easily people, including Christians, make assumptions about other people based on ignorance and fear, and how easily these spiral into an us-versus-them situation in which the other person being wrong somehow feeds something in myself. We all have the capacity for this because we are all vulnerable and capable of being hurt.
The radicality of Jesus’ words is precisely that it breaks this spiral. To not judge is to break the spiral of aggression, to refuse to lash out, even internally, and even when we may think we have just cause to do so. But it is – at least in my experience – one of the most difficult things in the world. In the words of Saint Isaac the Syrian: “The man who endures accusations against himself with humility has arrived at perfection, and he is marveled at by the holy angels, for there is no other virtue so great and so hard to achieve.”
Of course, we do need to judge – although many judgements are best left to those whose task they properly are. But true judgement, and the only judgement that may be capable of winning people over, is that which comes from a pure heart – Saint Augustine speaks of a “singleness of eye.” Among other things this is why the bishops of the Church – those who are called to “rightly divide the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15) – are chosen from among monastics: precisely because it is hoped that their monastic training will have enabled them to acknowledge and conquer their own passions which is the condition for all who are called to exercise judgement in the Church.
The call to attend to the log in our own eye, which is far more difficult than it may appear, is ultimately the call to repentance, to self-knowledge, to acknowledging and struggling against our own passions, rather than focusing on someone else. And it is also – and this is what struck me last night – the refusal to respond to violence with violence, to want to get our own back. It is a letting go of the myriad of ways in which we seek to justify ourselves, and instead a throwing of ourselves on the mercy of God.