✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
I’m sure many of you have had the experience of hearing your voice on a recording and saying, “I sound like that?! That doesn’t sound like me.” Or you’ve seen yourself on video at some event and you’ve thought to yourself, “Gee, I didn’t realize that’s how I acted. I didn’t realize my laugh was so annoying. The camera sure makes me look fat”–or bald, or whatever the case may be. Sometimes that outside, more objective perspective can give us a better understanding of the way things really are with us and free us from the illusions of our own self-perception.
There’s a spiritual lesson to be learned from that, I think, which ties in with Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel, where He says, “Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the plank in your own eye?” Sometimes from our limited perspective we cannot see our own failings and sins. We tend to rationalize our flaws, anyway. We put the best construction on our own behavior and fail to recognize that we’ve got the equivalent of a 2 x 4 sticking out of our eye. We’ve grown so used to our sin that it becomes like the rims of our glasses that we no longer see or notice. And yet we can see all the nit-picky problems with others so clearly. They’ve got this character flaw and that stupid way of doing things. “If they would just listen to me; but no, they never do.” Especially when we’re in an argument, it’s easy for us to come up with all the specks in our neighbor’s eye. And besides, noticing and pointing out our neighbor’s problems makes us feel all the better about ourselves. It places us above them.
This is one of the reasons why God gives us His Law, so that we can see from an outside perspective the way things really are with us. The Law is like a video camera, zeroing in on the plank in our eye, exposing and revealing every prideful thought and hypocritical word and sinful deed that we’ve engaged in. Through the Law we learn that one of the reasons we’re so good at seeing other people’s sins is because we’ve got first hand knowledge of how the sinful heart and mind works. Why else would we be so skillful at identifying other people’s problems, right? By condemning others so readily, we’re really condemning ourselves. “The camera doesn’t lie,” they say, and neither does the Law. It tells the painful truth about us. It judges you and condemns you. There is no denying the verdict of the Law: You are damned for your sin.
Repent. For there is yet hope for us. For the Law is not God’s final Word to us. Though we are indeed judged and condemned for our sin, there is One who took the judgment and the condemnation for us, our Lord Jesus. “God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.” Thankfully, Christ Jesus did not come to beat us over the head with all our shortcomings and nag us and hound us into trying to straighten out our life. Instead, He came to give us a new life, His own life. All of the specks of sawdust and the planks in our eyes were fashioned into a cross upon which He poured out His life for our sakes. There Jesus was damned for our sin so that we would be shown mercy for His sake. And so it is written, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” None at all. If you are in the risen Jesus, who was already condemned for all the sins of the whole world, then there’s no condemnation left, is there? He took it all for you. You are baptized into Christ, and so now you are forgiven and free children of God. The Lord’s mercy toward you is abundantly greater than His judgment. Believe that; it is true. The Gospel is His final Word to you, which fulfills and overcomes the Law every time.
To live by faith in this Gospel, then, is to live freed from judgment. We are freed from God’s judgment of us. And as His beloved children, we are freed from a life of judging and tearing down others. To live in the way of condemnation and revenge is to go back to the way of the Law, which is dangerous territory for us. That’s why Jesus says not to judge, lest we be judged ourselves; not to condemn lest we be condemned ourselves. Rather, He invites us to live in the forgiveness of the Father and forgive others and give generously to them, even when they don’t deserve it. For we most certainly have not earned or deserved the Father’s generous mercy either. And yet He still gives it to us, no strings attached. Our Father is One who causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, who gives daily bread both to believers and unbelievers. Living in Jesus as the children of God, we are given to reflect His nature–showing His overflowing goodness to others, be they friend or foe; not holding on to grudges or engaging in gossip, but defending our neighbor, speaking well of him, and explaining everything in the kindest way.
Now, I should add as a side note here that Jesus is speaking to us in a general way as individuals. However, there are times when according to our specific vocations we are called on by the Lord to judge. For instance, a judge in a court obviously is given by God to condemn the guilty, as are other civil officials who make and enforce the Law according to the authority God has given them. Parents can without sin judge the behavior of their children; indeed, they must teach right and wrong and discipline their children according to God’s command. Pastors are called to judge and condemn sin as well as proclaim God’s mercy in Christ. And all Christians are called to judge doctrine, to test the spirits to see whether they are of God, to reject false doctrine that doesn’t agree with the Scriptures.
So Jesus’ words here don’t mean that we should approve of sin and ungodly teaching or be OK with it. It is for us to stand up for the truth of God’s Word, especially when it is publicly rejected. We are to do so with humility and love; but it is for us to confess the truth, especially living in an age and a culture of lies. It’s not judging to say something is immoral and wrong which Scripture says is immoral and wrong. The Supreme Court and our society are entirely in error on the topic of gay marriage. That’s not sinful judging; that’s just telling the truth. Homosexual behavior is sin; approving of and condoning homosexual behavior is sin. And lest we forget the log in our own eyes, a man and a woman living together or having a sexual relationship outside of marriage is sin; tacitly condoning those relationships so as not to offend family or friends or business associates is sin; divorce for unbiblical reasons is sin, husband and wife trying to lord it over each other and enjoying cutting down the other spouse and reveling in making a stinging remark is sin, encouraging division in the marriages of others with meddling and gossip is sin. The breakdown of marriage certainly didn’t start with the acceptance of same-sex marriage.
Pointing all this out is not the church’s main message, but we can’t let that truth of the Law be watered down either. For since the most important thing in the church is the forgiveness of sins and the Gospel of Christ, we have to be able to call sin what it is so that we all will see our need for that forgiveness and cling to Christ alone for mercy and life. It’s certainly not sinful judging to stand up for the pure teaching of the Word and to speak against anything which undermines the truth of the Gospel of Christ the crucified, that we are saved through faith in Jesus alone. The truth needs to be spoken precisely for the good of our fellow man. Again, Scripture says that we are to speak the truth in love–not simply out of a desire to be right or to win an argument–but because we seek the ultimate good of our neighbor and the glory of God. It is written in Galatians 6, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.”
We are the children of the God of mercy, who are given to extend that mercy to our fellow man. St. Peter said, “Love covers a multitude of sins.” As God’s love covers our sins and takes them away, so we are given wherever we can to cover over our neighbor’s sins and failings, to help him to be brought back to God, and to put the best construction on everything. Such godly love builds up the neighbor and brings peace. And even when we are called to judge according to our vocation, we do so for the good of others, that they may not be lost to sin and false belief, but that they may be led to repentance and faith in Christ our Savior.
So today’s Epistle, then, is not so much meant to be new Law, but rather a description of what it means to live by faith in Christ. Put yourself in the position of the other person, rejoicing with those who rejoice, weeping with those who weep. Walk humbly and do not be wise in your own opinion. First take care of your own problems, and then with a repentant and humble attitude you will best be able truly to help and love your neighbor. “First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck that is in your brother’s eye.” Bless even those who persecute you and cause you trouble. Love your enemies. Do not repay evil for evil, but overcome evil with good. Do not seek vengeance and payback, but trust that God will take care of things in His own way and in His own time.
And when you struggle to do this–and you will–return to Him who has already done all of this for you. Jesus put Himself in your position to redeem you. He associated with the poor and humble. While you were yet sinners and enemies of His, Christ died for you. Our Lord on the cross did not avenge Himself but blessed those who did evil to Him, saying, “Father forgive them.” He overcome evil with the ultimate good of His self-sacrifice. In Him you are forgiven and holy and loved. Jesus is your Joseph, who reveals Himself to you not as an avenging judge but as your strong and loving brother. He comforts you and speaks kindly to you. He is with you; He is on your side.
And just as Joseph provided grain for his brothers and an abundant meal at his table, so our Lord Jesus gives to us of the finest wheat. Mercy in good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over is poured out upon us. Come, dine at His table. Be freed from judgment. Receive His true body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins.
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠