Judge Actions, but Never Judge the Person
Monday June 21, 2004 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Twelfth Week in Ordinary Time
Reading (2 Kings 17:5-8, 13-15a, 18) Gospel (St. Matthew 7:1-5)
In the Gospel reading today, we have this very important point that Our Lord makes when He says, Stop judging that you may not be judged, for as you judge so will you be judged and the measure which you measure will be measured out to you. As we consider these words for our own selves, we first have to keep in mind that we live in a society where we like to make lots of judgments. We are rather professional at it; in fact, we are so good at it that we do not even notice half the time that we are doing it. We tend to be very judgmental and we tend to be very uncompassionate. We tend not to give people a whole lot of latitude – except for ourselves, of course, but nobody else. “It’s okay for me to do these things because…but these people have no right.”
The thing we need to be careful of, first of all, is to make a very important distinction. That is, we can and we must judge actions, but we cannot judge the people. We do not know why people necessarily do what they do, but certainly we can look at what they do and make a judgment about whether or not what they are doing is correct. For instance, we know that if someone is violated and abused in certain ways as a child then when they get older they start acting out in bizarre ways. We can look at the way they are acting out and say, “That is wrong,” but we cannot judge the person. We do not know why they are doing what they are doing.
This is a very important distinction because we now live in a society where everybody likes to throw out this idea: “You’re judging me.” Well, not necessarily. We do a lot of that, but that is not always what we are doing. If what we are doing is to say, “Your actions are wrong,” then that is not a judgment about the person; that is a judgment about the action and that is something which is objective. We can look at the Ten Commandments and we can look at the various areas that fall under the Ten Commandments, and we can make a clear judgment about an action to be able to say whether this is right or wrong. We must do that. But, again, we cannot say why the people do what they do; that is the part we do not know; that is the part where we have to say, “God alone is the judge.” We have to leave them to God’s mercy because He sees what is in their hearts. He knows what their history is and He knows perfectly well why they are doing what they are doing. We do not. All that we can say is within our own selves why we do what we do, and sometimes we do not even know the reason for that.
But the fact is that we need to keep this distinction very clear because it is something that is being leveled at the Catholic Church quite frequently these days: “You’re judging.” That is what we hear all the time. No, we have to make judgments about the actions. I find it rather humorous, however, that when you make that clear distinction and you make a judgment on someone’s actions, what they turn right around and do is to come back with a tirade against you to tell you what you are doing. All you can do is smile and say, “No, I didn’t judge you but you just judged me.” But that is the way it works. In this society of supposed tolerance and diversity, the only thing we cannot accept is being Catholic; that is the only thing that is unacceptable in this society. Therefore, if being Catholic is unacceptable in this society, the truth is unacceptable in this society. All we have to do is look around and it speaks for itself.
Again, just to be clear, look at the first reading; it lays it all out. Here is what the people did; here is why they were punished. God lays it out very clearly for us. The writers of Scripture make it very clear. They did not judge the people; they did not say, “Here’s why they did what they did.” They followed the gods of the countries that were cleared out of the way, they worshiped false gods, and they brought in idols. Those are all objective statements about what occurred. It is making a judgment on the actions of the people. We do not know why they did what they did, nor do they try to explain that. So that is the clarity we need to have.
We need to make sure we are not judging the people because if we are not merciful and compassionate, neither will God be merciful or compassionate toward us. But we also need to be clear about the actions, otherwise what happens if we start trying to justify everybody’s actions then we are going to start falling right into them ourselves because we are going to start saying, “Everything is okay.” That is what our society has done and we need to be very careful not to fall into the trap. We need to be very careful to be clear about the distinctions, to understand them well, and to use them so that we make very clear the action and the person who is performing the action, and that we make the judgment about the action itself but not about the person. And so we have to hold our own selves to a very high standard. We know what is right and what is wrong. We have to live according to the moral standards that the Lord has set out for us, and we have to expect that others are going to live according to the moral standards. We have to hold those moral standards high. But when somebody is not following them, all that we can do is say that that is wrong; we cannot say why they are doing it. That is where the distinction comes in.
So we must be very compassionate with the person to be able to say, “What they’re doing is wrong. I don’t know why they’re doing it, perhaps it is this or that.” We can find an excuse for them – that does not justify it – but it helps us to be compassionate toward them and that way we can expect mercy because Our Lord is very clear that we are not the judge. He alone is the judge of the person. If we want to set ourselves up as the judge, we are going to be judged as we judge. And if we think about it, quite honestly, I think we would all have to say, “I do not want to be judged according to my own standards of judgment. It will not be a merciful day when I stand before God if I am held according to my own standards, according to the way most people judge.” We cannot do that. God alone is the judge, and the measure that we use to measure others with the Lord has made very clear is the measure that will be used against us. So be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful. Be compassionate, but be very clear with regard to the actions, and be merciful to the people.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.