This is a story from Rev. Ignacio Castuera, a Methodist minister in California:
A rabbi and a Roman Catholic priest were sitting next to each other at an interfaith event. At dinner, ham was served. The rabbi did not protest but simply proceeded to eat other food his faith and physician permitted. The priest turned to the rabbi and said. “Rabbi, you and I know that the dietary laws in the Hebrew Bible were developed at a time when pork was dangerous due to lack of refrigeration. Because Trichinosis was rampant, your ancestors were right to prohibit eating pork to save the lives of many Israelites. But, those days are gone, pork is perfectly safe and there is no reason to cling to outmoded ancient practices. When will you start eating ham, Rabbi?” The rabbi paused briefly and then responded, “at your wedding, Father Maguire, at your wedding.”
How often do we think that what someone else is choosing to do is ignorant, ridiculous or wrong; to judge others using the standards of our own experience, culture, and beliefs. Our minds can quickly jump from judging other people’s beliefs, choices or actions – not just as different, but as “right or wrong,” “good or bad.” Then it is easy to slip, as Paul warns, from judging others, to despising them.
This can happen so fast that we aren’t even conscious when we are doing it. The human mind moves at lightning speed from mere observation to critical assessment. Because of the way we are wired, we often don’t catch our automatic reactions and judgments. But, if allowed to fester, judgments can separate us from others, from God, and even from ourselves. Their toxic energy, as Paul knew, can divide a community.
We might look back at the dispute that Paul was trying to heal – between a subgroup of Jewish followers of Jesus who did not believe in eating meat and Gentile followers who would eat anything and think, really? They had serious quarrels over this?? How would they ever make sense of all the diets we negotiate – like gluten-free, vegan, pescatarian, flexitarian and others. ]
Have you ever noticed this phenomenon? Sometimes the most critical people are those who have made a new choice to live differently: the person who just gave up smoking may harshly judge those who are still smoking; a new vegetarian may find herself looking down on meat-eaters; the person who just found Christ, may be dismissive of those who are not Christian.
Look what has happened in the political life of our country. If we vote with one political party, we may think that the others who vote differently are misinformed or idiots or worse. Not only that, certain politicians and pundits use these kinds of judgments to fan the flames of division to increase their own power.
Our minds seem designed – and can be manipulated by a whole variety of power-seeking people – including religious leaders – to judge others.
Every time we think, “You jerk!” or “That was bad” or we say “Can you believe those people?” or “They are not like us” we have made a judgment. And we probably don’t even realize how often we do it, let alone give ourselves a chance to reconsider our assessment.
As Paul suggests, what we need to be careful about is the slide from disagreement to judgment to contempt… from differences of opinion, to labeling another person or group as not only wrong, but bad, even irredeemable.
From Paul’s perspective, the only rightful judge is God. He realizes that it’s not up to us to decide whether or not what someone else is doing is right or wrong; to make a determination of who is and who is not worthy of our love. That’s God’s job – and God has already decided – that we’re all worth it. We are all worth God’s love and each others love.
Our job is to stay in our own lane, to be responsible for our own intentions and actions. Paul writes, “For we do not live for ourselves, and we do not die for ourselves. If we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord.” What is required of us is that we strive to do what is most pleasing to the one we are ultimately accountable to – God – knowing that our knowledge and understanding are likely incomplete.
Which means, if a Jew believes in his or her heart of hearts that it is most pleasing to God to abstain from pork, and we disagree; we are to be respectful. If a Catholic priest believes in his heart of hearts, that it is most pleasing to God to abstain from marriage, and we disagree, we are to be respectful. If a Village Church member believes it is most pleasing to God to abstain from eating meat, and we disagree, we are to be respectful.
And when it is difficult for us to be respectful, we can start by trying to understand. We can shift from the critical judgments of the mind to the open, curious posture of the heart. We can shift from creating separation to creating connection. We can shift from dismissing others, to welcoming them. Even when someone else’s actions are destructive of others or our planet, we can still enter into respectful dialogue, loving the person, while challenging the behavior.
I have often wondered if we might be in a more unified place as a country if the words “basket of deplorables” had never been uttered. Once we feel judged by someone there is not much possibility that we will want to be in a relationship with that person or to listen to their point of view. When we feel like someone is pointing the finger at us, we will likely shut down emotionally and shut the person out of our hearts, and perhaps, out of our lives. Only when we feel respected and loved are we open to entertaining viewpoints that are not our own.
The Mishnah, a book created at the end of the Second Century as a guide for Jewish living, is a remarkable text. It addresses particular activities of daily life – everything from how to prepare a plate of food to marriage rituals – by giving multiple opinions from a variety of rabbis. Though certain rabbis and their opinions have more stature than others, there is this beautiful and healthy way of looking at life choices as more than two competing options, one right, one wrong; one good, one bad. Instead, it’s as if life is a beautiful bouquet – would you say a dahlia is better or worse than a daffodil or a lily? No – all have value.
In the Mishnah, a key insight is that when viewing another person, any judgment of them should always be on the positive side of the scale; presuming best intention. (This is an incredibly useful practice for a happy marriage and a well-functioning community.) Presume the best intention. The Mishnah teaches that a wise person is one who has the ability to learn something from every person. If we take this lesson to heart, if we adopt this posture of deep humility, we may be less likely to harden our judgment of others.
Paul encourages the readers of his Letter to discover – and then to honor – the differences among the community: to practice compassion and even offer deference to those with radically different conceptions of how best to live as followers of Jesus. His is no pollyanna view of community. He does not expect that the Roman followers of Jesus will automatically see things eye to eye or that everyone needs to agree about how to best follow Jesus. He is not surprised by conflict.
It’s how we engage the conflict that Paul cares about. When we find ourselves in a disagreement, Paul encourages us to humble ourselves enough to try and understand other viewpoints and practices, so that we can moderate our own opinions and appreciate the other viewpoint and person, rather than succumbing to judgment, contempt, and division.
Because of how we are wired, judgments of others are practically inevitable. It’s what we do when we become conscious of our own judgments that matter. Instead of focusing on what another person or group is doing or not doing, Paul urges us to focus on our own intentions, on pleasing God.
Can you imagine what our lives would be like, what our church would be like, if we started each day in humility asking God – how can I please you? (Rather than, for example, reading the news and beginning with “Can you believe what that so called political leader just said?”)
And then, what might happen, if, as our day unfolded, and something that someone said or did hit us the wrong way, and we found ourselves thinking “What a jerk!” or “How could they?” we paused in humility to ask God – how can I please you and still love this other person?
Today, Paul sets a high bar for us. We are to first remember that in spite of our own shortcomings and shortsightedness, our faults and failures, our God persistently loves us; persistently welcomes and accepts us; challenging us to grow. If God can be this good to us, how can we consciously resist giving into our judgments and instead, with humility and wisdom, extend the same grace, understanding, and compassion to others? Amen.