“PLAYING GOD”

JAMES 4:11-12

Sep 9, 2012

 

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            Rotary International, a service organization, has what they call "The Four Way Test."  Members of the organization are instructed to apply this "test" to everything they say or do.  Before they say something to or about another individual they are to ask themselves four questions ...

 

            1)  Is it the truth?

            2)  Is it fair to all concerned?

            3)  Will it build good will and better friendships?

            4)  Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

 

            James would have liked this test.  I say that because of what James says to us this morning.  Listen to his words.

 

            Do not speak evil against one another, brothers and sisters.  Whoever speaks evil against another, speaks evil against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge.  There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save or to destroy.  So who, then, are you to judge your neighbor?

           

            Do me a favor.  Look at the "True or False Quiz" I had Rose include it in the bulletin this week.  Do you have that in front of you?

 

            Statement #1 - The bible prohibits judging others.  True or False?

            Statement #2 - Criticizing others is different than judging someone.  True or False?

            Statement #3 - Jesus gives guidelines to use when judging others.  True or False?

            Statement #4 - Judgmentalism was a big problem in James' day.  True or False?

            Statement #5 - Judgmentalism is a big problem today.  True or False?

 

            Let's begin by addressing the last two statements before going back to address the first three.

            Judgmentalism - having an overly critical spirit concerning others - was a big problem in James' day.  Now remember, James was serving a predominantly Jewish Christian congregation.  Paul related to Gentle congregations, but James was addressing a Jewish congregation.  These Jewish Christians would have continued to honor their Jewish heritage, celebrating Passover and other Jewish holidays.  They also  observed food restrictions, not eating pork and the like.  Yet, there were a handful of Gentile Christians in the congregation who did not think it was all that important to celebrate Passover or Hannukah or the Feast of Tabernacles.  As a result, the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem were criticizing the Gentile Christians in Jerusalem for not upholding long-standing Jewish traditions. 

            By the way, just the opposite was happening in Gentile congregations.  In Gentile congregations, like the church in Rome, the Gentile Christians were criticizing Jewish Christians for being too tied to the past, to their Jewish practices and observances.

            So, judgmentalism was a big problem in James' day.  Unfortunately, it still is today.  As a fellow Presbyterian pastor put it, "The people of God are often known for the way they pick each other to pieces and seldom for the way they put each other back together." 

            It's like the pastor who said to one of his congregants, "If I had three more like you, I would be a happy man!"

            The congregant replied, "What are you talking about, Pastor?  I always criticize you.  Why would you be happy if you had three more like me?"

            The pastor said, "Because I have thirty more like you.  If I only that three, I would be happy!"

            Well, James has one bit of counsel to offer judgmental, overly critical people:

dont do it.  He writes,  Do not speak evil against one another."  The Greek word here translated as "to speak evil" can also mean to disparage, slander or malign, and it usually carries with it the idea of doing these things behind someone's back.  James says, "Don't do it," because he had two problems with it.  First, he said in badmouthing others we badmouth the law.  Verse 11:  "Whoever speaks evil against another or judges another, speaks evil against the law."

            What law?  Well, we cannot be sure, but most likely it was the law set down by Jesus, "to love your neighbor as you love yourself."  When we whisper about people in the dark, when we criticize folk behind closed doors, we are not loving them as we would love ourselves.  We are not doing unto them as we want them to do unto us, so when we do that we are breaking one of God's fundamental laws.  We might not think speaking evil of another person is a very serious sin, but James did.  We are to love others as we love ourselves.

            I love the story of the brother and sister who constantly picked on each other.  The father finally interrupted and drew the line.  He said, "The next time I hear you two picking on each other, I'm going to spank you both."

            Fifteen minutes later they were at it again.  He called both of them over and said to them, "Each of you are to get the object you want me to use in spanking the other."

            Courtney, nine years old, went out to the tree in the backyard, twisted off a five-foot long branch to bring to her dad to use on her brother.  Dan, seven years old, came back with a baseball bat.

            The father, then, changed instructions.  He said, "Each of you are to get the object you want me to use on your personally."  Courtney brought back a piece of spaghetti.  Dan returned.  with a blade of grass.

            They certainly were not loving each other as they loved themselves.

            The second problem James had with speaking evil against others is not only is it a breach of the law set down by Jesus, but also it puts us in a place where we are ill-equipped to function.  James writes,

 

            Whoever speaks evil against another or judges another speaks evil against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge.  There is only one lawgiver and judge who is able to save and to destroy.  So who, then, are you to judge your neighbor?

 

            A young woman was nervous about meeting her boyfriend's parents for the first time.  As she checked out her appearance one last time, she noticed that her shoes looked dingy.  So she gave them a fast swipe with the paper towel she had used to blot the bacon she had for breakfast.

            Arriving at the impressive home, she was greeted by the parents and their much-beloved, but rotten-tempered, poodle.  The dog got a whiff of the bacon grease on the young woman's shoes and followed her around all evening.  At the end of the evening, the pleased parents remarked, "Cleo really likes you, dear, and she is an excellent judge of character.  We are delighted to welcome you into our little family."

            As judges we often get swayed by the bacon grease.   Like the boyfriend's parents, we often don't know all the facts.  We haven't walked in another's shoes.  We do not have always have the information we need to make valid judgments of character.  Unlike God, we cannot see into people's hearts, and as a result, James says, "Tread carefully when you embark on judging others.  Only God does it perfectly."

            Now, back to the first three true/false statements.  Statement #1 - The bible prohibits judging others.  Statement #2 - Criticizing someone is different from judging someone.  Statement #3 - Jesus gives us guidelines for judging.

            The correct answers are false, false, true.  The bible does not prohibit judging others; criticism is a form of judging; and Jesus does give us guidelines for judging.

            Turn with me to Matthew 7, on page 788 in your pew bible.  Look with me at verse one.  Jesus is preaching the Sermon on the Mount and he's talking about judging.  Note what he says.  Verse one ...

 

            Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.

 

            Now, that sounds like a prohibition.  As we drive down the highway of life it looks like a "Do Not Enter" sign, a "Don't Go There" sign, but it is really a "Proceed with Caution" sign.  By this statement, so often quoted out of context, Jesus did not mean we should never judge our neighbor because just four verses later he says,

 

            You hypocrite, first take the log out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor's eye.

 

            Reading everything together, Jesus is not saying, "Do not judge," as much as he is saying, "Before you judge, proceed with caution.  Before you judge, slow down and take the log out of your own eye."  We often hear people say, "Well, I know the bible says not to judge, but ..."   Well, the bible does not say that.  It just posts "Danger" and "Proceed with Caution" signs when it comes to judging.

            In fact, in the eighteenth chapter of Matthew Jesus outlines an entire procedure for us to follow when judging others.  Jesus says if we have judged someone to be in the wrong, we are not to badmouth them behind their backs, we are to go to that person privately.  If that doesn't work in setting them straight, we are to take a friend along to confront the person.  If the person still does not clean up his or her act, we are to take the matter to the church board, and if that doesn't work we are to boot the person out of the community of faith.

            You see, what concerns both Jesus and James are the abuses of judging, not judging itself.  Think about it.  James practices all sorts of judging in this letter as he criticizes some of the behaviors in First Church Jerusalem.  If he was opposed to all forms of judging, he was not practicing what he was preaching.  No, he's not condemning judging per se, he's condemning the abuses of judging.

            So the bottom line for us this morning is twofold: do not badmouth others behind their backs, and if you have to judge, proceed with caution.

            When it comes to judging, listen to the wisdom of a modern day mystic, Anthony de Mello.  He writes,

 

            I was a revolutionary when I was young and my prayer to God was, "Lord, give me the energy to change the world."

            As I approached middle age and realized that half my life was gone without me changing a single soul, I changed my prayer to, "Lord, give me the grace to change all those who come in contact with me.  Just my family and friends, and I shall be satisfied."

            Not that I am an old man and my days are numbered, my one prayer is, "Lord, give me the grace to change myself."  If I had prayed this prayer from the start I should not have wasted my life.

 

            When it comes to judging, it's best to spend the bulk of that time on ourselves.