Who Am I to Judge?

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Christ and the Adulteress

Are Christians judgmental?  Certainly.  Christians are sinners like everyone else.  But the sin of being judgmental stands out precisely because Christians are sinners.  Who are we to tell others what they should or should not be doing?  Who are we to say what is right and wrong?  Or — to borrow a line from our Holy Father Pope Francis — who are we to judge?

One of the most quoted verses in the Bible is, “Judge not, lest you be judged” (Mt 7:1).  The context of that verse is the lesson about pointing out the mote in your brother’s eye while ignoring the beam in your own.  In other words, we all have our failings, so it is hypocritical of us to judge others.

Something similar is going on in our gospel reading for this Sunday.  A woman has been caught in adultery and the punishment is execution by stoning.  Jesus challenges the crowd, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (Jn 8:7).  No one comes forward.

Our faith forbids us to judge other people.  But our faith commands us to judge actions — chiefly our own.  These commands are not contradictory; they are complementary.  We see how if we consider the question of mortal sin.  The Church teaches that to be guilty of mortal sin, three conditions must be met (CCC 1857-1859):
1. The act must be “grave matter” (a serious sin).
2. It must be performed with “full knowledge” (you know it is a sin).
3. It must be performed with “deliberate consent” (you want to do it; you are not being forced).

We can objectively judge the first condition.  Is this action sinful or not?   In the case of the woman caught in adultery, we can truthfully say that adultery is a sin.  It violates the Sixth Commandment.  We must make this kind of judgment, otherwise we would be unable to judge the morality of our own actions.

But when it comes to the other conditions mentioned above, how can we know whether someone had full knowledge of what they were doing, or free use of their will?  We cannot climb into another person’s head.  We cannot know the depths of their heart. Moreover, someone may have committed a grave sin yesterday, but may have repented of it this morning.  We cannot see into another’s soul. So while we can rightly judge actions, it is presumptuous in the extreme for us to judge people.  God has given all judgment to Christ (Jn 5:22).  We cannot usurp Jesus’ rightful role.

It is important to note that Jesus does not tell the woman that her actions were not sinful.  In fact Jesus has some very strict things to say about adultery.  He teaches that anyone who divorces their spouse and marries another commits adultery; and in fact to even look at another with lust is an act of adultery (Mt 5:27-32).

Given those high standards, how many in the crowd that would have condemned the woman were also guilty of the same sin?  This is the lesson here — not that the woman’s sin was not great, but that we all fall short of the holiness to which we are called.

In this Year of Mercy it is good to remember that “admonishing the sinner” is one of the spiritual works of mercy.  We are commanded to love our neighbor.  If you saw your neighbor about to drink poison, the loving thing would be to stop him!  Sin is poison for the soul.  In love, we should attempt to direct others away from sinful actions.  We admonish the sinner to save them, not condemn them.

Jesus forgave the adulterous woman, but He also admonished her.  He said, “Go, and from now on do not sin anymore” (Jn 8:11).  When we admonish our neighbor, we speak not as their judge, but as a fellow sinner.  It is crucial, then, that we also admonish ourselves.  Then, having turned from sin, we can together with our neighbor “forget what lies behind, and strain forward to what lies ahead” (Phil 3:13), the great glories of the friendship of Jesus Christ, our gracious and merciful Lord.