At Mass recently we heard a famous passage, recognizable even to many a non-Christian.  Pope Francis has riffed on it, and it is a familiar element in the arsenal of moralists of the ilk of retiring Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy.

Jesus said to his disciples: “Stop judging, that you may not be judged. For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you. Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove that splinter from your eye,’ while the wooden beam is in your eye? You hypocrite, remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye.”  (Matt. 7:1-5)

The common interpretation of the passage assumes that recognizing that an action is bad is identical to “judging.”  According to this interpretation, it would be “judgmental” to inform the alcoholic that his addiction is compromising to himself and his family!  The absurdity of that reading—obvious in the case of such an example—makes for an easy target; and it is healthy to occasionally remind ourselves and our friends that fraternal correction is not per se wrong.

But that is only a negative interpretation; what the passage does not mean.  It does not mean that we should gloss over sin.  But on the other hand, it clearly refers to a real problem (why else would the Holy Spirit have seen to it that those particular words were recorded?).  And I suspect that, as with much of the Gospel’s advice, the words hit closer to home than most of us would like to acknowledge.  Arguing about what the words mean for our current politico-social debates is safer than considering how they apply to our day-to-day lives with family and friends.

In that latter, more dangerous and specific world, “to judge” would seem to imply a presumption of bad will.  For example (to take an inoffensive instance from children’s play), when Tommy’s ball whacks Freddy in the eye, Freddy has a choice.  He can assume in accordance with Tommy’s assurances that it was only an accident, or he can presume malicious intent; if the latter, we would say that Freddy has “judged” Tommy.  If he furthermore grumbles that Tommy “always does that stuff” or “just likes to hit people,” his judgment is particularly severe.  Extending the example further, when Freddy’s and Tommy’s mothers hear of the incident, they too have a choice.  Freddy’s mother may apply some time-honored maxim like “Boys will be boys,” or she may grumble interiorly herself, noting how Tommy’s mother never has her kids in hand; Tommy’s mother may use the same comfortable maxim, or she may complain to her husband that Freddy has always been an annoying twerp who’s had a whack coming for ages.  (This is all, incidentally, independent of the public faces Mrs. Freddy and Mrs. Tommy put on, in terms of urging their boys to apologize and accept the apology.)  In any such case, the fundamental fact remains the same: to presume to know the (bad) source of a person’s behavior is to judge them, and to judge (the text from Matthew reminds us) we have no right.

If the distinction between observing a person’s bad behavior and judging them still seems arbitrary or obscure, perhaps it is helpful to take an instance from the courtroom, the paradigmatic place of judgment.  A jury trial distinguishes between the “trier of fact” (the jury) and the giver of the sentence (the judge); and even in a bench trial, where the judge only is present, a distinction is made between the judge in his capacity to determine what happened and the judge in his capacity to decide what ought to be done about it.  It is the judge who decides, as best he can, within the limits of the law, whether a person receives a heavy sentence or a light one; and he does so taking all the facts found into consideration, but also weighing (one hopes) in his wisdom the person’s real degree of guilt—moral guilt—for the crime.  (It is interesting that, in the modern era, we are increasingly uncomfortable with this notion of a wise judge capable of making such moral determinations.  Perhaps we are rightly suspicious of our judiciary; still, however many bad judges abound, the fact remains that a good judge is essentially a good reader of character.)

The temptation to appoint oneself judge in this sense over one’s own acquaintances is nigh-on irresistible.  Most of us take up the psychological robes and gavel without having even recognized that we have done so.  We assume without thinking that we know the motivations of Freddy and Tommy and their mothers, but we hardly know our own—that is the gist of the passage from Matthew’s gospel.  But we have not (yet) been appointed to the judge’s role; and if we overstep ourselves in this respect, we may find that our own motivations are more worthy of judgment than we imagined.