Who likes tv talent shows? You know the ones; X Factor, Strictly Come Dancing, Britain’s Got Dancing Dogs… they are among the biggest shows on British TV, and TV around the world, having taken over from soap operas as the main subject of what is known as “water cooler talk”, those little chats you have with people when you bump into them at the shops, the pub, the street or when you are going to the water cooler on a work break. We watch them to be entertained, by both the bad and the good. And, of course, we watch them for the judges.
Judges in these shows are the real stars, with each contestant and the nation hanging on their every word, waiting to cheer every positive comment and boo them like a pantomime villain when they criticise. And boy do they criticise? The cutting, sometimes unnecessarily cruel soundbites are among some of the most memorable parts of the shows, and they serve to create an environment where the contestants are simply working just to get approval from these four immaculately dressed semi-celebrities.
This is symptomatic of our society today. The judging of others for just about anything is everywhere; people are judged for their looks, their partners, their clothes, their political or religious views, their job, their home… we’re all judging and getting judged all the time.
The problem with this is that our judgements are imperfect and tainted. They are clouded by our own beliefs, experiences and prejudices to the extent that, whenever we do judge others, or whenever others judge us, we can never be certain that the judgement is completely just and trustworthy, that it is fair and without malice. We cannot be certain that our judgements are right.
But then, is it our place to judge at all? Are we the right people to be deciding what is right and wrong? Do we have the ability, or even the right to judge others?
John 5: 19-30 is part of a long discourse from Jesus about himself. In his commentary on this passage Willie Barclay says that, by including these long passages, John is not seeking so much to give us the words that Jesus spoke, as the things which Jesus meant. John is thought to have written this around 100AD, so he’d had around 65-70 years to reflect upon the teachings he had received from Jesus during his time with him. He’d had all this time of thinking, led by the Holy Spirit, to truly get into the meaning of Jesus’ teachings and example, and what he is doing here is trying to help us understand as he now does.
Among the things John is trying to tell us here is that Jesus is the bringer of judgement. In verse 22 we see that the Father has “given his son the full right to judge”. The full right to judge. This means two things:
1) Jesus is our only judge. He is the only one with a God-given right to judge all people.
2) At some point in the future we will face judgement. Not just as a world, but as individuals, and we need to be prepared for this.
So, let’s look at those two things. Firstly is the fact that Jesus alone is our judge. Now, of course, this doesn’t mean that we can use that as a defence in a court of law (although it has been tried), but it does mean that ultimately, at the end of everything, it is him and only him who we will answer to. We will not be answering to each other and you can be certain that nobody will be answering to us.
You see, our job is not to judge. Our job is to follow Jesus, to love each other, and to tell others about him. There are many, many ways in which we can do that, but being judgemental isn’t one of them. Of course, where we see injustice, evil or sin we need to do something about it, but we must remember to do it in a way which brings people closer to God, not condemning them and telling them they aren’t good enough for God.
We do need to use judgement when we do this, but there’s a huge difference between using judgement and being judgemental. Using your judgement involves trying to decide whether something is right or wrong, then deciding what to do about it. Being judgemental is where we decide something or someone is wrong, then condemn that thing, act or person. So when I’m saying that we aren’t called to judge, it is judgementalism I’m talking about here, the act of bringing judgement upon others.
Remember Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount,
“Do not judge others, so that God will not judge you, for God will judge you in the same way you judge others, and he will apply to you the same rules you apply to others.”
It is a warning that, when we do judge others, God judges us against the same standards. Essentially, it’s a warning against hypocrisy – standing in judgement over others when our lives and lifestyles are just as sinful, if not worse.
Think back to a time when you have judged somebody else harshly, for whatever reason. It could be a family member, friend, work colleague or even a public figure. Now, imagine being judged against the same standards you used at that point.
Who feels confident that they’d come out of that judgement looking good? I know I don’t.
But if we know this, then why do we do it? Why don’t we ask these questions of ourselves before we ask them of others? Why don’t we remove the planks from our eyes before addressing the specks of others?
There could be any number of reasons. Maybe we are too scared of what the answer will be. Maybe we genuinely think we don’t need to ask as there’s no plank to remove. Or maybe we are so desensitised to all of the judgement going on around us that we get swept up in one huge wave of mass judgement of others, without thinking of why or what the consequences may be.
Nathan Upton was a primary school teacher in Accrington, Lancashire. He married in 2009 and everything seemed ok in his life. However, he had a secret eating away at him – he felt as if he was trapped in a body of the wrong gender. He eventually underwent a gender reassignment operation and, having separated from his wife (on friendly terms), Lucy Meadows (as Nathan was now known) took his place back at the school in Accrington where she had been teaching before her transition.
The other staff, the pupils and parents were, for the most part, absolutely fine with this. However, somebody obviously wasn’t as they contacted the press regarding this “story”. The tabloid press, as they tend to do, carried out a full character assassination of Lucy. The Daily Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn wrote,
“ It would have been easy for him to disappear quietly at Christmas, have the operation and then return to work as ‘Miss Meadows’ at another school on the other side of town in September. No-one would have been any the wiser.
But if he cares so little for the sensibilities of the children he is paid to teach, he’s not only trapped in the wrong body, he’s in the wrong job.”
Suddenly an ordinary member of the public is thrust into full public glare, despite there really being no public interest outside of Accrington. And the press went to town on her.
In March 2013, Lucy took her own life.
At the inquest into her death, the coroner highlighted the actions of the media, and the Daily Mail and Richard Littlejohn in particular, accusing them of “ridicule and humiliation”.
This is the price of judgement. No matter what your views on transgender people, to hound somebody to their death because you disagree with an aspect of their life is indefensible. But each time someone looks down on us in judgement we die a little inside. The pain, shame and humiliation is keenly felt.
And this is what the Church, and individual Christians, have been as guilty of doing to others as those outside the Church have for centuries. It has caused alientation, oppression, war, witch hunts (metaphorical and literal) and so much pain and suffering that you wonder whether Jesus would even recognise his Church if he were to return.
And he will return. The second point is that he has been given the full right to judge and that he will use that power at some point.
John writes in chapters 28 and 29,
“the time is coming when all the dead will hear his (the Son of Man’s voice) and come out of the graves: those who have done good will rise and live, and those who have done evil will rise and be condemned.”
It is Jesus’ role alone to cast judgement on all of us, good or evil, and he will do that. We need to be prepared for the fact that, one day, you and I will all face the judgement of God through Jesus. And it is how we have responded to him that will ultimately determine how he judges us. If we have true faith in him then we will have done good, we will have loved others, led others to him, cared for those around us – especially the poor, sick, stranger and vulnerable. However, if our actions are not filled with love for others, if they are filled with hatred, condemnation and judgementalism, he will not recognise us. He will condemn us. It’s a plain choice he lays in front of us here.
There is only one, true judge. There is only one who decides what the ultimate result of our life is. There is only one who stands in judgement over every living thing that is, has been or ever will be. We have no right to try to take his place as judge because we are imperfect sinners who will face judgement ourselves. Not one of us is perfect. Not one of us is free from sin. Not one of us is right about every decision we make or belief that we hold, so we are in no position to judge others on theirs.
But Jesus is in that position. He has been given authority to judge and his judgement is from God, so it is right and just. All we need to do is hear his voice, believe, and do good in his name.