Those familiar with Lenten liturgy will recognize the title as part of the Lenten “Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian”, which reads in part, “O Lord and Master of my life…grant me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother, for You are blessed unto ages of ages.” This prayer is not the only part of our tradition which forbids us to judge. The counsel of the Desert Fathers is replete with admonitions not to judge our brethren. And Holy Scripture says the same. St. Paul says, “Let not him who eats disdain him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats…Who are you to judge the servant of another? (Rom. 14:3f). St. James says the same: “Do not speak against one another, brethren. He who speaks against a brother or judges his brother speaks against the Law and judges the Law…There is only one Lawgiver and Judge” (James 4:11f). Such an apostolic attitude goes back to the Lord Himself. In His sermon on the mount, He said, “Judge not, lest you be judged. In the way you judge you will be judged…Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye ” (Mt. 7:1f). The teaching is clear: we are not to judge.
But this is not the only part of our tradition which speaks about judging. In other New Testament passages we are commanded to judge. In his letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul said, “I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he should be immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard or a swindler—do not even eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those within the church? But those who are outside, God judges. Remove the wicked one from among yourselves” (1 Cor. 6:11f). This command and expectation of judgment is echoed by the Lord as well: “Why do you not even on your own initiative judge what is right?” “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment” (Lk. 12:57, Jn. 7:24). On the one hand, we are forbidden to judge, and on the other hand, we are commanded to judge. What’s going on?
We are not the first ones to notice this apparent discrepancy in the tradition. St. John Chrysostom, that passionate and careful exegete, also noticed these varying counsels. In his homilies on the Sermon on the Mount, commenting on the Lord’s command “Judge not, lest you be judged”, the preacher of Antioch and Constantinople says the following:
“What then? Ought we not to blame them that sin? Because Paul [in Rom. 14] also says the same thing: ‘Why do you judge your brother? Who are you to judge the servant of another?’...How then does Paul say elsewhere [in 1 Tim. 5], ‘Them that sin rebuke in the presence of all?’ And Christ too says to Peter [in Mt. 18], ‘If your brother sins, go and reprove him in private, and if he refuses to hear, take to yourself another also, and if even then he does not yield, declare it to the church’. And how has Christ set us clergy over so many to reprove, and not only to reprove, but also to punish?”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Chrysostom could not only see the problem, but also its solution. We quote at length once again:
“[In the command “Judge not, lest you be judged”, Christ speaks] to them that are full of innumerable ills, and are trampling upon other men for trifles. And I think that certain Jews too are here hinted at, for while they were bitterly accusing their neighbours for small faults that came to nothing, they were themselves committing deadly sins…And the Corinthians too, Paul did not command absolutely not to judge, but not to judge their own superiors; [they should] not refrain from correcting them that sin… ‘What then!’ you say, ‘if one commit fornication, may I not say that fornication is a bad thing, and correct him that is fornicating?’ Correct him, but not as a foe, nor as an enemy exacting a penalty, but as a physician providing medicine. For Christ did not say, ‘Do not stop him who is sinning’, but rather ‘judge not’—that is, ‘do not be bitter in pronouncing sentence’...Christ does not forbid judging, but commands you first to take out the log from your own eye, and only then set right the doings of the rest of the world”.
It is in this extended bit from one of Chrysostom’s sermons (Homily 23 on Matthew’s Gospel), that we can see the common sense and pastoral care of the Church. The prohibitions against judging were never meant to suspend or blunt our moral faculties. They were never intended to induce moral confusion, wherein we could not recognize sin and brokenness for what they are, nor to induce a muddle-headed cowardice wherein we were reluctant to rebuke sin. Rather, the prohibitions against judging were meant to save us from Pharisaical self-righteousness, from a spiritual blindness which can see all sins except our own. It is fatally easy to arrogate to ourselves the roles of accuser, judge, and jury, and to condemn our brethren for trifles, when we ourselves commit either the same offenses or even greater ones. And let’s be honest: most of the time we judge our brethren, we condemn them for insignificant things—for making the Sign of the Cross “wrong”, for not fasting as we think they should, for indulging the same behaviours that we ourselves also often exhibit. And when we judge them, we do it because it makes us feel good: “O God, I thank You, that I am not as other men are…” Most of the time we judge others, we are dressed in the long robes of the Pharisees. At these times, the word of the Lord is clear: “Judge not, lest you be judged.”
But there are other times when judgment is essential, and when it would be sinful not to do it. St. Paul mentioned these times, as did our Lord. Even the Law knew that there were times when love required open rebuke: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you may surely reprove your neighbour, and not incur sin because of him” (Lev. 19:17). This is especially the task of the clergy, who are set as watchmen upon the walls (see Heb. 13:17). To them especially applies the word to the watchmen: “When I say to the wicked, ‘O wicked man, you shall surely die,’ and you do not speak to warn the wicked from his way, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require from your hand” (Ezek. 33:8). If we love our brethren, and see them walking headlong into wickedness and disaster, we will surely reprove them. If we do not, they shall die in their iniquity, and some of their guilt will be ours.
Though our Lord’s words about not judging are misused by many today, and made into an absolute, an ability to judge sin and a willingness to reprove it are crucial if the Church is to fulfill its role of spiritually forming her children. This ability to see and condemn sin is called by St. Paul aisthesis, sometimes translated “discernment, perception, insight, moral understanding”. Paul prayed that the love of his dear Philippians would “abound in all knowledge and aisthesis, so that [they] might approve the things which are excellent in order to be blameless for the Day of Christ” (Phil. 1:9-10). Their joy on the Last Day depended upon the health and growth of this moral faculty. Only by discerning which things were excellent and which things were sinful could they be blameless before Christ’s Judgment Seat. It is the same for us as well. The Church is a bulwark and pillar of the truth, a light shining in the midst of a dark and sinful world (1 Tim. 3:15, Phil. 2:15). We are charged by God with knowing what is true righteousness, and of living it in such a way so that all can see its beauty. We fail God, our children and ourselves if we allow the world to blunt our sense of the difference between righteousness and sin, if we become reluctant to see and judge sin for what it is. Our message is always, “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt. 4:17), and like the apostles we must go out and tell men to repent (Mk. 6:12). For this we need aisthesis, and a willingness to judge—starting with ourselves. The weary world languishes in sin, and desperately needs to be called home.