It can be a bit confusing. Sometimes we hear people say “seeing is believing,” yet at other times we hear “don’t always believe what you see.” We are also taught not to judge a book by its cover (actually we’re taught not to judge at all), but at the same time isn’t what we see what we get? When it comes to witnessing poor or even mean-spirited behavior in other people, we have the tendency to draw a quick conclusion that the person himself is not good. We connect the “what” with the “who;” in other words, what we are seeing must be a clear representation of who that person really is. We make up our mind that a perceived characteristic is the character of that person, end of story.
In his public ministry, our Lord came across this sort of thing all the time–especially with the Pharisees who could not see past the law. Take for example the woman who was caught in adultery. There was no question as to whether or not she was guilty of the crime, for she was caught “in the very act” (Jn. 8:4). The point is that the sin she committed became the label for her life, her identity, and it defined her as a person. The logical conclusion according to the law was that such a person no longer had the rite to live and stoning was the only answer.
Our Lord, however, didn’t view this person’s situation in quite the same way. He looked beyond the criminal behavior and saw something that the others were not able to see. He saw a precious vessel, created by his own hands, whose life had been thrown off course by events unknown to us. He knew she was guilty of the crime, but he could also see the bigger picture allowing him to know what had lead her to make such poor choices. Because his perception was clear and completely accurate, he intervened.
It’s a dangerous thing to make a judgment based on very limited information, yet those who were ready to stone the adulterous woman were about to do this very thing. In their eyes, it wasn’t important for them to know anything more about her life, the punishment fit the crime, and she needed to be put to death. As our Lord pointed out, however, they were not able to see beyond her behavior because they were blind due to their own sinfulness. This is why he said to them, “he who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her” (Jn. 8:7). It was at that time that their eyes opened a bit, and they all dropped their stones and walked away. This action by the scribes and Pharisees is interesting for two reasons. First, it indicates that the cure for the sin of judging others is selfreflection; second, we ought to “get the story straight before we get the story out.”
Throughout the New Testament we are taught not to judge others so that we will not be judged. The teaching of the log and the speck in the eye is a perfect illustration of this. Judgment is the sole prerogative of God, and we are not to attempt even in the most sublet way to usurp this rite that belongs to God alone. You may say that the Pharisees were simply fulfilling the law, for “the Law of Moses commanded us to stone such a woman” (Jn. 8:5). However, we need to be reminded that our Lord came as the fulfillment of the law and the prophets, and He says: “I desire mercy not sacrifice” (Mt. 12:7). Perhaps one of the reasons the Pharisees were not willing to accept the mercy of Christ was because they were not willing to extend it to others; may this never be the case for us!
We must avoid the temptation of judging others based on simply what we see or perceive. Looking beyond the behavior is difficult in the beginning because we have perfected the art of judging others and have no clue that we actually have a log in our own eye–like the Pharisees who were holding stones in their hands. Once Jesus was able to penetrate their stony hearts a bit, they dropped their rocks and walked away. In fact, I have read that when Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground, as the Pharisees stood around him, he revealed the sins that all of these accusers had committed! I tend to think that some of them had begun walking away from the seen before Jesus said “he who is among you is without sin…” When we see another person committing a sin, the only true and accurate knowledge we have is our own sinfulness; this is only possible if we’re willing to take our eyes off of one another and fix our gaze firmly on ourselves.
It is important to get the story straight. The media is a perfect example of how stories get mixed up; how many times have we heard of an incident, and the story and statistics being reported by various news stations is quite different. It is embarrassing for a reporter to give the wrong information; for our purposes here, it is equally, if not more important, to give people the benefit of the doubt when it comes to what we are seeing or hearing. We are trained, mostly through the experience of interacting with others, to make inferences based on limited information and to interpret behavior (which is typically a symptom) as the problem. What we should focus on is that behaviors are like leaves on a tree. They are, indeed, part of the tree, but they in no way define the whole tree. In fact, in order to understand the leaves, we need to know their source for existing; for this, we need to get down to the roots. We could also say that what we see, or hear, is only the tip of the iceberg: equivalent to only one tenth of the entire mass. Who in their right mind would claim to make an informed decision, or judge another, with only 10% of the information?
It goes without saying that judgment is in the hands of God, who sees all things and knows all things. Over half of the people on earth would probably be put to death if judged by the limited and ill-informed pieces of information that man knows–as in the example of the woman caught in adultery. Only God sees clearly, sees through, see around, and see accurately what is in a person and what has contributed to how a person thinks, feels, and lives. So much of what we focus on is not even the real issue, but rather, a manifestation of a deeper-seeded issue. This is where we get the phrase: “the problem is seldom the problem”. There is always more to what we see and hear; this is why we leave room for what we don’ t know.
Perhaps we could take this into consideration as we approach Great Lent this year, and we could make a more conscience effort to withhold our comments and judgments about what we see and hear in and around us. Strive to be both more aware and more intentionally mindful of your own thoughts and movements in your hearts. Consider the stories of the Triodion where the Publican and the Prodigal Son both looked inwardly, deeply, and intentionally to see their true, inner condition–which then prompted and compelled them to deep repentance. Strive to look upon all those around you with compassion, mercy, and love; and pray for them when you notice something amiss in their ways so as not to judge but rather to desire for them God’s mercy, forgiveness, and salvation. May God forgive each of us, and may we each forgive one another and enter the Great and Holy Fast with a spirit of mercy, forgiveness, and humility.
Good Strength to all!
With love in Christ,
“Judge not, and you shall not be judged. Condemn not, and you shall not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven” (Lk. 6:37).