Judging Others


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church, Middletown, NJ

February 2, 2020

Texts: 2 Samuel 12:1-15; John 8:1-11

        Shortly after he was elevated to the papacy, Pope Francis made what at first seemed to be an off-handed com-ment about priests who might be gay. Speaking in Italian but using the English word “gay,” he said: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” 

        His words were very different than those of his predecessor Benedict XVI who in 2005 called homosexuality “an intrinsic moral evil” as well as an “objective disorder.” Although we may not agree with Benedict on this particular issue, we do judge others all the time on all kinds of issues.

The two readings this morning take two radically different views toward judgment. We know both of these stories. We’ve probably heard these stories most of our lives. The woman found in the act of adultery and the story of David’s lust for Bathsheba are familiar to us all.

        What’s interesting in the John story is that only the woman is brought before Jesus whereas the injunctions in both Leviticus and Deuteronomy state that both the adulterer and the adulteress should die. Stoning is not explicitly men-tioned in the method of death here but in the verses before and after, stoning is prescribed. And it is adultery because the man has taken another man’s wife.

        The response is what we might call typical Jesus, or at least our image of typical Jesus. Jesus just calmly says to the accusers, “He who is without sin cast the first stone.” And then the text says, “they went away, one by one, beginning with the eldest.” “Woman, where are they? Has no one con-demned you?” asks Jesus. “No one, sir” is her reply. “Neither do I condemn you.” And, of course, Jesus closes with the injunction, “Go and sin no more.” 

       This is very different than the story in Samuel when Nathan confronts David with his sin, coveting another man’s wife and taking her and then deliberately placing the husband in the front line of battle where he will surely be killed. The portion of the story we read this morning and the chapter that precedes it with David first seeing Bathsheba bathing on her roof are very different than the old David King/Darryl F. Zanuck production of the story.

        From that movie, you would think this was a love story. It was not from the biblical perspective, to be sure. The king fetches her and how is she to refuse ? It reminds you a little of the Mel Brooks comedy when he pats a woman’s behind and says, “It’s good to be the king.” But it’s not funny at all. 

       Some commentators make Bathsheba at least partly to blame but, quite frankly, it’s sort of like blaming Harvey Weinstein’s victims. Power, especially royal power, certainly has its advantages. Evidently David only used it, at least here, to have a woman. Others use such power more treacherously.

         Putting these two stories side by side, one must ask how we judge others and for what kinds of actions are our judgments most severe. We no longer brand women with a scarlet A, at least not here in America in our current century. There are, of course, societies where women get all the blame. 

        Another way to look at these stories including the one that the prophet Nathan tells David is to realize that they are really about power and its abuse. The king has abused his power. Like certain political leaders, he must have believed that he could do anything he wanted. 

        But the law David violated was not one of a human document like the Constitution but God’s law and the judg-ment and punishment inflicted on him was that of the Lord. The pregnancy that resulted from David’s abuse of power ends in the death of the child. It’s a terrible judgment, to be sure.

        Judging others is sometimes a difficult task. But, worse, it’s even more difficult to judge ourselves. Certainly when we judge others we also judge ourselves. By that I mean we may say to ourselves, “I would not do this” or “I would have not done that.” 

      Our judgments on others may change depending on how we view others. We may view another person as warm or cold, as sociable and friendly or as insular and withdrawn. Some of those judgments are on a surface level. We also judge people on their words and actions. 

        Sometimes this takes the form of political correctness and at other times the words someone may use reflect a deeper secret of who that person really is. There are also times when generational or cultural differences reflect them-selves in the words a person may use. Let me give you an example.

        A colleague and a friend of mine, a lawyer younger than me, invariably uses the word “girl” when referring to women no matter their age or occupation. But I would never consider him as sexist because his other behaviors and actions reflect his full acceptance of women as his equals.

        What’s interesting about this is that when he speaks in Spanish, his native language, he does not use the word muchacha, or girl, but mujer, or woman, to refer to women. I judge him on how he treats other women not on what some would consider his politically incorrect speech because his behavior and actions reflect his morality.

         Sometimes, of course, one’s morality is not reflected in speech. This is certainly true in politics. We hear a good line spouted out, especially at election time but then actions do not reflect the words. Look at the issue of the Pinelands Commission. The governor has requested reappointments and replacements on the Pinelands Commission. 

         The State Senate, however, trying to talk a good game let the appointments lapse. There was a call out from the Pinelands Preservation Alliance to email or call state senators. My state senator, Nick Scutari is chair of the Judiciary com-mittee. I sent him an email but did he respond? No, and now I judge him by how his words do not match his actions. I should note he also voted for keeping the death penalty. He is in my sights. Oh, to be twenty years younger!

        And then there were the words of those sweet Southerners in Greensboro. Yesterday was the 60h anni-versary of the Greensboro sit-ins. Four students at the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College––the A&Ts was one of the places the state sent the “colored” in a segregated system––Ezell Blair, Jr., David Richmond, Franklin McCain, and Joseph McNeil went to a lunch counter and became a catalyst for a revolution.

         Maybe you didn’t have separate drinking fountains and bathrooms here in New Jersey in 1960 but not so far south, we did. I remember asking my aunt why we couldn’t all drink from the same water fountain and getting some sort of jumbled answer about germs the you-know-who carried. From a water fountain?

         Really? I judged them. I judged the know-nothings for what they were, not just willfully ignorant but hateful and frightened of losing their power over others. And, how as a child, do you love a family member and hate what they stand for? It was not an easy lesson. 

         Judging others is not so easy especially when you realize it involves judging yourself. At some point you have to act or become part of the world around you.

         The judgment of the Lord was a hard one for a baby, innocent of his father’s sin would become afflicted and die. David, of course, tries to change the mind of the Lord by fasting and weeping but that doesn’t work. How often have we when we have judged others received much the same response? 

        The contrast between judgment in the story from Samuel and the one I John’s Gospel is overwhelming. But the context is also different. Nathan reflects the judgment of God; the woman caught reflects the judgment of men. I mean, the law demanded both to be judged and here it was only the woman who was brought before Jesus. 

         In some sense, it’s easy to judge others. I mean, we do it all the time, right? But not so easy when the issue involves something close to us. We have to catch ourselves at times. Let us pray that we are more like Jesus rather than Nathan. 

        Let us come to God in prayer: You know our innermost thoughts, O God. May we reflect your love and forgiveness even to ourselves. In the name of him who always forgave. Amn.