Judgement? Not necessarily a bad thing
REMEMBRANCETIDE 3 | Heb 4:12-16; Mk 10:17-31
In the Chuang Tzu, the second-most important book in Taoism, we read the story of Prince Wen Hui’s cook:
The cook was cutting up an ox. Out went a hand, down went a shoulder. He planted a foot, he pressed with a knee, the ox fell apart with a whisper. The bright cleaver murmured like a gentle wind. Rhythm! Timing! Like a sacred dance, like a beloved song, like ancient harmonies!
“Good work!” the Prince exclaimed, “Your method is faultless!”
“Method?” said the cook. Laying aside his cleaver, he said, “What I follow is Tao, beyond all methods! When I first began to cut up an ox, I would see before me the whole ox, all in one mass. After three years I no longer saw this mass. I used to see the distinctions, but now I see nothing with the eye. My whole being apprehends. My senses are idle. The spirit, free to work without plan, follows its own instinct. Guided by natural line, by the secret opening, the hidden space, my cleaver finds its own way. I cut through no joint, chop no bone.
He went on to say, “A good cook needs a new chopper once a year, because he cuts. A poor cook needs a new one every month—because he hacks! I have used this same cleaver for nineteen years. It has cut up a thousand oxen. Its edge is as keen as if newly sharpened.
“You see, there are spaces in the joints. The blade is thin and keen—when this thinness finds that space, there is all the room you need! It goes like a breeze! Hence I have this cleaver nineteen years as if newly sharpened! True, there are sometimes tough joints. I feel them coming, I slow down, I watch closely, I hold back, barely move the blade, and whump! the part falls away, landing like a clod of earth. (Quoted from The Way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton)
Chuang Tzu’s point was that people suffer because they work too hard. The saw away at the bone and expend a lot of unnecessary effort. The oxcutter, though, sees the truth of the thing beforehand—he sees exactly where the spaces are, and cutting through nothing, he divides the ox without effort.
Seeing the truth of things is always salvific. We get some more cutting imagery in our reading from the sermon to the Hebrews when our unknown author says that the word of God is sharp, dividing soul from spirit, and joints from marrow.
This is a passage about judgment. Now, typically, we dislike the notion of judgment. We tend to gloss over it, treating it as an embarrassing episode in our Scriptures.
We eschew anything that is "judgmental" and we bend over backwards to avoid being perceived as judgmental ourselves. We loathe forms of religion that hypocritically judge people.
Judgment = bad.
But…that just isn't so. Another phrase for judgment is "critical thinking," which few of us would have a problem with. And to have "sound judgment" is generally perceived to be a good thing.
What we normally think of as “judgmental” is a distorted view of judgment. True judgment, righteous judgment, does not hypocritically condemn but simply tells the loving truth.
Sometimes, the truth is hard to hear, but it is always liberating. Take a look at our reading from the gospel today. A rich young man comes to Jesus and asks him how to inherit eternal life. Jesus quickly dispenses with the usual answers—do you follow the law of Moses? The young man does. What is so brilliant in this text is what Jesus says next: “So you only need to do one thing: go, sell all you have, give it away to the poor, and follow me.”
Jesus didn’t judge the man. Instead, the text says he loved him. Jesus didn't condemn the man. He simply told him the truth about himself—that his wealth was the one thing standing between his soul and God.
Without effort, without anger, without tears, without shouting, without arguments, Jesus found the space between the bones that held together life-as-we-know-it for this young man and passed his blade through cleanly and without effort—separating him from his illusions, from the lies he tells himself, from the one thing that holding him back.
Jesus does that for all of us, if we are listening. And what we hear saves us. Jesus said, "the truth will make you free," and this is what he meant. the word of God speaks the truth to us, and liberates us from our illusions, from our excuses, from the lies we tell each other—and ourselves—and it frees us honest before God, which is the only state in which real relationship, real intimacy, real oneness is possible.
Not too long ago, I had an experience in prayer—our group spiritual direction meeting, in fact. I led us in an experiment in prayer in which we imagined a particularly painful moment in our lives, vividly reimagining the scene—nothing to upsetting, but something with some charge. Then, I invited people to freeze the picture, and walk around the scene in 3D, examining it, looking carefully at ourselves and at the others around us, trying to see it clearly, objectively.
Then I invited us to imagine Jesus walking up to us, and examining the scene with us, paying attention to what he says, what he comments on, what he points out.
In my own prayer, I went back to the night I told my wife Kate that it was over between us. I remember sitting in the living room, listening to her scream in the bedroom. The door was closed, but there was no place in the house I could escape the sound.
Jesus knelt and looked at my 37-year-old self, sitting on the couch. "You look so sad," he said. He straightened up. "It is good for you to hear Kate's pain." He looked at me. "You did that," he said.
Yes," I answered. “I did.”
What amazed me was that, in my prayer, there was nothing of what we normally think of as “judgment” in Jesus’ voice. There was no condemnation. When I looked at him, I could tell that he loved me. He had simply told me the truth.
I have a lot of excuses and justifications built up over many years around how that marriage ended, but none of them would hold a drop of water in that moment. The only honest answer I could make was to say, "Yes, I know. I did.”
That prayer experience shifted something in me that is profound. I grew up in a very judgmental form of fundamentalism and I think I am more reactive than most to feeling judged.
What I learned in that moment was that I wasn't being judged—not in the way I normally think about it. Instead, I was really and truly seen, in all my mixed up messiness and goodness. And far from being condemned in that moment, I was loved. Jesus put his arm around my shoulder and drew me in so that I was leaning on him as we both watched the younger me, frozen in time, not with condemnation but with compassion.
I used to be afraid of judgment. I'm not anymore, not after that experience in prayer. I know that on the last day I shall stand before my Savior to “render an account” as Hebrews puts it.
It will still be hard, because the truth will hurt, I know. But it will also free me to let go of all the illusions that have always stood between me and Jesus—despite all of my best efforts—and I will finally be able to enter into the full and unguarded embrace of my one true love. I will finally stop pushing him away. I will finally—finally—know myself to be wholly and completely loved, messiness, sin, awkwardness, and all.
So… Judgment? I'm okay with that.
Let us pray…Jesus, you did not come into the world to condemn us, but to save us. Help us to stop making excuses, to stop pushing you away. Help us to seek the truth, so that we can see ourselves clearly. Help us to desire to stand naked and honest before you. For the truth will be told, whether we wish it or not. Help us cling to you, and not to our illusions and justifications. Help us cling to you, and let go of our ego and our pride. Help us cling to you, and to find you likewise clinging to us. For you love us more than we can know or imagine. Amen.