Do you have a friend (or two) who is someone that can tell you the way things really are with you? I was fortunate in high school and college to have a small group of friends who could do that with each other. We could tell one another if an idea, an action, or whatever, was acceptable or not. We could tell one another if someone was out of line, being unreasonable, or had better get their act together. Often, we were brutally honest. But we understood that it was for our own good that something was said to us—not about us, but to us. Sometimes what was said stung, or even hurt; but we dealt with it and listened. That honesty played a big part in shaping each of us into the persons we are today. That’s what true friends can do for one another.
In the Gospel from Matthew today, Jesus has set up the Church—the body of believers—to function with the honesty my friends and I had. If one person in the church got out of line and sinned against another member, the other members of the church were to work with that person. The whole idea behind it is to keep the body of believers functioning as one, growing in faith, and working together for the good of all.
Dr. Will Willimon, a well-respected theologian, has taught at Duke University in North Carolina. In teaching a course on ethics, he had students present case studies of an ethical dilemma in which they were involved. They had to tell what happened, how they responded, and then the group analyzed their response.
At the end of the semester Dr. Willimon shared his insights with the students. He noted that when they were explaining why they avoided responding to some situation in which a friend was engaging in self-destructive behavior—dealing drugs, driving drunk, cheating on an exam, for example—they had a common response. They would say, “He was my best friend. Who am I to judge? I feared if I said anything, she would get mad and never speak to me again.”
Willimon told the class, “You give friendship a bad name. Aristotle made friendship the basis for ethics. You all make friendship the excuse for immoral behavior. Please, don’t any of you be my best friend. I am too dependent on somebody who cares enough about me to say, “You messed up. What were you thinking? How could you think that was a good thing to do?”
Too often we say something like, “Who am I to judge?” Willimon says it’s like saying, “I’ll stay out of your life if you stay out of mine.” We call that friendship.
We can become afraid to play the role of judge, so we say nothing when someone steps out of line, sins, or when society itself gets out of whack. When someone we care about is involved in destructive behavior it can be difficult to speak up. When someone in our church is being difficult or is getting into trouble, it can be hard to follow Jesus’ advice here.
Parents can play a positive role in their children’s friendship groups. When parents get their heads together and are not afraid to tell another parent when their child is getting into trouble or doing something that will be harmful, they aren’t judging, they are helping. They become part of the positive upbringing that can often happen in a small community where everyone is known. The community can also play a part in helping a parent who is struggling with a rebellious child. Getting involved in someone’s life in a positive way—even if it is pointing out a destructive behavior—is not judging. It is loving.
Over the years it has gotten to be accepted behavior to ‘stay out of other people’s lives.’ I’m not talking about being snoopy or interfering in someone’s daily life. There’s a line between being controlling, pushy, or demanding, and not judging someone else’s life. Being tolerant, open, progressive, even gracious has taken on the role of ‘staying out of other’s lives, so they stay out of ours.’ We hear the Bible quoted as saying, “Judge not, lest you too be judged,” and take it out of context. Before long, anything goes.
We judge everyday in so many circumstances. Jesus here is saying that we need to get involved in the lives of others in a way that helps them and grows their relationship with God in Christ. Jesus is saying that the loving thing to do is to care about someone enough to help them see the harm they are doing to others or to themselves through their behavior.
Working against injustice is making a judgement. Getting help for someone struggling with addiction is making a judgement. Stopping someone from defrauding another person, or harming someone, is making a judgement. Taking the keys away from someone who has had too much to drink is making a judgement. It’s not a sin to do those things. It’s actually a sin NOT to take action when you see a wrong being done.
Sometimes we want to be liked, or to be friends, buddies, or whatever with others so much that we are afraid to say something. Like the students in the ethics class, we’re afraid to lose a friend, or be understood as a hypocrite, or someone who judges others, so we say nothing. Sometimes we realize that someone we thought was a friend is not much of a friend at all.
Jesus is teaching us to be a force for what is right, to speak up when someone is going against our Christian faith, is sinning, or harming others. When someone has sinned against you or someone else, Jesus teaches us here how we can best handle a situation. He doesn’t say, just let it go.
Our faith and the Bible teach us to speak the truth in love. That can, and should, be difficult to do. We realize that we are all sinners in need of God’s grace and forgiveness. We are not acting better than others when speak up against another’s actions. Hopefully, we are concerned about the other person or persons and are acting in love and humility.
It’s always hard to confront someone, and we should do it with great care and prayer. It can also be a sign of love and respect that we care enough about someone to help them.
God bless you as you do the work of Jesus in this world.