01/10/21 “Giving and Getting”

Matthew 7:1-5

I keep a journal of my daily Scripture readings. In it I jot down my thoughts on verses that jump out at me, things that seem odd or raise questions, images that grab my attention in a new way. Often I’ll discover something that I’m eager to share with you in a sermon. When that happens, I look to see when the passage shows up in the lectionary. The problem is that many of the verses that interest me most never appear in the scheduled readings. That’s the case with our passage for today.

The part that especially intrigues me is the last half of verse 2: “The measure you give will be the measure you get.” This idea gets applied to lots of different contexts. How many of us have said to a child about their homework, “Your grade will reflect how much effort you put into this”? Or, to someone complaining about a lack of advancement in their jobs: “If you work hard, it will pay off.” You might hear these words in a stewardship message to encourage generous giving; it’s a promise that whatever you give will be returned in some way.

The Gospel of Mark even connects this idea to faith, where Mark reports Jesus’ words about hiding a lamp under a bushel. “Pay attention to what you hear,” Jesus says (according to Mark), “The measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given to you.” In other words, the more you share your faith with others, the more faith you will be given.

This idea of getting back what we put in—whether it’s effort, or money, or faith—is appealing to us. We’re a nation that believes that people are responsible for their own success, so if people are poor or stuck in dead-end jobs, that’s their own fault. All they have to do is work as hard as we’ve worked to have what we have, because hard work pays off. We can tell ourselves that our destiny is in our own hands; we’re not subject to social, economic, historical, or political forces outside our control. We believe that what we give, we will get back.

I don’t think that many people believe that monetary donations will actually produce a financial return on their investment. But, there’s certainly an expectation that something will come of it—an increase in public recognition, greater respect, maybe more influence. Why else do so many institutions offer “naming rights” for buildings and stadiums, allowing big donors to advertise their contributions? Why else does every performance of the Toledo symphony or opera begin with announcements of the names of their primary sponsors? People give, and they expect to get something in return.

These ideas aren’t bad or all wrong. We know that investing our hard work and committed effort in a job or a project does go a long way toward success. Even if we aren’t among those seeking recognition for our gifts, I think we all long for a sense that God has approved of and appreciates what we’ve given. We enjoy the good feeling that accompanies generosity. We’ve experienced growth in our faith that comes when we give ourselves more fully to it. The more we trust in God, the more we lean on Jesus, the more we listen to the Holy Spirit, the more willing we are to share our faith with others does often result in deeper faith. We may not care about having our names plastered on buildings, but we do expect that we’ll get something in return when we give our money or time or effort.

Our passage for today seems to support the idea that what we give will determine what we get. This is the part that puzzled me, because it leads to the question, “Where does grace ft in here?” We profess that salvation and forgiveness and eternal life are pure gift; we can’t earn them. We trust that we’ll be judged not on our own righteousness but on the righteousness of Jesus. We thank God that we don’t get in equal measure only what we’ve given. No matter how much we give, we get far more. How do we square this passage with God’s grace in Jesus?

The key to unlocking this puzzle lies in what Jesus is actually talking about here. He’s not talking about money or effort or even evangelism. He’s talking about how the way we live out Kingdom values will shape the way the world will understand the Kingdom. This is especially true of our attitudes towards other people,

Jesus refers to our attitudes toward others as “judgment.” There are two different kinds of judgment in this passage, and the Greek word Matthew uses includes both meanings. First, There’s the kind that we might call “discernment.” We size up a situation, we weigh the evidence, we consider what we know, we put things into perspective, and then we make a decision about what to think, how to react, how to respond. We can exercise good judgement, or we can exercise bad judgment. (Certainly, we saw plenty of bad judgment exercised in the past week.)

Exercising this kind of judgment is a necessary part of life. We are always making decisions and choices from little things like what clothes we’ll put on in the morning or whether it’s safe to go through an intersection, to enormous things like end-of-life care for a loved one. We couldn’t exist without making judgment calls, literally on a minute-by-minute basis.

Sometimes we need to exercise judgement about people. Can I trust this person as a caregiver for my family member? Should I hire this person for a job? Can I rely on this person to tell me the truth or keep a confidence? There are legitimate reasons for exercising the “discerning” kind of judgment about other people. But, there’s also the kind of judgment that is more akin to condemnation. This is what we’re thinking about when we say someone is “being judgmental” or “passing judgment.”

I’ve been struggling to decide where discernment crosses over into condemnation. I’ve concluded that, when we make a discerning judgment, we limit our assessments to particular situations. We consider what we know about a situation and what we know about a person, and that informs our opinions and our actions. Discernment begins with the fundamental assumption that a person isn’t entirely defined by one characteristic—like their color or their nationality, their economic status or political affiliation, their family history or even their worst day. Discernment depends on seeing each person as a unique individual imprinted with the image of God and capable of becoming what God has intended them to be.

We cross over into condemnation when we dismiss someone as being unworthy as a person. This is different from discerning whether someone is unqualified for a job based on their resume. When we condemn someone, we reject their entire being, often based not on facts but on our pre-conceived assumptions at worst and incomplete information at best. Implicit in our condemnation is the idea that who they are is fixed and unchangeable. We set them outside the limits of whom we deem acceptable, and we lock the doors to keep them out there.

Sadly, I can think of several times in my life when I’ve been guilty of the “condemning” kind of judgment. When my husband Marc was just beginning his law practice, he did some pro bono work. He was called on to represent a young woman you probably read about in “The Blade” at the time. Her baby had been killed by her boyfriend, who had thrown a can full of coins at the baby’s head. It was a horrible crime. The mother had been accused as an accessory for not protecting her baby from her boyfriend.

When Marc told me that he would be representing her, I was outraged. As far as I was concerned, she was an unfeeling, selfish monster who deserved the harshest possible punishment.  How could he represent a woman who would allow this to happen?

One night, as he was preparing for the trial, he came home with a cassette tape. It was a recording of her questioning by the police. He asked me to listen to it and give him my reactions, because I was typical of the jury members he expected to argue before.

What I heard was how the young woman’s boyfriend had cut her off from all contact with her friends and family. She had no money, no car, and no way to get in touch with anyone. She was young, poor, and uneducated, so she had no idea of where to turn if she did try to leave and no expectation that anyone would bother helping her anyway. Her boyfriend had threatened her, saying that if she tried to leave, he would first kill her mother and sisters, then he would kill her, and then he’d do whatever he wanted with her baby. The only option this young mother felt she had was to stay alive and try to protect her baby. Tragically, her efforts weren’t enough.

As I listened to that tape, I got what Christian writer and speaker Patsy Clairmont calls “a whuppin’ from the Lord.” I had judged this young woman, not on her circumstances, but on mine. I condemned her according to what I—a mature, educated woman with a loving family, financial resources, an understanding of my rights, and confidence in my own self-worth—assumed I would have done in her place. The fact is, there was no way I could imagine myself in her place. Until I heard that tape, I had no basis for discernment, and so I condemned her. After I heard it, I felt deeply ashamed of the condemnation I had heaped on her. I am  ashamed of it to this day.

Think about the people Jesus interacted with during his earthly ministry—people who were condemned by others, judged to be unworthy, unacceptable, unredeemable. There was the woman at the well, with her multiple husbands and lovers. Tax collectors like Zacchaeus and the apostle Matthew himself—reviled by other Jews as thieves and collaborators with the Romans. Lepers, including one who was a Samaritan. Jesus discerned who and what each one was and had been, but he didn’t condemn them. He saw them as worthy of his attention and love, and full of possibility. He saw them as worthy recipients of his grace. He sees us, flawed as we are, the same way.

That is what Jesus calls us to. He doesn’t tell us not to use our powers of discernment, but to use them wisely and lovingly, without condemnation. He calls us to first see our own failures, our limitations and weaknesses, our own biases and assumptions that prevent us from seeing others clearly. Then, he calls on us to offer mercy and grace—the same mercy and grace we’ve been given.

When he calls us away from condemnation and to loving discernment, he’s calling us to be nothing less than the human expression of the Kingdom of God in this time and place. Jesus first made the Kingdom visible on earth, and he calls us to carry on that work. we are to make the Kingdom visible through the way we live until he comes again. We are called to judge in the same way that we are judged—to be discerning without condemning, to offer mercy and grace in the way we’ve been given mercy and grace.

The stakes are high here—not just for ourselves but for the Kingdom of God itself. How we live—how we treat other people—will define how the Kingdom of God will be perceived by those around us. If we who claim the gracious forgiveness of Jesus lapse into condemnation, we will rightly be condemned by the world as hypocrites, blind to the logs in our own eyes as we dig around for the specks in others’. And, not only will we be condemned, but the Kingdom we represent will be condemned right along with us.

The measure we give as we represent the Kingdom will be the measure we’ll get back in how the world sees that Kingdom. When we live according to Kingdom ways, judging in the gracious way that Jesus judges us, the Kingdom of grace and forgiveness will benefit from what we give. It will gain the trust of others that the Kingdom of God is real and authentic, and that it is what Jesus says it is. It is our holy privilege to make the Kingdom visible by judging others in the way that we are judged—in the Kingdom way that pours out mercy and grace without measure. Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young