By Anthony Casperson
“I must not tell lies.”
For a number of you, that sentence alone is enough to conjure the image of Professor Umbridge’s comeuppance in the Forbidden Forest during the Harry Potter series. And the centaurs running off with the toad-faced witch as she fears for her life.
You might also remember what landed her in that situation. While Harry had told the truth about Voldemort’s return during the previous school year, Umbridge was among those who refused to allow that truth to spread. And she used her power to force Harry to write “I must not tell lies” over and over again as the pen also etched the same words into his hand. The physical harm inflicted was meant to shut up the young wizard.
Later, in the Forbidden Forest scene, the professor used derogatory language toward the centaurs and even tried to kill one of them. But after the tide had turned against her, Umbridge demanded that Harry tell the centaurs that she meant no harm.
And it is here that Harry throws her own words back in her face. “I must not tell lies.” It’s harsh, honestly. But almost anyone witnessing that scene cheers for Harry’s pointed words.
The professor had stood in judgement over Harry for the entire school year. Saw herself as perfect. No one else could do a thing to convince her of anything other than her own opinion. Rule after rule was hammered up on the school walls just so that things went exactly the way she wanted them to.
A little Miss Perfect sitting on her judgement seat with her nose in air.
But at that moment in the dark forest, it was her own rule that was thrown in her face. The fate awaiting the wretched witch was a result of her experiencing exactly what she’d been enforcing on everybody else. And so we cheer as someone gets what they deserve because of their own judgement.
However, if we’re honest, almost every one of us should cringe at that moment. Because, for as many times as we might be the ones in Harry’s position as a person held under the judgement of another, we are just as likely to be someone else’s Umbridge in the situation.
We sit on our own judgement seats with an unwavering opinion of the world, thinking that we’re Mr. or Miss Perfect, and look down on others who dare to defy the rule we’ve set up for our little world. But then, when we’re in the grasp of our own centaurs, we want the rules to change so that we can keep ourselves in our cushy position. We want harsh rules for others, while we remain unburdened by the punishment of any rule—let alone those we set ourselves.
Don’t believe me?
Think about the last time that you tiptoed near an overburdened person just to ask them “a simple little question.” When they snipped off a harsh response, what was your opinion of them? It probably wasn’t very kind. Likely, the fact that they needed to concentrate on something—and a single interruption could require a half-hour or more before they get back onto that roll—wasn’t on your mind. You needed an answer for something that you believed to be of equal or greater importance than what they were working on.
Yet, when you have been in the situation of having to concentrate on something—because some boss or supervisor has you on a dictatorial deadline—and a person barges in on you without regard for what you’re doing, all so they can ask a question that could’ve waited until you were done, what was your reaction? Was it a little snippy? Did you yell? Or make them feel bad about asking that ridiculous question right now? Or did you react the way that you felt the person in the previous example should have acted toward you?
Feeling a little toad-faced yet?
That just goes to show that we all have moments where we are someone else’s Umbridge. Times when our expectations need to be used back against us so that we can be slapped with the reality of what we’ve forced onto others. And we need to realize that just because we might occasionally be in the position of judge, we are not above that standard.
When it comes to the idea of judgement in our culture, the general consensus is that no one should judge. That as long as no one harms anyone—though no one realizes that what constitutes “harm” could be different depending on one’s system of epistemology—we should just let people do whatever it is they want.
And then, they all look down their noses at people who don’t agree with that sentiment. Y’know…judging those “judgmental people.”
(Did you hear my eyes roll right there?)
What’s worse is that some people who hold this “no judgement” stance sometimes use the bible in defense of their position. Specifically, they use a verse in our passage for this blog in our “Summer on the Mount” series, Matthew 7:1-5.
It’s the first verse on this chapter that people take out of context—using a perspective on the English words that confuses Jesus’ point, because the context tells us otherwise—in order to obfuscate their selfish desires under the mask of being godly.
That might not make the sense to you that it does to me at the moment. So, let’s look at the verse and its context so that I can explain.
Verse one is often translated as something like, “Don’t judge, lest you be judged.” This by itself makes a person think that Jesus’ words are a warning against judgement. As if a person shouldn’t judge because it’s only when they judge someone that judgement will come upon them. Their reading would be, “Don’t judge, or else judgement will come upon you.”
However, if you look at the original Greek of the passage, it could have a wooden and literal translation of, “Do not judge in order that you might not be judged.” How does this change things? Well, if you look at those words, it sounds more like “Don’t think that you’ll escape judgement by taking the judgement seat.”
No one is above judgement. We all have faults and failures. We all have our own blind spots and hypocrisies. And our choices are to try to fix—by the power of God—those inconsistencies of our worldview, or wait until the consequences of our own rules slap us in the face. We either admit our weaknesses and work to overcome them, or we get dragged into the Forbidden Forest as someone smiles while they say, “I must not tell lies.”
Some of you might be asking yourselves, “Anthony, how are we sure that you’re not translating the words just so that they say what you want them to say? How do we know you’re the one who’s looking at the verse correctly? After all, many people have used the verse to say precisely what you’re saying that it isn’t.”
This is where the rest of the passage comes into play.
In the very next verse, Jesus says that we will be judged by the same judgement which we pronounce upon others. And the measure by which we measure, we ourselves will be measured.
Now, if Jesus meant in verse 1 that no one should judge another, don’t you think that his next words would be the best place to continue the rejection of the whole idea of judgement? Yet Jesus doesn’t. As a matter of fact, Jesus’ words almost seem to assume that we will place ourselves in the judgement seat from time to time.
Quite the assumption for a person who just said to never judge, if that is indeed what he was saying in verse 1.
However, if in verse 1 Jesus was warning us that even the one placing themselves as judge is not above judgement, then the following verse’s explanation that we will be judged by our own standard makes perfect sense. “Don’t expect that you’re above judgement just because you sit on the judgement seat. Because we will all at least be held to the standard by which we hold others.”
But if this is true, what’s Jesus’ point here?
Remember, the whole Sermon on the Mount has been about Jesus explaining the ethics of the kingdom of God. He’s told us that our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees. We shouldn’t try to loosen the truth in order to give ourselves loopholes. And in chapter 6, he explained that truly righteous acts don’t come from motivations of the adulations of others, but rather from the motivation of God’s approval. Because we can’t serve two masters. One will take precedence over the other.
And here in chapter 7, Jesus shows another master that might just get in the way of righteousness in the kingdom of God.
The master of hypocritical judgment.
When we think that we’re prefect just as we are, when we place ourselves above the consequences of judgment, we will never come to realize that we have need of the Savior who leads us to the kingdom of God. We’ll assume our own entrance to that kingdom, only to find that the lies we’ve told ourselves have barred the way, while Jesus says, “I must not admit liars.”
However, if we realize our own faults and failures, if we work with Jesus to align with the righteousness of his kingdom, then we will not only live in his righteousness, but also be able to help others who need to realize that same truth of judgment.
And this is what verses 3-5 are about. How ridiculous is it for a person to judge another when they themselves have yet to begin work on their own issues? It’s like a person who has a 2x4 growing out of their eye socket going up to someone with a speck of sawdust in their eye and saying, “Let me help you.”
Not only would a question rise about how the first person could help another when they’re blind enough to not see their own problems, but also another about how much damage could Mr. Beam-man do while trying to “help” the other person. That log in their eye would blind them even more than their own chosen blindness that left it there to begin with.
It seems by the context, that Jesus’ point is that we should allow him to help us work on ourselves in aligning with the Kingdom of God first. And then, while he’s revealing truth to us, while we are in the process of seeing the world as our Creator does, we can be used to reveal the truth and consequences of judgement for others. It’s not judgement that’s the problem, rather, it’s the idea that we are perfectly above judgment while we try to “fix” other people’s problems.
And that’s true whether we’re the one with the speck or the log. Whether we’re Harry or Umbridge in this moment. If we haven’t begun to clear our own vision, how can we expect to help others see the truth?
No one is above the judgement of God. We will all stand before his judgement seat. Don’t let that be the moment when you finally realize there’s a log in your eye. Don’t come to the point when you have to hear God say, “I must not admit liars.”