Thought for the week – A September Thought – 27th September
A few weeks ago, Tony Cant, the new vicar at Roxwell, asked people to read Matthew 7 and, in particular, to read it in the version of the Bible published as “The Message”. I did, and it has been preying (praying?) on my mind ever since.
You probably know how it begins. Or do you? It’s about judging. Buttonhole your partner or the cat and pass on the first sentence of that chapter.
Cats of course know all about judging people. We are all weighed in the balance by them and found wanting. So try it on the dog instead.
I wonder what you said to the dog. Was it “Judge not, that ye be not judged”? Or was it:
“Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticise their faults— unless, of course, you want the same treatment. That critical spirit has a way of boomeranging.”
The first comes from the Authorised Version, the second from The Message. Do you have a preference?
It’s the boomerang that is a problem for me – this one has come back to haunt me. Whatever Jesus said, for obvious reasons, it wasn’t this.
We don’t know exactly what Jesus said in the first place – the New Testament is written in Greek and he spoke in Aramaic. There has been some “reverse translation” which suggests that what he said often had the pithiness or balance of a slogan or soundbite. Certainly it was memorable enough to be recounted many years after he said it, as the Gospels were all written well after his time in the world was done. So in that respect the AV wins hands down. It has the balance of the repeated idea of judgment, the directness of the archaic negative – “judge not” much more powerful than “do not judge”, and (sorry to be technical here) a wonderful example of the flexibility of the English subjunctive. Modern translations have a choice: is it a promise, “behave this way to ensure that good things will happen” or a threat, “behave this way or bad things will happen”? The AV with its (sadly almost redundant) subjunctive gets them both, carrot and stick.
The main disadvantage of the AV translation is that it makes Jesus sound like a character out of Shakespeare. By contrast, The Message makes Jesus sound like an agony aunt in The Guardian. It sticks in the mind like one of the plays of Ernie Wise.
So what does “judge not, that ye be not judged” actually mean? Because it is also a tease.
At one end of the spectrum of possibilities, it presumably doesn’t mean don’t do jury service.
At the other end of the spectrum, is it one of those injunctions of Jesus like not turning the other cheek that we all find so difficult because it is ingrained into our psyche to do precisely the opposite? Psychologists tell us we sum up individuals instinctively in the first few moments of meeting them. It’s one of those skills, distinguishing friend from foe that is part of our whole primitive survival mechanism. Is Jesus asking the near impossible here, enjoining us to fight against an inherent part of our human nature?
And what is the threat if we fail? Condemnation? Most of us who watch Strictly will tell you that the verdict everyone waits for is that of Craig Revel Horwood, because he tells it like it is. Sound critical judgment earns you respect, man.
In addition, the very idea of being judged brings God into the equation. The AV suggests, in a way that The Message does not, that the act of judging our fellow human beings in a judgmental way puts us at odds with God and draws down upon us His judgment of us.
Notice what I am doing here. I am starting to “unpack” what Jesus said. To me, he seems to be saying that jumping to premature conclusions about people, always finding someone else to blame for everything that goes wrong, is a toxic thing to do. I can relate to that because it’s something of which I know I am guilty at (most) times. And I would say that it is something that is wrong with our society as a whole. So it does boomerang upon me.
And so I have come full circle here. Whoever wrote The Message has tried to translate what Jesus said into clear instructions to himself (I am sure it is a he, I type, jumping to judgmental conclusions) just as I have done, and just as I am urging you to do. So let’s be clear. We all read bits of The Bible in whatever translation we choose and we skate over the meaning. We have to stop and do what The Message has done and ask how each thing that Jesus asks of us is going to affect our lives, what we are going to do about it.
I don’t necessarily come to the same conclusions as the Messenger and you may not come to the same conclusions as me.
I leave it to God to judge.
As we read your word,
Give us the wisdom and insight
To hear and understand
Your message for each of us.
Help us to come to that word, and you,
With open hearts and minds
And to respond to it in a way
Which brings life and hope to others
And the glory to You.
Be with those whose
Hearts and minds are troubled
To the point where they are
Unable to see beyond their current anxiety.
Give them peace and hope we pray.
We offer these prayers in Jesus’ precious name. Amen.