The boomerang effect

Judging others can have a boomerang effect, but so can treating them with compassion.

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The boomerang effect

November 9, 2014 – Matthew 7:1-12


            There is a story of a man who was looking for a place to live.  He drove into one town and talked to a farmer he happened to meet.  He asked what kind of people lived there.

            “Well,” said the farmer, “what were people like where you came from?”

            “Oh, they’re awful people,” the man replied. “Gossips, frauds, and cheapskates – I had to get out of there.”

            “Then, you’d better move on,” said the farmer.  “That’s just the kind of people you’ll find here.”

            Sometime later, another man came through town, looking for a place to live and ran into to same old farmer.  He also asked what kind of people lived there.

            “Well,” the farmer said again, “how were the people where you came from?”

            “They were wonderful,” the man replied.  “Kind, loving, thoughtful – I really hated to leave them.”

            “Then this is the place for you,” the farmer said, smiling.  “That’s just the kind of people you’ll find here.”

            The farmer is not being sly, of course.  He recognizes the truth that our own biases and blinders influence how we see other people and, hence, how we judge them.  How we see people is more a reflection of us than of them.


            Jesus knows this as well.  So he gives advice, not as to where we should live, but how we should live in the community where we are.  Just as in the antitheses – you have heard it said, but I say to you – and in the teaching about how to practice our faith – beware of practicing our piety before others in order to be seen by them – Jesus turns the attention from the outside to the inside.  Because the secret to living in community is not in focusing on the changes that other people need to make, but on the changes we ourselves need to make.

            Jesus first words of advice have to do with judging – “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.”  I don’t believe that Jesus is telling us we shouldn’t have high moral standards for ourselves and for the world.  He is warning against looking down on others.  That’s really a temptation to the kind of righteousness – self-righteousness – that he has been warning against all along.

            The second part of the sentence is in the passive voice – “…that you may not be judged.”  Often we assume that the passive refers to God.  Whenever we judge, we tend to think, God will make a note of it and we’ll get the same treatment at the final judgment.  But that kind of behavior has a way of back-firing on us in the here and now.  If we judge others – and are bold enough to share our opinions with others – they are likely to become defensive and give us some of our own medicine.  Or they will sense that we are critical and won’t hesitate to be critical about us.  “The measure you give will be the measure you get,” then, is not about future judgment but about present relationships.

            So how do we stop?  As he has done before, Jesus helps us out by giving us a vivid picture.  “Why do you see the speck in your own eye and do not see the log in your own eye?”  Jesus exaggerates to make a point, but it is a point masterfully made.  It is almost as if he is drawing a cartoon at which we are likely to laugh.  And laugh we should – at ourselves!

            For often what we do is say, “We’ll I may not be perfect, but that guy is much worse!”  We admit to having a speck in our own eye, but quickly point out the log in the other person’s eye. 

            But Jesus says, “Not so fast!  The log you see is actually in your own eye.”

            I think it’s not merely a matter of recognizing our faults and shortcomings.  It’s also a matter of recognizing our limited perception.  While we think we understand a lot about people, we really only have a snapshot rather than the full picture.  So, we vastly overvalue our own judgments about others.

            And this goes along with his next statement – Do not throw pearls before swine.  This is usually interpreted as – Don’t waste your breath with people who are so sinful that they can’t understand and aren’t receptive to your wisdom.  Or, “If you don’t understand the wisdom of what I’m saying, then that’s your fault!”

            But think about it – if a farmer feeds pearls to his pigs, and they don’t eat them, whose fault is that?  It’s the farmer’s fault!  Pigs don’t eat pearls and it would be unhealthy if they did. 

            “Don’t judge.  Don’t try to take the speck out of someone else’s eye.  Don’t throw your pearls before swine.”            These are all cautionary words about how we think is the best way to straighten other people out.  But they also contain within them a warning about the dangers of self-righteousness – that we criticize others so that we can feel good about ourselves.

            Now what do we do if we know someone who is acting in such a way that is hurting themselves or others?  You might ask yourself, “When I have behaved badly what helped me to change?  Was it someone lecturing me or criticizing me?  Or was it someone who stuck with me, someone who I knew cared about me, someone who knew how badly I had acted but refused to look down on me?”

            I’m guessing it was the latter.  So the question is, how do we become people like that?  And the answer is prayer.  Ask and you will receive; search and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.

            Now this teaching about prayer is not a general teaching about prayer.  It is not about prayer in every circumstance.  It is about the prayer of all of us praying together and working out our problems together.

            Let me read you another passage that is similar from Matthew 18:19-20 – “Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in in my name, I am there among them.”

            This verse is also often applied universally to prayer (or at least to small worship services!)  But Matthew 18 is about how to deal with conflict.  When we sit down together to work out our problems, and we do so in the spirit of Jesus – in the spirit of compassion and self-giving love – then we can be confident that, as difficult as things get, he is there.

            I think Matthew 7 is about the same issues.  When we are having difficulty together, if we are experiencing the problems of community, we should avoid judging and advice giving.  Instead we should commit ourselves together to prayer – asking and searching and knocking.  And that too is part of our witness to the world.  That too is part of our being the salt of the earth.


            There is an old story rabbis tell about two brothers who farmed together.  They shared equally in all the work equally and split all the profits exactly.  Each had his own house and barn and granary.  One of the brothers was married and had a large family.  The other brother was single and had no children.

            One day, the single brother thought to himself, “It is not fair that my brother and I divide the grain equally.  He has many mouths to feed, while I only have to worry about myself.  I know what I will do.  I will take a sack of grain each night from my granary and carry it across the field and put it in my brother’s granary.  And so that is what he did.

            About the same time, the married brother thought to himself, “It is not fair that my brother and I divide the grain equally.  When I am old and unable to work, I will have my children to support me, but my brother has no one.  I know what I will do.  I will take a sack of grain each night from my granary and carry it across the field and put it in my brother’s granary.”  And so that is what he did.

            This went on for some time.  And each brother was amazed that, even though he was taking out of sack of grain each night from his granary, his stock of grain was growing no smaller.

            One night, the inevitable happened.  While they were each crossing the field to deliver another sack of grain, they ran into each other.  At first they were confused.  And then they understood what had been going on.  They dropped their sacks and embraced.

The rabbis say that, at that moment, the heavens opened, and God said, “This is how I want my people to live together.

            And Rabbi Jesus says, “In everything, treat others the way that you want them to treat you – this is the law and the prophets.”