A Clip round the Ear

Sunday 19th July 2020
Year A, The Sixth Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Service of the Word
Matthew 13.24-30;

Looking back now, more than half a century, it hardly seems credible that I was brought up in a world of systematic violence. No, I was not reared in gangland but in a self-avowed Christian home and in Christian institutions where violence was routinely meted out without even a semblance of procedure to establish the causes of conduct which led to punishment. One of the greatest surprises when I got to university was that this sort of violence was not a natural state of things.

Of course, this was in an age when very little was known by parents, teachers or child carers about psychological factors, hormonal fluxes, the influence of parents and peers, poverty and plenty, on the behaviour of children. Children were judged on outcome, not motive, on appearance rather than enquiry. And this unquestioned freedom of adults to inflict summary violence went further than their own children, of those in their charge or care; this was the era of the "clip round the ear" which could be administered, without criticism, to complete strangers such as rowdy, juvenile train passengers.

Things have changed so much in my lifetime that when I am annoyed by unruly conduct in a public place my first reaction is to wonder whether the offending person has special needs, a term that covers everything from a disastrous upbringing to Tourette’s Syndrome. Never, surely, has our culture been more against simplistic, summary judgment.

And yet, if I were to single out one cluster of poor behaviours by my peers and I it would still centre on our readiness to judge on appearances and outcomes, not resulting in physical measures but still painful in other ways. Our culture is full of warnings about hurtful speech which can temporarily damage or permanently ruin lives. And I ask, on such occasions, what does the judge benefit from the harsh judgment except to feel just a little superior? And what benefit do such people gain from such a feeling of superiority? Perhaps, for we are now in an age where everybody implicitly claims to be a psychologist, people need to feel superior to make up for their own lack of self-esteem which, in turn, should not be the subject of judgment. And on it goes, over the horizon of recursion.

Our Gospel is a stark, black and white parable about judgment. Just leave the weeds alone, they are for the Lord to harvest in whatever way divine mercy determines.

Apparently paradoxically, this call to refrain from judgment concerns private behaviour but not public behaviour whereas the Christian tradition has tended to concentrate on the power game of moralising in the name of punishing personal "sins" while refraining from judging public "Sin", conduct by people who, by putting themselves forward as politicians, have volunteered to be judged at the ballot box and in public debate. Recently, Bishop Nick Baines criticised our Government for taking us for fools in its handling of the Corona Virus pandemic. We can decide for ourselves, or in debate, whether the Bishop was correct in his statement but the debate which ensued was not about the substance of what he said but whether he should say it at all. Many commentators, including some self-avowed Christians, cited Matthew 7.1 "Judge not lest ye be judged" to show that bishops should not judge the conduct of others. But that maxim in Matthew applies solely to private conduct because, a simple point but a crucial one, there was no such thing as political debate at the time of the Romans, so Jesus could not be referring to it.

All of which leads me to set out some rather simple principles concerning judgment:

Regardless of the theological necessity of leaving judgment to God, at a pragmatic level making judgments is hazardous. This is why, in the civil sector, we do not take the law into our own hands by executing private redress or revenge, but we quite properly delegate judicial functions to a well-trained, impartial legal system which institutionally agonises over difficult legal issues.

All that having been said, we are all apt to say things which we should not say. In his Epistle James warns us against intemperate speech and we should likewise warn ourselves. There is no day when I do not chide myself during my examination of conscience for intemperate speech because there is no day when I completely curb it. The worst of our faults are so recurrent that they are all but incurable which must lead us to unremitting vigilance. Which should help us, in the light of our own weakness, to be less censorious in respect of the weaknesses of others.

Let's face it, this Gospel can only prompt a wish for the weeds to be torn up by those who think they are budding grain, which is a warning in itself; but, as so often with Matthew, the division between grain and weeds is too stark. All of us are a mixture of good and bad but, overall, in spite of everything, most of us are mostly good, so we should be content to await the heavenly harvest, for ourselves, and everyone else.