Here's the fifth sermon to go with my devotional book on the Sermon on the Mount: The Wisdom of Jesus. If you're at The Gathering, you can find it at the Wesleyan Publishing House booth in the center of the exhibition hall. :-) The devotional goes along with the background book Jesus: Portraits from the Gospels.
The sermon notes for the previous four weeks of the devotional book are:
Week 1: "The Winner Isn't Who You Think" (Beatitudes, Matthew 5:3-12)
Week 2: "Love the Whole Way" (Matt. 5:43-48)
Week 3: "Who Is Your Audience" (Matt. 6:5-14)
Week 4: "True Significance" (Matt. 6:19-24)
And now this sermon goes with the devotionals from Week 5, "Authentic Love."
Sermon: Jumping to Conclusions
Most of us who are parents can easily think of a situation where we immediately jumped to a conclusion about one of our children that was wrong. Maybe we immediately assumed guilt when, at least in this case, our child was innocent. There are of course many movies where this happens (e.g., The Fugitive). There are stories from history (people wrongly lynched, "witches" burned). Prejudice is all about jumping to conclusions because of how someone looks or because you assumed they fit a certain stereotype.
Matthew 7:1-5 is about judging others. This part of the Sermon on the Mount ends with the Golden Rule, "Do to others what you would have them do to you." For Jesus, loving our neighbor captured all of God's expectations for us in relation to one another. Those who judge others in the way Jesus say, are not loving their neighbor.
Body of Sermon
1. When we can judge
Judging has to do with intentions. We often don't know why a person does the things they do. We see the action but we may not know why they did it. More on this under point 3.
But consider 1 Corinthians 5, where a man is sleeping with his step-mother. Paul has no problem drawing a conclusion about this action--the man is doing wrong and needs to stop. Paul "passes judgment" on this man (1 Cor. 5:3).
It is not judging in the sense of Matthew 7 to conclude that a confessed first degree murderer has done wrong and is on a path to hell. It is not judging to conclude that someone who has confessed to cheating on a spouse has done wrong. A person is not jumping to conclusions in such cases for the person has clearly done wrong. A concrete example from the news or a story from experience can make the point.
Although there are clearly gray areas and areas of personal conviction, there are also clear areas of right and wrong where it is not judging to conclude that a person has done wrong and where the intent is clear (e.g., when a person openly admits it). To draw conclusions here is not judging.
2. Judging with hypocrisy
What Jesus is especially concerned with in Matthew 7 is judging with hypocrisy. This is when you the same or worse kinds of things that you criticize or condemn in others. Psychologists have a name for this common human dynamic. It's called projection. Projection is when, usually without even realizing it, you criticize others because you feel guilty about yourself. You subconsciously try to make yourself feel better about yourself by putting down or condemning others.
Stories drive the point home. Tell a story about someone who accuse someone else of something they were guilty of. I heard one once about a man who was cheating on his wife. But before it all came out, he kept accusing her of having an affair. Tell a story from life, the news, movies, novels, etc that illustrates judging with hypocrisy.
This is a crucial moment of potential awareness. You might even pause and have everyone close their eyes to reflect for a moment. Ask them: "Who bugs me the most?" "What do I most criticize or condemn in others?" Now turn the mirror. "Do I do that?" "Do I have a plank in my own eye?" "Do I condemn others because I feel guilty about myself?"
3. Jumping to Conclusions
There is another kind of judging that has to do with assuming the worst of others when we do not have all the information. Because God requires us to love both our neighbors and enemies, it is something we must discipline ourselves not to do. When we do not know a person's intentions, we must be very careful about drawing firm conclusions about their character or motives.
What does 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 say? "Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres."
Love doesn't want to find out that a person's intentions have been bad. Love should not be stupid either, of course. "Wise as a serpent, harmless as a dove" (Matt. 10:16). You shouldn't have a former sex offender babysit your children, even if they are forgiven! But love wants to see the best in others, even when in wisdom you fear less.
Again, drive the point home with a story of someone who took a chance on having faith in someone when their motives were in question. Or you could give the opposite illustration.
End with some sort of a challenge, such as in the devotional for the week. Can you go a whole week without jumping to conclusions? When you are about to criticize, pause and examine yourself first. When you are about to assume bad intentions, can you stop yourself and suspend judgment. Can you live without knowing... because you really don't anyway!