Life Together: Benefit of the Doubt
My sermon notes of January 22nd, 2023, at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Washington, DC.
Our next foundational practice for building our relationships and community is the exercise of giving the benefit of the doubt. The online Cambridge Dictionary says that giving someone the benefit of the doubt means to believe something good about someone, rather than something bad, when you have the possibility of doing either. It’s a choice to believe the best of someone, even when we may have a doubt about their intention, meaning or justification. In biblical language, it’s thinking the best of one another and making every effort not to judge.
“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For the judgment you give will be the judgment you get, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.”
Jesus, Matthew 7:1-6
We Aren’t the Judge
The case for not judging one another is one of the strongest in our scriptures, and sometimes the most difficult to practice or accept. Again and again we’re called to stop our tendency to judge and to open ourselves to believing the best in one another. We just read it, Jesus commanded it: do not judge. He points out in a wonderfully comic way the fact that we’re all in the same boat… I can’t be all about pointing at and focusing on the speck of sawdust in my friend’s eye while I’m swinging a plank around from my own eye! It’s a funny and tragic image.
Jesus calls us to use the recognition of a speck in another’s eye as a catalyst to examine ourselves and take appropriate steps in our own lives. Now, taking care of the plank in my eye doesn’t free me to then judge, but in fact prepares and enables me to be a helper. Taking care of myself and dealing my own issues is never a license to judge, but a prerequisite to be able to help.
James picked it up and included it in his letter, asking us a good question: “Who are we to judge a neighbor and speak evil of them?” He offers I think a couple of good answers even as he asks his rhetorical question. First, it’s not our job to judge and pass judgement on others, as though we were the Judge and not under the same expectations and in the same boat as others. And second, we don’t know everything. We don’t know enough to judge people as good or bad and condemn them, speaking evil of them. We don’t even know with certainty what we’ll be doing tomorrow.
Oh, there will still times when we speak from anger, express ourselves in ways we don’t intend, or simply fail to love one another as we ought. Practicing the benefit of the doubt doesn’t mean that suddenly hurtful things and judgmental things aren’t ever going to be said, but we have an arena to unpack them, together. We have an opportunity to move forward, together. We don’t judge people, even for their mistakes, and we can move forward, past mistakes. We create the space for a couple of other foundational practices we’ll come to in February, asking for and giving forgiveness.
Jesus is famous for creating this non-judgmental space with the people around him. I wish his church was as famous for it. You probably recall the story of the woman we’re told was caught in adultery in John 8, and brought before Jesus to face judgement… only Jesus didn’t judge her. He dispersed her accusers and seeing in her what they could not or would not, sent her out to do better. He did this with Zacchaeus, a despised tax collector, a cheater and a crook who had swindled the people, but Jesus saw in him the best and said, “Let’s get lunch together. I’m coming to your house.”
This is definitely easier said than done, but I believe this is doable. I also realize it’s going to take a lot of prayer, practice and effort on our part. I think I was first pushed to consider the benefit of the doubt as a true expression of our biblical command not to judge, when I entered into spiritual direction almost 15 years ago with a wonderfully wise old Jesuit Priest in Georgetown, Fr Leo Murray. As we journeyed together through the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola I discovered the words that St. Ignatius wrote for spiritual directors about the benefit of the doubt, like 500 years ago. He wanted those giving spiritual direction to do everything they could to avoid judging the person receiving spiritual direction… even when the person seems to be way off base, wrong or deluded.
“In order that both he who is giving the Spiritual Exercises, and he who is receiving them, may more help and benefit themselves, let it be presupposed that every good Christian is to be more ready to save his neighbor’s proposition than to condemn it. If he cannot save it, let him inquire how he means it; and if he means it badly, let him correct him with charity. If that is not enough, let him seek all the suitable means to bring him to mean it well, and save himself.”
St. Ignatius, the Presupposition from the First Week
We’re not all spiritual directors or engaged in direction, but can you hear in the words of St. Ignatius the practices we’ve been talking about, and more importantly hear in our scriptures? How much more constructive and community-building might our conversations and relationships be if we more and more intent on believing the best of one another and pursuing the deepest and most honest understanding and comprehension of one another possible?
What hurtful words might be forestalled by believing the best of the person to whom we speak? What cycles of hurtful words might be broken when the benefit of the doubt is remembered and a greater desire to understand comes into play?
Pearls and Pigs
Have you ever wondered about the last lines from the Gospel reading today? “Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.” I used to wrestle with what exactly Jesus is saying in those words, and I was not helped by English Bibles which break those lines into their own section like a detached stand-alone piece wisdom. I think those words are very much attached to what Jesus has talking about. I believe that Jesus is giving a somewhat comic and tragic image of what it looks like to lose the value of the person in front of us (the pearl, what is holy) and to throw them to the destruction of our judgement (the dogs and pigs). Falling into a judgmentalism that forgets the value of the people before us is as crazy and dangerous as throwing our valuables before the destructive force of mad animals and expecting a good result. Our judgmentalism is a destructive wildness that will come back to haunt us.
Now imagine the community that deeply values one another and cherishes one another as the greatest of treasures! That’s what Jesus is building in us! Believing the best of one another, may we grasp every opportunity and make every effort this week to listen and understand one another. Can we have a couple more Bible verses? St. Paul says in Colossians 3:13&14 in the CEV says it this way: “Put up with each other, and forgive anyone who does you wrong, just as Christ has forgiven you. Love is more important than anything else. It is what ties everything completely together.”
Let’s go create cycles of love and encouragement! Let’s put the dogs in the kennel and the pigs in the pen, and keep the pearls around our necks! Let’s go into the week and into our homes and schools and jobs and make everyone wonder what’s going on with us, because we are lifting them up and treating them better than they might ever have imagined they deserve! Let’s go and do this so that they and you and I may flourish in God’s grace. Amen, amen and amen!
Be blessed, Rev. Todd