Judging the Judgers

“Do not judge lest ye be judged” (Matthew 7:1-3).

Is it just me or is this directive a real stickler?  I mean, seriously, how can we not judge as long as we have eyes in our head and functional hearing?    For instance, if we see a guy with enough piercings to put an airport metal detector into overdrive, tatoos, long hair…the works, and opens up with language to make a sailor blush (what’s with sailors anyways?) isn’t it natural to judge him in some way?  Or the “lady of the night” we notice walking the streets and working the traffic?

Then, there’s the busy-body gossip and the sister-in-law who spoils her kids rotten.  Don’t even get me started on the womanizer that goes to Mass every morning — I mean, who is he kidding?

Well, you get the picture.  But what is a more difficult picture to get is how do we not judge these people?

Moral Relativism

The situation gets stickier when we consider that this Bible verse has been highjacked to excuse just about any kind of behavior.  “Don’t judge!” we are often scolded.  So what if the guy is on his fourth wife, and that’s not even counting all the women in between; who are we to be judging him? Or the same sex couple that just moved in down the block; shouldn’t we welcome them into the neighborhood the same as anyone else.

Those that want to live without moral rules adopt this Bible verse to say that Jesus approved of moral relativism–the I’m Okay, You’re Okay (popular book during the 70’s) way of thinking.  What’s right for me may not be what’s right for you, right?

It might seem to be a fine line, but there is a line. Anyone that reads the Bible and thinks there’s no ultimate right or wrong…well, it’s just not possible to come away with that thought if one reads everything.

In the context of judging, Jesus appeals to our compassion. He continues by saying “For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you.  Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceived the wooden beam in your own eye?”

It’s not a matter of recognizing right and wrong. Yes, it’s wrong to be married four times,  to work as a prostitute…and so many other things. But the point is that if we love that person, then rather than condemning them and thinking ourselves superior we should pray for them and if the possibility arises, direct them accordingly.  We must love the sinner but hate the sin.  Yet there is sin.


I saw clearly long ago through my work in social work and later as a writer interviewing people for stories, that surface impressions are just that.  We don’t know what lies beneath.  A woman I once interviewed for the Amazing Grace for Mothers book had been teaching CCD all the while having an affair with a married man. Yet, when I heard of the extreme abuse and neglect she suffered from having a mentally ill mother and mostly absent father in the Mafia, I realized that as scandalous as the situation was, she was working out her salvation and eventually came to embrace Catholic teaching and repent of her sin.

When Jesus tells us to remove the beam in our own eye, could it be that the prostitute that comes from an abusive childhood and never was taught religion, is less guilty than we are when we gossip or lie because we do know and understand the teachings?  Is our gossip or lie a beam and her prostitution a splinter in God’s eyes?

Homeless in Rome

Several years ago, Pat Sagsveen, a friend of one of my son’s learned a lesson in judging others while on the St. Mary’s High School senior trip to Rome.  He shared it in the Amazing Grace for Survivors book (www.ascensionpress.com).  Here is an excerpt:

Surrounded by my friends and classmates in our close-knit group of recent high school graduates, I happily conversed over a glass of wine. Amid the enthusiastic conversations going on around me, I reflected contently on my day. Our chaplain was also our teacher and our friend. His depth of knowledge added to an already amazing tour of the Vatican; the eternal city built on the ground where our first pope had been laid to rest.

We had all gone to confession that day, and I was thinking about mine. Rome, like all big cities, has its lion’s share of beggars and homeless. Having grown up in North Dakota, it was not something to which I was accustomed. My reaction towards the homeless surprised me. I resented them. Many were young and seemed capable of working instead of begging. They are just lazy, I thought sullenly. “Father,” I had confessed, “I just cannot bring myself to feel sorry for them.”

Later that evening as our group prepared to return to our hostel run by nuns, we walked through a political demonstration that transformed the streets into chaos. Keeping a group of twenty-five high school graduates together is difficult in any situation, but it became quite a task in the erupting bedlam. Our chaperons quickly herded us into cabs. Four of my friends stepped into one in front of me.  When I tried to join them in the small yellow car, I was told that there was no room. Reluctantly, I entered a cab solo while the chaplain explained in Italian to the driver where to take me.

I watched the city from the cab window as we drove into one street to another. I was shaken out of my daydream when the cab driver told me to get out in Italian. “What?” I responded, “This isn’t right?” I had no idea where in the city I was. With the driver’s insistent prodding I disembarked and watched as the cab drove away.   I did not panic though. I was fairly certain that if I could find my way to the Vatican, then I could find my way back to the hostel.

After about an hour of wandering by foot, I arrived in Saint Peter’s square. In the square, I saw a man playing a saxophone with a welcoming smile. I explained my situation to him. He was a Norwegian who spoke English.  The man told me he was also lost, although I had the impression that he may not have had a place to stay to begin with. I told him that he was welcome to sleep outside the nunnery hostel I was staying at if we could find it. So the two of us set off in the direction I believed would lead us there.

Before long, we arrived at a square I recognized. My hopeful enthusiasm waned, however, after an hour more of walking brought us again to the same square. “You don’t know where you are going do you?” the Norwegian said. He bought me a soda and then went off on his own to find a place to stay.

As I continued to wander, I arrived in a park where there were three teenage Italian girls, two of which spoke English. They offered me a ride, and although I did not know how to get to my hostel, I wanted to go back to the Vatican and try again to walk back. Two of the girls drove me all around the city in places I was sure were not right before they propositioned me. “Are you a…umm…are you a gigolo?”

“No,” I responded, “I am not a gigolo. Now please take me to the Vatican.”

For the third time that day, I was again in Saint Peters square, as lost as ever. The beggars, who I had looked down upon with disdain hours earlier, still prodded and pleaded for a few coins. The pigeons still fought each other desperately for crumbs of bread, and the people still rushed about everywhere. The square was still the same as it had been hours earlier, only now I was part of the street life rather than just an onlooker.   I gazed up at Saint Peter’s touring basilica and prayed earnestly to God that I would be found. I reached for my wallet which contained the emergency numbers to call in case something like this happened and realized it was gone. I did not know how to get home, and had no one to call. I was thousands of miles away and I all had was a ten-dollar euro note and a pleading prayer: Christ, I put this in your hands. If you want me to get out of this, please help me.

With my last ten Euros, I took a cab to the American embassy.. The Italian police stationed there told me that tomorrow was the feast of Saint Peter and Saint Paul so everything would be closed.  Since I did not have contact information for anyone in Rome, the police informed me there was little they could do. I asked if I could at least spend the night there but they said no.  Instead, they recommended that I find a park to sleep in. By now, fatigue and disappointment gave way to fear: How would I ever  reunite with my group?

I trudged slowly down the street in front of a five-star hotel where I found a park bench.  That would be my bed for the night. As I drifted off into a worried sleep I thought about my feelings earlier that day regarding the homeless beggars.  It occurred to me that some of the people coming in and out of the hotel might be judging me just as harshly as I had judged others.  Seeing a young, seemingly capable young man sleeping on a bench might bring forth disdain in them as they stepped into the luxurious hotel for the night. But they did not know my circumstances any more than I knew anyone else’s. It was easy to put the blame on them so I did not have to be compassionate or feel responsible to help in any way. Sometimes bad things happen to good people, and through no fault of their own, they are left destitute. Or maybe they have backgrounds that did not give them the security that I took for granted coming from a loving home.  I prayed for myself that night, but also for all those on the streets. While I did not know how I was going to get out of my dilemma, I knew that I would now look with more compassion on others from now on.

The next morning I walked up to the same embassy entrance and talked to the new Italian guards that had been rotated in. I feared the same answer I had received from the previous set of guards: “There is nothing we can do for you,” but with a prayer on my lips, I again approached for their help. I was told that just next door was a US Marine post, staffed twenty-four hours a day.  The marines put me in contact with my parents in the US who had a number I could call to reach the chaplain. My ordeal was finally ended through a phone call to one very relieved priest.

My trials in Rome were over, yet I now understood that what had been a traumatic and brief experience for me, was a daily struggle for so many.  I was homeless in Rome for a night through no fault of my own. I began to suspect that many of those beggars I had judged were not in their predicaments through deliberate choices of their own. Through my night of homelessness, I felt God asking of me:  “Now do you understand?”

Yes, now I did understand.

Patti Maguire Armstrong


Patti Maguire Armstrong and her husband have ten children. She is an award-winning author and was managing editor and co-author of Ascension Press’s Amazing Grace Series. She has appeared on TV and radio stations across the country.  Her latest books, Big Hearted: Inspiring Stories from Everyday Families and children’s book, Dear God, I Don’t Get It are both available now. To read more, visit Patti’s Catholic News and Inspiration site. Follow her on Facebook at Big Hearted Families and Dear God Books.

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  • I was on staff for a while at the local Dorothy Day House homeless shelter for men. On the check-in form there was a place for the man to write in a person for an emergency contact. More than once, I saw a man list a brother, a mother, a cousin, or another relative–and give an address right in town. The man was checking into the homeless shelter, and he had family right in town.

    I always wondered, what was the story behind this man’s coming to the homeless shelter when he couldn’t stay with his own kin. It was always a sad moment for me, and it taught me not to take for granted my own family, with their own foibles and faults (who have taken me in on more than one occasion). Every person has a story, and there is always more than meets the eye.

  • lousagsveen

    Yes, God really does work in mysterious ways! I am the mother of this young man in the story. I was home in ND safely in my home when this event began. There was a serious urging in my consciousness to pray, and pray as if it were urgently needed by someone. My nephew was in the last day of “Hell Week” for the Navy Seals and I assumed he needed Spiritual support. It was also our wedding anniversary. Throughout the day that need to pray continued, even as I fell asleep I prayed “whatever it is God, hear my prayer” Shortly after falling asleep we received the phone call from the US embassy, and the rest is recorded in the story Patty has posted here. When we finally got to speak to Patrick on the phone, he said: “God really has a wicked sense of humor! I went to Confession and told the Priest I couldn’t feel sorry for all the homeless and beggars, and then he made sure I became one that very day” WOW!

  • Joe DeVet

    I think it is healthy and necessary to remember that we are called to a duty of judging the objective morality of actions–our own and others’. The same Jesus who gave us the (realistic!) warning about the beam in our own eye, many times also invited us to “consider this case”–after which he would tell a parable, such as the one about the Good Samaritan, in which His intention is that we judge the actions of the players in the parable. We clearly are called to judge the good behavior of the Samaritan, and I would say also the moral blindness of the priest and Levite who passed by. In the Prodigal Son story it is assumed we know (by judging) the evil done by the prodigal son, and we are invited to recognize the goodness of the prodigal father and the wrong attitude of the prideful elder brother.

    To love the sinner and hate the sin, it is necessary that we recognize and call sin by its proper name. In other words, we judge.

    As parents we must point out where sin happens in order to give our children a correct understanding of the moral law. Sometimes this involves an objective evaluation of the evildoing of others. I’ve seen too many parents fail to give their children proper guidance by mis-applying the “don’t judge” dictum.

    At the same time we do our duty and judge the objective moral character of ours and others’ actions, we must not judge their human dignity the less, nor judge how they stand in front of the our merciful and just God. For who of us is justified except by his abundant mercy?

  • guitarmom

    This is a wonderful illustration about not judging those whom we do not know.

    Here is what I struggle with: Are we to judge those close to us whom we know are making bad choices? Are we to help them turn from evil? If we cannot judge, how can we help? Upon what platform may we stand if we cannot say, “What you’re doing is wrong, unhealthy or destructive”? To point out these things, must we not make judgements about the acts themselves?

    I remember a co-worker who, in criticizing her family, said, “Well, they’re going to Hell and I’m not.” Is it this attitude that Jesus forbids in Matthew 7?

    I struggle with these questions and ask for insight.

  • Guitarmom, I know. I wonder often how to deal with people I know who are making bad chioces. Like you said this article really is not about this, but it is another aspect of judging. Certainly your friend who felt she could say what others’ eternal destiny is was way over the line. Yes, that is what Jesus forbids.

    The things I am trying to remind myself of are:

    1. I am a sinner very in need of mercy, so I can’t look at someone else and say he or she is a worse sinner because I don’t really know what the responsiblities of that person before God are. Which leads to the next point.

    2. There is a secret inner self that each person has that no one else can access except God. sometimes people do horrible things for what seem to them to be very good reasons. and the internal motivations my be very hidden or complex. Also people are influenced by many things beyond their control, such as prenatal influences or even injuries, early childhood shocks to their system, genetic predispositions, even enviromental hazards, like exposure to lead and other chemicals that mess up their brains.

    3. I still think we should try to point out when people are on the wrong path and not be detered by the recognition that that this will often be a thankless endeavor, nor should we be scared of losing their friendship or the realtionship we have with them. Admonishing the sinner is a work of mercy and a part of our Christian witness. If we just seem to go along with evil, we damage our witness.