Sunday, August 8, 2010

"Rich" and "judgment"

In thinking about the moral perspective issue I think that one issue worth keeping in mind is the range of meanings words are susceptible to. I say this because there are certain words in Biblical usage whose meaning can be read broadly or narrowly and which we choose can have a huge impact on how we see these issues.

Think, for example, of the rich as in, a rich person can no more enter the kingdom of heaven than "a camel can pass through the eye of a needle". Do we read that simply as a declaration that all wealth is bad and we are to live lives of voluntary poverty giving away everything that is more than we need?

That would be the "maximalist" interpretation and some people, including some very smart and good people, have read the demands Jesus makes of us that way. But it has to be noted that this maximalist interpretation depends on quoting a particular verse in isolation. If we read the Bible in the wider context it is plain that there is no requirement for voluntary poverty in it.

(Which is not to say that there may not be laudable reasons for adopting voluntary poverty. Someone might, for example, determine that the possession of wealth has a negative effect on their character and choose to be poor instead.)

On the other hand. there is an interpretation that reads the stricture as being more specifically against greed and readings such as Luke12: 13-21 from the 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time this year can be cited to back this up.

Anyway, when it comes to moral perspective the verse that can haunt us is the beginning of Matthew 7
Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbour's eye but do not notice the log in your own.
This is susceptible to a maximalist reading that we should not make moral judgments of other people.

And yet, if we read on, we can find lots of other bits where Jesus asks people to make judgments. At the end of the parable of the Good Samaritan for example.

Further, there is a logical problem with the maximalist interpretation as it would render moral judgment relativist, which is to say it would make  all moral judgment meaningless.

Just as we can read rich as meaning something more like greed in some contexts, I think we have to read judgment here as meaning something like "condemn" rather than as simply a juncture against making negative moral judgments about others.


  1. That's right, and the zealots or more extreme elements on both sides consider condemnation within the scope of making a moral judgement. As far as making moral judgements of other people, I think we all have enough to do to keep our own noses clean without concerning ourselves with what others are doing. As I see it, that's God's job and one less thing I have to worry about. As Mother Teresa told John O'Connor upon his elevation to the Cardinalate, "Let God be God."
    Cardinal O'Connor, wisely, took her advice.

  2. "Let God be God." My but that is wonderfully put.

    I tell you something else, I bet Mother Theresa would be praying for Christopher Hitchens if she were still with us.

  3. Going back to Cardinal O'Connor, he was the last Bishop of New York who was beloved by his flock. He turned St. Clare's Hospital into an acute care facility and hospice exclusively for people with AIDS. This was back in the '80s when people with AIDS were considered pariahs and in NYC all gay men. His Eminence didn't just talk the talk, he walked the walk.