The title we have given to these materials is meant to trip readers up ever so slightly. The premise most preachers take for granted is that they will preach about the evil of mass incarceration to their congregation, and it goes without saying that in most cases the congregants won’t be physically restricted. Most preachers do not preach to “captives” in that sense. Yet the assumption made here is that many of the sincere believers who come to church regularly are nevertheless held captive to some degree to ideas about crime and “criminals” that are part of this culture’s dominant narrative. That narrative insists that we lock a lot of people up in the United States because we have a lot of bad people here. And further, that locking them up has made us significantly safer over the past 40 years.
To use a word that our 16th president used most appropriately in 1862, we must “disenthrall” ourselves in relation to this narrative. White people in particular must look squarely at the hard-to-miss racial dimension within the narrative. And all of us must seriously interrogate the part of us that is content with a system in which we respond to violence and threat with yet more violence and threat: a way of engaging others that is about as far removed from the Jesus way as can be imagined. We must, in theologian Walter Brueggemann’s words, “emancipate our imaginations” in order to participate in the larger emancipatory project.
For each of the 10 preaching texts given here — one a week for 10 weeks in all — we provide some of the biblical context first. Then we invite the preacher to ponder a set of questions. And finally we suggest some possible homiletic directions.
There is no doubt that some of the messages proposed here will be hard for congregants to hear and thus hard as well for preachers to preach. We urge our colleagues in pulpit ministry to pray earnestly for their personal strength and courage, even as we pray earnestly for God to bless and sustain the prophets whom these difficult times require.
Past texts in this series:
- Luke 4:18-19 – Jesus Identifies Himself with Radical Liberation
- Luke 14:24 – Unexpected Guests at God’s Abundant Table
- Luke 15:11-32 – Welcoming the Prodigal’s Return
- John 8: 1-11 – Neither Do I Condemn You
- Mt. 12:1-14 – Higher Laws
- Mt. 18:21-35 – Forgiveness Without Limit
- Mt. 26:59-60 – The Trial of Jesus
- Jeremiah 31:29/Ezekiel 18:2 – No Multi-Generational Curse
- Hosea 6:6/Isaiah 58:6-9 – The “Worship” That Pleases God
Please note that the 10 preaching texts have been developed for use in Christian pulpits. Materials relevant to other faith traditions will be forthcoming.
V. Mt. 7:1-5 – The Measure You Give Is the Measure You Get
Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.
Matthew 7 is the culminating chapter in Matthew’s three-chapter account of the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon begins in Chapter 5 with the Beatitudes, including this most important teaching: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (v. 7). Chapter 5 ends with Jesus countering traditional “eye for an eye” justice with a shocking alternative: turn the other cheek if someone should strike you. Equally shocking, he also demands that we love our enemies and pray for our persecutors, saying that in this way only can we be children of our heavenly Father. Chapter 6 includes the Lord’s Prayer, which again sounds the theme that our focus should be on our own flaws and faults rather than the flaws and faults of others: “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (v. 12).
Chapter 7 strongly reinforces the Sermon’s consistent emphasis on withholding judgment of others and concerning ourselves instead with what lies within our own hearts. The language echoes the “those who forgive will be forgiven” principle: “For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get” (v. 2). But then Jesus really drives it home with a vivid metaphor, saying in effect, “How dare you presume to judge another accurately when you can’t even see straight—when you’ve got an enormous obstruction in your own vision?” He lashes out against the kind of person who operates this way: “You hypocrite!” The teaching ends simply: remove the obstruction from your own eye first, and then you might be able to see clearly enough to help your neighbor. In Luke’s account of the Sermon, the same point is made with equal vividness: those who are blind themselves cannot lead the blind.
Questions for the Preacher’s Meditation and Preparation
- How much am I bothered by what seems to us like the perversity of divine justice? Yes, Jesus notes that God makes the rain to fall on both the just and the unjust. Fine. But how does he get from that banal observation to the repellent idea that we should love our enemies and turn the other cheek? Is this really the only way we can be truly accepted as children of God—by being “perfect even as your heavenly Father is perfect?” How do I even dare to suggest this radical renunciation of judgment and violence to the people in my congregation?
- What obstructions might lie in my own vision when I think about people who “deserve” to be locked up because of the terrible crimes they have committed?
- What would become of public safety if we all started turning the other cheek? How is the practice of radical non-violence in any way reconcilable with the need for order and safety?
- If co-suffering empathy rather than judgment is what is required, what are the steps that can help me and others develop the kind of empathy and the kind of identification with the “other” that Jesus is talking about?
Possible Homiletic Directions
- Open by saying candidly that the standards Jesus sets throughout the Sermon on the Mount seem to us to be impossibly high standards.
- Open by praying urgently for the Spirit’s help in understanding such difficult teachings.
- Plunge directly into the enormous hypocrisy that now taints every part of our current criminal justice system, e.g. the very different sentences given to those who use powder cocaine as against those who use crack cocaine. Interrogate the lofty claim to “Equal Justice Under Law” that is inscribed upon the marble pediment of the Supreme Court Building in Washington, DC.
- Suggest that the entire Sermon on the Mount—all three chapters in Matthew and most of Chapter 6 in Luke—is really about restorative justice—about divine justice—and is thus both precious spiritual food for us but also presents us with a hugely demanding ethical challenge.
- Make the practical point that much of what passes for “judgment” in our court system is not only not compassionate but is lacking in even the most rudimentary protection for the accused person: that poor people of color especially—those without legal resources—are often forced to take bad plea deals by courts that are clogged with too many cases.
- Ask congregants to try a personal experiment for the next week: to take note of every instance in which they are internally judging, condemning, or dismissing others for their offensive behaviors. Tell them that next week there will be an opportunity to share what it was like.