"One way to approach Lent is to try to discover our worst flaws and work on these to surrender, if you will, our worst character failings. An example of this is told by Catherine Marshall, who considered herself to be too critical of others. She gave herself a task to fast from critical remarks for one day, and she found this very difficult. More and more she became convinced that condemnation was one of her worst flaws. Also she scolded herself for being highly opinionated about politics, government, and people in public life. (How would today's news media fare if they tried to live by Catherine Marshall's standards?)
"Recently, in a book group, we held a heated discussion about Marshall's self-imposed 'fast from criticalness.' Some participants thought that critical judgment is not a failing, and that Marshall was putting herself through the wringer to no good purpose. Point taken. But does that mean that Jesus' instruction 'Do not judge' is not such a great idea? Is he right to say we should not condemn?
"When Jesus says, 'Do not judge,' he is not discouraging us from reasoned critical evaluations. Instead, he is warning us against heaping blame on others. Jesus lived in a religious culture that brought harsh judgments against sinners. Sinners were outcasts, and some were stoned to death. Religious conformity was demanded, and those who deviated from the norm endured harsh religious judgments. Jesus wanted to encourage a spirit of forgiveness and tolerance even towards those who had broken the rules. He did not condone their sins, but neither did he condone harsh judgment against them.
"Is it important, then, to get to work on our worst sins and try to sandpaper them away? In past times those pursuing a life of virtue might have made notes on every one of their failings and falls from grace within a twenty-four-hour period. Though this spot-checking has a long history, this kind of self-criticism may not be a good idea. Such a blame game even against ourselves seems based on a narrow understanding of God as a vindictive Being who is pointing his finger at us and keeping track of whatever we do wrong.
"In several parables, Jesus shows us a God who goes out of his way to forgive. The parable of the workers in the vineyard is a fine portrayal of God's generous forgiveness and mercy. Jesus compares God to a vineyard keeper who pays the same wages to workers who sign on late as to those who have been toiling through the heat of the day.
"Can we accept the idea of a God who is so merciful, so forgiving? Whose justice is so mysterious, so hard to decipher by ordinary rules?
"For some of us, this is difficult to accept. But I think the best way to let go of our own judgmentalism is to remember the boundless mercy of God. Rather than make a list of our own slips, rather than chronicle our own self-righteousness, we should let go even of judging ourselves. Instead, we should focus on the immeasurable love of God. To remember how deeply God loves us is to feel that we have love to give back, to others and to God.
"When we ourselves are struggling for a larger vision of God, when we want to expand our vision of God's mercy, one way we can do so is through stories told by modern writers in which God reaches out to hopelessly troubled sinners. Graham Greene is such a writer, one who may have seen himself as beyond the boundaries of grace. In Greene's world, sometimes called 'Greeneland,' we find a landscape of ambiguity and loss in which God is portrayed as mysteriously constant and faithful, even to those who have doubted and fled from him.
"In Greene's stories God's mercy is extended to spiritual lepers, those whose lives are infected with doubt, addiction, atheism, and despair. The mystery is that God does not let go of them, does not reject them. By showing God as present to these modern outcasts and transgressors, Greene's writing enlarges our vision of God.
"Greene's view of a loving God is not a license to steal or transgress. It's more like a modern version of Jesus healing the lepers when no one else would come near them. It's like Jesus dining with tax collectors and sinners when others kept them at arm's length.
"How do we let go of judgmentalism? Not by our own efforts, but by surrendering to God's grace. Not by knowing everything, but by knowing more and more about the mystery of God's forgiveness and love."