You know how great a wrong it is to judge your neighbor. What is graver than this? What does God hate and turn away from so much as from this? Nevertheless, from things that appear negligible a man comes to such great evil. For by accepting a suspicion against the neighbor, by saying, “What does it matter if I put in a word about my suspicion? What does it matter if I find out what this brother is saying or what that guest is doing?” the mind begins to forget about its own sins and to talk idly about his neighbor, speaking evil against him, despising him, and from this he falls into the very things that he condemns. Because we become careless about our own faults and do not lament our own death (as the Fathers put it), we lose the power to correct ourselves and we are always at work on our neighbor. Nothing angers God so much or strips a man so bare or carries him so effectively to his ruin as calumniating, condemning, or despising his neighbor.
There are three distinct things here: running a man down, condemning him unjustly, and despising him. Running a man down is saying that so-and-so has told a lie, or got into a rage, or gone whoring, or the like. A man has already committed calumny if he speaks about his brother’s sins as if with sympathy. Condemning a man is saying, “he is a wicked liar, or he is an angry man, or he is a fornicator. For in this way one judges the condition of his soul and draws a conclusion about his whole life, saying it is of such a kind and condemns him as such. This is a very serious thing. For it is one thing to say, “He got mad,” and another thing to say, “He is bad-tempered,” and to reveal, as we said, the whole disposition of his life. It is serious to judge a man for each one of his sins. As Christ himself says, “Hypocrite, first take the board from your own eye, then you can see to take the splinter out of your brother’s eye.”
You see, he compares your brother’s sin to a splinter and your rash judgment to a board. Very nearly the most difficult of all sins to deal with is judging our neighbor! That Pharisee who was praying and giving thanks to God for his own good works was not lying but speaking the truth, and he was not condemned for that. For we must give thanks to God when we are worthy to do something good, as he is then working with us and helping us. Because of this he was not condemned, as I said, not even because he said, “I am not like other men,” but he was condemned because he said, “I am not like this tax-collector.” It was then that he made a judgment. He condemned a person and the dispositions of his soul—to put it shortly, his whole life. Therefore, the tax-collector rather than the Pharisee went away justified.
Nothing is more serious, nothing more difficult to deal with, as I say repeatedly, than judging and despising our neighbor. Why do we not rather judge ourselves and our own wickedness, which we know so accurately and about which we have to render an account to God? Why do we usurp God’s right to judge? Why should we demand a reckoning from his creature, his servant? Ought we not to be afraid when we hear about a brother falling into fornication and declare, “He has acted wickedly!” If you know what it says about this in the Book of the Ancients, it would make you shudder. For an angel brought Isaac the Theban the soul of someone who had fallen into sin, and said to him, “Here is the person you have judged. He has just died. Where do you order him to be put, into the Kingdom or into eternal judgment?” Can you imagine a more terrible situation to be in? What else could the angel mean by this words than, “Since you want to be the judge of the just and the unjust, what do you command for this poor soul? Is he to be spared or to be punished?” The holy old man, frightened beyond measure, spent the rest of his life praying with sighs and tears and continuous hard work to be forgiven this sin, and this in spite of having fallen on his knees before the angel and been forgiven, for the angel said to him, “You see, God has shown you how serious a thing it is to judge; you must never do it again.” This was the way he granted forgiveness but the soul of the old man would not allow him to be completely comforted from his pain and repentance until he died.