READ : Matthew 7:1-6
“Judge not, lest you be judged” – one of Jesus’ most famous sayings. But what exactly does it mean?
Judging is both a wonderful and a necessary thing. One of the most important and respected professions in any land is that of a judge. For example, in an American courtroom, the judge is always addressed as “Your honor,” and we attach that same adjective to the judge’s official title, referring to him or her as “the honorable so and so.” We use that sort of language to indicate the esteem in which the office is held. To be a judge is to occupy a position worthy of the greatest honor. Judges who are honest and incorruptible, who interpret the law fairly and apply it impartially, are the greatest blessing a society can have. And conversely, corrupt or dishonest judges are the greatest curse.
But judging is also important for ordinary folks like you and me in our everyday lives. One of the highest compliments you can pay someone is to say that she is a person of good judgment. It means she has wisdom, shows discernment, has the ability to make the right decisions. So to judge in the formal, official sense is crucial for the health of a society, and to judge in the ordinary course of daily living is crucial for one’s personal well-being.
WHAT JESUS FORBIDS
Why then does Jesus tell his followers that they are not to judge? It is one of his most famous sayings: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” (Matt. 7:1). What could he mean by that? What is it that he forbids? Obviously he can’t be forbidding Christians from being involved in the legal system. He’s not speaking about judgment in the technical sense. Jesus is not addressing people in their official capacity as, for example, police officers, legislators, judges or other public officials. Nor is Jesus forbidding the exercise of legitimate authority, such as in the family or the school or the church.
Obviously Jesus must be using the word “judge” in a different sense here. And, in fact, the word does carry different meanings. To judge can mean to think critically, to distinguish, to see clearly, to make distinctions, to exercise discernment. All those things are involved in good judgment. Jesus wants us to use that. Everything he says in the Sermon on the Mount implies this, indeed, requires it. As the great English Bible teacher John Stott notes in his book on the Sermon on the Mount:
“Our Lord’s injunction to ‘judge not’ cannot be understood as a command to suspend our critical faculties in relation to other people, to turn a blind eye to their faults (pretending not to notice them), to eschew all criticism and to refuse to discern between truth and error, goodness and evil.”
(The Christian Counterculture, p. 175)
Jesus himself says that we are to be “wise as serpents,” and later on in Matthew 7, he talks about being able to tell the difference between false and true prophets and wise and foolish builders. To do all that requires us to judge.
But when Jesus commands his followers not to judge, he’s talking about another sort of behavior altogether. To judge can mean to recognize the truth and make appropriate decisions about it, and in that sense we should all be judging constantly.
But to judge can also mean
to condemn and reject people,
to criticize harshly and unmercifully,
to be prone to faultfinding,
to tear down, to speak of others with cruelty and ill will.
That is the kind of behavior Jesus forbids in those who want to be his followers.
There is a vivid illustration of this sort of thing in one of my favorite books, John Bunyan’s classic The Pilgrim’s Progress. Christian and his companion Faithful are arrested in the town of Vanity Fair and brought to trial on account of their faith. The judge’s name was Lord Hate-good, and the attitude against these innocent pilgrims was expressed in the list of those serving on the jury. The members included Mr. Malice, Mr. Heady, Mr. Enmity, Mr. Liar, Mr. Cruelty, Mr. Hate-light and Mr. Implacable. The very names illustrate what Jesus meant when he said, “Do not judge.” He is telling Christians that we are not allowed to behave the way so many do: hardening our hearts against those who are different from us, allowing hatred to control our actions and shape our words against others, giving free reign to our tendency to despise those who may be guilty of some sin, whether real or imagined, and indulging in the malicious pleasure of heaping scorn and abuse and condemnation and shame upon those who fail to measure up. Judgment upon sin is real. It does happen, but it’s God’s job to pass it, not ours. It is rather for us to say to others what Jesus said once to a woman taken in adultery: “Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more.”
Jesus’ command not to judge others is one more way of getting across what is probably the major theme in the Sermon on the Mount. It is a negative form of the teaching that we are to be merciful, compassionate, tolerant and understanding toward others. “Do not judge or you too will be judged “ is the flip side of the fifth beatitude, “Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.” It’s the corollary of Jesus’ command to love our enemies. It’s an application of the prayer to “forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.” It almost seems as though Jesus cannot find enough ways of telling us to be kind and gracious and tolerant, to be generous in our assessment of others, to be compassionate and understanding rather than critical of their failures, slow to blame and swift to bless. Jesus is telling us to live, in the beautiful words of Abraham Lincoln, “with malice toward none, with charity for all.”
WHY HE FORBIDS IT
And he also tells us why to live that way. Jesus suggests some powerful reasons why we should not get into the habit of judging or condemning others. The first reason is because judgment has a way of boomeranging:
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”
In this as in other things, God’s rule is that what you give is what you get. This is true simply on a human level. How we treat others is usually the way they end up treating us. If you are caustic and cruel and critical, then that is what you can expect others to be like toward you. It’s a law of life. Those who live by the sword die by the sword. The violent meet violence. Haters are hated, and the condemning are themselves condemned.
But Jesus is also thinking here of the way God will treat us. When he says, “Those who judge will themselves be judged,” Jesus is stressing a principle of divine judgment. God in his justice has determined to give us what we choose to give to others. So the merciful obtain mercy. If we forgive those who sin against us, God forgives our sins, but if we choose to harden our hearts, if we prefer to be judgmental, then God will judge us hard. Here’s how Jesus put it on another occasion:
“Be merciful just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
(Luke 6:36-38, niv)
There is something to think about. God decides his treatment of us by measuring our treatment of others. If we enjoy beating up on people with our words, then God will take that stick and use it on us. But if we are prepared to be merciful and forgiving, then God will show us favor. It’s your choice. Which would you prefer?
Another reason Jesus gives us for not judging others is that we are neither good nor wise enough to do that. That’s the meaning behind his colorful saying about the speck and the plank:
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”
Jesus’ words conjure up a hilarious image – a vain, hypocritical, busybody who condescendingly offers to take a bit of sawdust out of another’s eye while all the time there’s a great big log sticking in his own. The point is clear. We are usually not qualified to pass judgment on others because our own faults are just as bad or even worse. Isn’t it amazing how prejudiced we usually are in our own favor? We’re so quick to condemn others (“She has such a big mouth, she’s always gossiping and spreading rumors about people.”) for the very same faults we excuse in ourselves (“I just felt it was my duty to tell you what I heard about him. I thought you should know.”) I’m sure we’ve all had experience of how unpleasant this kind of judgmental hypocrisy can be. We know people like the fellow whom Mark Twain described as being “a good man – in the worst sense of the word.” There’s nothing more annoying than someone whose self-appointed mission in life is helping you become as good as they are. Jesus’ advice to us is: “Don’t do that.”
But this doesn’t mean we have no responsibilities toward one another. It doesn’t mean we’re never permitted to make an observation or to attempt to correct another person when we know they’re going astray, or that we should always just keep to ourselves, mind our own business, and not get involved in anyone else’s life. Notice what Jesus says. First take the plank out of your own eye, then you’ll be able to see clearly to help remove the speck from your brother’s eye. In other words, the kind of criticism he wants us to engage in first is self-criticism. We can and should help each other overcome our faults. In fact, we must do that, for we’re usually most blind to the things that need correcting in ourselves and can only see them if they’re pointed out by a friend. But when we do that, we have to do it humbly, as one flawed person helping another. We need to approach others in a spirit of humility, not superiority, and respectfully, not contemptuously.
Finally, says Jesus, there are some people whom we should not approach at all. “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs” (v. 6a).
That’s quite an amazing statement, by Jesus of all people! Just when we’re tempted to think that in the Sermon on the Mount he is being hopelessly idealistic, Jesus turns around and says something like this which is utterly practical and realistic. What he means is that some people are so closed off to the truth that they’re hardly even human. Some people are so indifferent to God, so insensitive, so hardened that it’s no good even trying to speak to them or witness to them or approach them. They’ll simply turn on you and all you’re likely to get for your pain is to be torn to pieces. So, Jesus says, just leave them alone.
The bottom line, as they say, is that Jesus is telling us that in our relations with others we must always use good judgment. That means don’t judge in the sense of condemning and rejecting. Don’t judge in the sense of putting yourself above others or thinking you’re better than they are. But do judge in the sense of thinking carefully, seeing clearly, speaking humbly and helpfully, and acting wisely.