It may be the most often quoted and yet most misunderstood verse in the whole Bible. People who have never even cracked open a Bible have heard and quoted this verse. “Do not judge so that you will not be judged” Matthew 7:1
Usually that verse is used like a hammer to immediately stop any discussion about the rightness or wrongness of a persons behavior. Almost invariably if someone claims that a certain action or behavior is wrong, someone will say, “But Jesus said we are not to judge anyone”. The clear implication is that we can never say if some behavior is sin or not because we are not to judge. Sometimes these words are shouted out in anger and rage, “You can’t judge me!”.
What is possibly more amazing than the fact that so many people quote this verse and the concept of not judging, is that so many people could get the real meaning so completely wrong. This is especially true since the context makes it clear what Jesus meant by these words. When Jesus said that we should not judge unless we be judged also, he was not saying that we are to never judge if behavior is sin or not. What he was doing was giving us a caution to make sure that we are willing to be judged by the same standard of judgment. This verse is not a warning against judging an action. It is a warning against self deception and hypocrisy.
The way we know this is the same way that we usually know what the Bible teaches. We look at the context. The verse that immediately follow helps explain what Jesus was saying. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. Matthew 7:2 In other words, if you are going to say that what someone else is doing is wrong then you better be prepared to be judged by the same standard. If you don’t want your life to be scrutinized, then don’t judge others. If you can stand the scrutiny then go ahead. Think of Al Gore telling us that we need to cut down our energy use in order to save the planet and then finding out that he has three large homes and the carbon footprint of Godzilla. He needed to read this verse first.
Just in case we still have not figured out that this is not a complete prohibition on judging behavior, the next few verses make it even more clear.
“Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. Matthew 7:3-5
Before you ever start to tell someone else what is wrong with their life, make sure you take a good look at your own life first. But notice, Jesus does not say, take the log out of your own eye and don’t say anything about the speck in the others persons eye. That would be the result of never judging anyone about anything. Instead Jesus says that after you take care of your own stuff, then go and help your brother. So you are to help then with their issue but only once you have done a personal spiritual check to make sure that you are right with God.
We need to see this as a matter of helping someone, not beating them down. Jesus used the example of having something in your eye. In order to get it out, you often need the help of someone else to see it and remove it. When we see something wrong in the life of a friend we need to point it out and help them deal with it. When we do that, we are serving them, not condemning them. What this is really all about is determining if something is right or wrong behavior, sin or not sin. We can and should do that with a loving attitude and not a condemning, superior, hypocritical attitude. Pointing out destructive behavior in another person is actually an incredible and brave way to love your neighbor. We understand this when the situation becomes so serious as to require and intervention. How much more loving would it be to step in long before it got so serious?
There are a couple of final reasons why this verse cannot mean that we are never to judge if what a person does is right or wrong. First, Jesus makes it very clear that we are to forgive people when they sin against us. In the Lord’s Prayer we pray that God would forgive us as we forgive others. Well in order to forgive someone, you have to first, “judge” that they have done something wrong. The very act of forgiveness that Jesus teaches so clearly, requires that we identify some behavior as wrong. To fail to judge it as wrong or sinful in the first place, makes it impossible to forgive.
Secondly, the Bible is filled with admonitions that we avoid evil, flee from temptation, cling to what is good and lovely. In order to do that, we have to make judgment calls. We have to decide that one thing is good and another is not. We make these decisions all that time as a matter of course in life. We do it if we are a follower of Jesus or not. Everyone has somethings that they decide are right to to and others that are not. Every society and culture has these things and every member of those cultures has to think and decide, has to judge what behaviors fit the standard.
Bursting forth with the words, “judge not”, should in no way intimidate anyone from deciding if something is sinful or not. If anything slows us down it should be the warning from Jesus that we not be hypocrites who are unable or unwilling to live according to that same standard.