By Ray Jewell
“Judge not.” (Matthew 7:1a KJV)
This little phrase from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is probably the most often misapplied part of the Bible, especially by those who claim that Christians are judgmental. Don’t get me wrong, many Christians do judge people who are not like them. It would be a good idea for everyone, whether a believer or not, to take the time to look at this phrase in its immediate context, the larger context of this sermon, and in the context of the rest of the New Testament.
“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.
“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.”
(Matthew 7:1-5, NIV).
Jesus is getting at something we are all guilty of from time to time. Judging others in order to make ourselves look better or to justify our actions. “Hey, don’t judge me. I can do whatever I want with my body or my actions or my thoughts. I can hurt anyone I please, but don’t judge me.
That way of thinking is certainly flawed. First, why do we have laws? Let’s say, for instance, that we didn’t have those red, octagonal signs that say STOP. Life would become much more dangerous for everyone. That’s why we have things like stop signs and stop lights. And when those laws are violated there is a judge waiting to administer justice. Clearly that is the case in so much of life.
There are also laws of nature that carry consequences with them. Let’s say I eat nothing but junk food, obesity and other health issues are in the offing. And, in a sense, punishment is levied.
But it seems this passage is talking about prejudicial judgment that happens in relationships. The Jews, Jesus’ audience here, had many external laws that were abused and led to prejudice. People were pointing there finger at others, again in a way to make themselves look more righteous.
But Jesus would have none of that. His admonition, the one that we so often want to forget, is to take the plank out of our own eye before we try to take the speck out of our neighbor’s eye. In some respects, Jesus IS saying “mind your own business.” But in another way He is asking us to make sure we are not guilty of the same offense of the person we want to judge. By taking the plank out of our own eye, we can see clearer how to help our neighbor with her or his problem.
I think part of His point is that we don’t lump people stereotypically like “this guy’s black, so he must be a criminal.” Or this guy is white so he must be all about white privilege.”
The bigger context of the Sermon on the Mount, which those who say “Judge not,” is disregarded by so many. In this sermon, Jesus actually takes the law, (you shall not kill, you shall not commit adultery) to mean something even further than the action of murder and adultery, (calling a person a fool or lust). And He judges the thought life. Of course, He is the One who can. He is the Perfect One.
Yet in the wider context of the New Testament, the apostle Paul tells the church to judge.
“I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.
What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you.” (1 Corinthians 5:9-13 NIV).
This is what it comes down to, God is the Judge. Jesus calls us to test ourselves before we try to judge others. Then, if an accusation is valid, the church must act upon it, not in a cruel, destructive way, but as discipline to bring someone into the kingdom or restore them into the church.
Ray Jewell is a frequent co-host on the Basic Bible Podcast, the director of the Janesville Community Center, teacher at Rock County Christian Schooland the author of the Ray’s Rambling Blog.