19“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see 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,’ when there is the log 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 7:1-5).
In the wake of the same-sex marriage ruling by the Supreme Court, Facebook was deluged with memes celebrating the victory. Two of the most common memes I encountered were 1) of Stephen Colbert wanting to read what Jesus said about homosexuality in the Bible, but not being able to because he never said anything about it, and 2) some clever picture of Jesus reminding Christians to, “Judge not…” Christians may have allowed the secular society to legally redefine marriage, but we should not allow the secular, unbelieving world to misuse God’s word as a weapon against his Church. After all, when Our Lord was tempted in the wilderness, and Satan attempted to use Scripture to trap Jesus, Jesus answered right back with Scripture. So, in response to the “Judge not…” meme, here is some Scripture which I hope will put the opening of Matthew chapter seven into some context.
At first glance, this opening passage of Matthew chapter seven looks like it is telling Christians never, under any circumstances, to judge anyone else, or those same standards of judgment will be applied to them. In a way that is true. Because this passage is used to bludgeon Christians into remaining silent in the face of sin, however, one must look a little deeper into the context to find out whether or not this is what Jesus was really saying. After all, this is the same Jesus who called the Pharisees vipers and turned over the money-changer’s tables in the temple. Jesus clearly teaches his disciples to judge. The issue is that we must judge properly, using God’s Word as the standard for our judgment, rather than our own personal morality or behavior.
Generally speaking, people are only familiar with the, “Judge not, that you be not judged,” part of this passage. What people often fail to recognize is that Jesus, in the same paragraph, called his disciples to “take the log out of your own eye,” so that they could see clearly to “take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” Jesus did not forbid his followers from judging sin. He called them to judge the sin of others (the specks) in the light of their own sin (the logs), only after proper self-examination and repentance, according to God’s standard.
The “Judge not…” passage comes at the climax of what theologians have come to call the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-7:27). Most people, even if they aren’t church-goers, are familiar with the Sermon on the Mount. It begins with the Beatitudes:
And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you,” (Matthew 5:2-12).
Throughout the secular world, not to mention American Evangelicalism, the Beatitudes are often understood as a quid pro quo. If you are poor in spirit, the kingdom of heaven is yours, so work really hard to be as poor in spirit as you can. If you do this, then you get that, or this thing will happen to you. Jesus, however, is not declaring here an ethical demand of his followers by laying out a law of behavior or attitude. The Beatitudes are not so much a mountain of law which one is to climb to be a better Christian, but rather it can be seen – particularly by your “old” man – as a mountain of law under which one is to be totally crushed.
Make no mistake, Jesus is certainly also assuring his disciples of God’s goodness, and the future blessings in store for them. The crushing weight of the law, however, must first bring us to see our sin and to repent of it. This repentance and forgiveness comes as the gracious gift of God through the Gospel. The Christian is simul justus et peccator – simultaneously righteous and sinner. My new man hears in the Beatitudes assurance of God’s goodness and future blessing; my old man hears law and judgment.
When we recognize our own spiritual poverty, when the Lord leads us to hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness, when He makes us pure in heart so that we seek to worship only the true God, then we are blessed, now and forever (Engelbrecht 2009).
Jesus goes on from here and continues with this theme. He tells his disciples that he did not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfill them (Matthew 5:17). In other words, man is still responsible for keeping the law. He tells them that unless their righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, they will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:20). At this point, I imagine the disciples would have been shocked. Who could be more righteous than the Pharisees? The Pharisees were the very definition of righteous. If, in order to enter the kingdom of heaven, I must be more righteous than the Pharisees, I must be utterly lost. For whom is there any hope then? I may not be perfect, but surely I’m at least a little better than people who commit all kinds of terrible sins! With that bouncing around in their heads, Jesus goes on to talk about sin.
Anger, lust, divorce, you think you know what those things are? Feeling superior to the man imprisoned for murder? You’re a murderer to, Jesus says, because, “…everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment (Matthew 5:22);” Feeling proud that you have never committed adultery like your scum-bag neighbor down the street? Think again. Jesus says, “…everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Matthew 5:28).” Jesus continues on, truly defining sin as God sees it, building to the climax of this section where he says we should, contrary to our feelings, love our enemies. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust (Matthew 5:45).” He concludes this section with these words: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48).” If there were left any doubt as to whether or not we are sinners, or whether or not we could keep the law and earn the kingdom of heaven, Jesus’ teachings here on sin should have put that doubt to bed. He has brought all of us to the same level – we are all poor, miserable sinners, condemned under the law.
In chapter six Jesus talks about good works and religious practice. He tells his disciples not to do good works as a show to earn praise from other men, but rather that good works should flow from them naturally (Matthew 6:1-4). He teaches them how to pray (Matthew 6:5-15) and, not ostentatiously to be viewed and praised by others, but in secret, as an outgrowth of their faith (Matthew 6:16-24). And finally living outwardly as they have internal faith, he teaches them to entrust their daily lives to God’s care (Matthew 6:25-34). It is only after this foundation is laid that Jesus utters the phrase, “Judge not, that you be not judged.”
Far from forbidding his disciples to judge other people’s sinful acts, Jesus is telling his disciples to judge by the proper standard and not as hypocrites. Kretzmann writes that the word used by Jesus in Matthew 7:1, which we render as “judge,” in the Greek implies personal, unkind uncharitable, unauthorized, condemnatory judgment (Kretzmann 1921). Christians must practice self-examination, and use God’s standard, rather than their own to judge the words and deeds of others. If you do not realize your own sins and faults, you cannot offer admonition to a fellow Christian. One who assumes the task of taking the speck out of his brother’s eye must do so with sincere love, deep humility, and the prayer “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors (Matthew 6:12)” (Engelbrecht 2009).
Jesus judged plenty but, being God, he did it in the proper context. In fact, the entire Sermon on the Mount is a judgment of sin, and the practices of the Pharisees. This is what he calls us to do as well. Jesus says so in as many words in the Gospel of St. John:
About the middle of the feast Jesus went up into the temple and began teaching. The Jews therefore marveled, saying, “How is it that this man has learning, when he has never studied?” So Jesus answered them, “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me. If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority. The one who speaks on his own authority seeks his own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and in him there is no falsehood. Has not Moses given you the law? Yet none of you keeps the law. Why do you seek to kill me?” The crowd answered, “You have a demon! Who is seeking to kill you?” Jesus answered them, “I did one work, and you all marvel at it. Moses gave you circumcision (not that it is from Moses, but from the fathers), and you circumcise a man on the Sabbath. If on the Sabbath a man receives circumcision, so that the law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with me because on the Sabbath I made a man’s whole body well (John 5:1-17)? Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment,” (John 7:14-24).
What is right judgment? What is our standard for judgment? It is God’s Word. St. Paul writes to Timothy the following, regarding the power and usefulness of Holy Scripture:
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:14-17).
To whom is this standard applied? Everyone. St. Paul, writing to the Romans has this to say regarding God’s righteous judgment, and how all men, standing on their own, would fare:
Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. Do you suppose, O man – you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself – that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed (Romans 2:1-5).
The secular world will always react to the judgment of its sin with hostility – just as we Christians often do when a brother rebukes us. We cannot expect the pagan world to live as though they were Christians. Moral criticism is necessary and religious teaching cannot be discarded, but it would be the height of folly to unload one’s religious beliefs and experiences, tender sentiments, and moral convictions on anyone that comes along, no matter in what condition he might be (Kretzmann 1921). We can, however, use God’s law to make men aware of their sin in all humbleness, knowing all the while that we are sinful human beings as well. We may not be guilty of some of the specific acts described by St. Paul in his build up to Romans chapter two, but we have all exchanged God’s truth for human foolishness (Engelbrecht 2009). When we see sin, whether it is the sin of another or our own, we should respond in penitent faith, confessing our sin, knowing that God is faithful and just, and that he will cleanse us from all unrighteousness through the blood of Jesus shed on the cross.
Engelbrecht, Rev. Edward A., ed. The Lutheran Study Bible. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2009.
Kretzmann, Paul E. Popular Commentary of the Bible: New Testament. Vol. 1. 2 vols. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1921.