01 Sep “Judge not, lest you be judged”: Misinterpreted Bible Passages #3
*If new to this series, please see the introduction.*
Today we address one of the most quoted and most commonly misinterpreted passages in the Bible, a verse usually cited to mean that people shouldn’t judge one another but meaning something entirely different:
Do not judge, so that you will not be judged, since you will be judged in the same judgment that you make, and you will be measured by the same standard you apply. (Matthew 7:1–2)
This is one of the most quoted verses in the Bible, usually in a context something like this: “Yeah, he cheated on his wife, but who am I to judge? Hey, we’re all sinners, right? Like Jesus said, ‘Judge not, lest you be judged,'” or “Don’t judge me—if you were really a Christian you’d listen to Jesus when he said, ‘judge not.'” That is, the verse is often marshaled in order to defend against any declaration that a given person’s behavior is wrong—quite often marshaled by the person in question. Effectively, when quoted as such, the verse is understood as a prohibition against declaring any specific action wrong, since doing so would mean “judging” someone.
Often this verse is thrown around after some church figure (like Ted Haggard, for example) is found to be doing the very things he thundered against in the pulpit. “See,” it is said, “he shouldn’t have judged—he’s no better than anyone else.” Though this latter interpretation is often considered to be an extension of the former, the first interpretation entirely misses the point of the passage while the latter one nails it dead center. Despite how it appears if one stops reading after the first verse, this passage in Matthew is not forbidding judgment but hypocrisy. Yet again, we find that a text without a context is a pretext—the primary exegetical fault leading to misinterpretation is neglecting to read closely the surrounding section of a key verse.
Jesus follows up his warning against judgment with an explanation—we will all be judged by the same measure that we use. If we cannot hold to the standard we use, we have no business applying that standard to others. There are two possible responses to this statement: one, operating under the assumption that no one can possibly live up to a high standard, holds to the interpretation mentioned above that no one should ever judge anyone else, since we’re all sinners. The second possibility is that we should all amend our own behavior and live properly before exercising judgment and helping others to do the same.
The former is a popular option in today’s culture, which emphasizes “tolerance” as one of the highest virtues, while the latter is the choice actually made in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus rebukes the hearer in the verses immediately following the ones we’re discussing,
Why do you see the splinter in your brother’s eye but do not notice the log in your own eye? … You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly enough to take the splinter out of your brother’s eye. (Matt 7:3, 5)
There are several things to note here: the first is Jesus’ wry observation about perspective. The closer an object gets to the eye, the larger it appears—a splinter from afar is log-sized if it’s in one’s eye. So a fault in one’s own life is a far greater problem than the same fault in another’s life—the opposite of how we tend to think. But the point of the passage is to shut up only until one corrects one’s own life. And, contrary to much subsequent Christian theological development, the Matthean Jesus actually expects that a person can do so, ultimately living in a righteous manner. (This would often be labeled “self-righteousness” today, though it is simply called “righteousness” in Matthew.)
The second thing worthy of note is Jesus point that only after correcting one’s own behavior will one see clearly enough to make adequate judgments and help anyone else correct his/her own behavior. This is a recognition of the human tendency to judge based on our own heart; that is, we tend to see ourselves in others. (The postmodern recognition of essential subjectivity is closely related to this concept.) Just like a man with a splinter in his eye, we see that splinter (only much larger than it really is—as a beam) everywhere we look. If we are arrogant, we tend to see arrogance in other people. If we are cruel, we tend to suspect cruelty in others. If we are lecherous (an outstanding and underused word—isn’t that a great word, “lecherous”? Even better is the noun, “lecher,” as in “you filthy lecher!”), we tend to suspect sexual motives, desires, or behaviors in others. It is extraordinarily hard for us to break out of ourselves enough to truly empathize, seeing from another’s viewpoint, and Jesus makes the case that it is far harder—perhaps impossible—to do so when we are not pure hearted ourselves. As long as we hold to our own faults, we will see them in everyone else. But, as Titus 1:15 says, “to the pure everything is pure.”
So the passage is actually a condemnation of hypocrisy, not judgment. Jesus’ counsel is to tend to our own behavior and attitudes before attempting to help anyone else. If we attempt to judge before doing so, our judgment will be flawed by our own “splinters.” But the passage is in no way forbidding judgment. On the contrary, it asserts that judgment, like charity, begins at home.
It is extraordinarily ironic that this passage therefore condemns those who most vigorously accuse others of “judging,” since they are themselves condemning condemnation—the very hypocrisy the passage condemns! The very judgment they condemn is precisely what they themselves are doing—they see their own splinter in the eyes of those around them. This passage would say to them, “Don’t forbid others from judging while condemning their judgment or right to judge! You hypocrites! Far from forbidding judgment, you have made yourselves the chief justices!” The whole point is that Jesus here rebukes those who judge others for doing what they themselves do—like negatively judging someone for being judgmental.
In the immediately following verse, Jesus requires good judgment: “Don’t give what is holy to the dogs, nor throw your pearls before swine.” Wouldn’t this require identifying who the “dogs” and “swine” are? What about identifying the “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” whom we “will know from their fruits” in 7:15–20? Elsewhere in Matthew (chapter 18), Jesus lays out guidelines for dealing with a “brother who sins,” involving a progression from showing him his error in private to taking the matter before the whole community. In the same vein, Paul repeatedly emphasizes the church’s responsibility to judge its members (though, interestingly, not the world; cf. 1 Cor 5–6, et al.).
One thing that is often ignored in the “judge not” discussion is that judgment also involves (in fact starts with) a declaration of what is good. If we do not judge, we cannot praise anything any more than we can condemn it. Judgment involves making the distinction between good, bad, or indifferent, not simply declaring something to be bad. In fact, it is impossible to go through life without judging; every decision we make implies a particular value judgment underlying it. As such, in its common usage, the “don’t judge” mentality often actually means, “judge this as right and good!” While it is true that some things do not require a distinct judgment, others do require a position, and to take no position is to judge it affirmatively (tolerance of adultery is implicit acceptance of it, for example). Surely no one would assume that murder should be ignored and not condemned! Any society abiding by the “don’t judge” mantra would soon devolve into utter chaos.
Secondly, without judgment (and specifically negative judgment), forgiveness is impossible. Forgiveness assumes a previous negative judgment that is superseded by the extension of mercy towards another—and Jesus requires that people forgive one another as they have been forgiven themselves (by God). Again, this both assumes judgment and encourages a merciful response.
Thirdly, the actual message of this passage—deal with one’s own sins before looking at anyone else’s, since good judgment requires a pure heart—is critically important for understanding the rest of Matthew and even the Christian life itself. Likewise, it is critical to understand that Matthew’s Jesus emphasizes repentance and right action and assumes that once these things are in place, good judgment can be made and is in fact necessary. No one should ever let himself/herself be shouted down by cries of “don’t judge,” or accusations of being “self-righteous,” since such quotes out of context do damage to the intent of the passage as a pretext for defending behavior.
In summary, in this passage Jesus warns of the human tendency to judge based on our own faults and flaws. This warning is one that should be considered before any assumption about another’s behavior or intentions. Instead, the passage asserts that we should always examine ourselves first to see if the splinter we see is actually affixed to our own eye—and only if our eye is clean can we trust our judgment enough to begin the process of helping remove the offense from anyone else. This is an incredibly important point, both emphasizing the importance of good judgment and the steps necessary to acquire it.