Re-thinking “Judge Not”

October 20th, 2011 by BEBlogger

Perhaps the most misunderstood and ill-used verse of Scripture is “Judge not, lest you be judged.”  We hear this from those wishing to deflect moral censure, as though Jesus is making a blanket statement against all judgment.  I’m convinced most people don’t even know where this is found (Matthew 7:1), but use it anyway to justify any behavior in which they seek to engage.

There are various problems with this interpretation of Jesus’ command, not the least of which is that it is a serious mis-interpretation. Jesus is warning against self-righteous judgment, not all judgment.  One is not to engage in moral censure until he first examines his own heart for moral flaws.  Then after repenting, he may rightly, though gently rebuke another for his sin.  Anyone reading the rest of the context (Matthew 7:2-5) would see this is Jesus’ plain meaning (cf. the Apostle Paul’s words in Galatians 6:1).

Ignoring this obvious meaning of Matthew 7:1 in favor of the popular misunderstanding leads to other dilemmas as well.  First of all, “Judge not, lest you be judged,” is itself a judgment.  “Is it wrong to judge?  Who are you to judge that it’s wrong to judge?”  If “judge not” prohibits all judgment, then judging the judge is wrong, and we’re caught in a logical absurdity.

Second, it’s a tacit admission of guilt.  Innocent people don’t say “Don’t judge,” they say “I didn’t do anything wrong.”  To avoid censure by invoking Matthew 7:1 is therefore a pretty lousy way to defend one’s behavior.

Closely related to that, accusing someone of “judging” does not justify one’s actions.  For the sake of argument, let’s concede that all judging is wrong.  Does that thereby free the murderer or thief to kill and steal?  “But Dave, murderers and thieves hurt people.  It’s wrong to hurt people.”  Really?  Who says it’s wrong to hurt people?  Who are you to judge?  And if we can judge here, where else can we judge?

Fourth, those who quote this verse in self-defense often use it as a pretext.  They really don’t care what Matthew 7:1 says, because they ignore everything else Jesus (and the rest of Scripture) says.  Why then the pious regard for Matthew 7:1 except to avoid the inconvenience of being rebuked?  I have much more respect for a person who says “I don’t care what Jesus said anywhere, including Matthew 7:1.”  At least he’s being honest.

Fifth, if taken to its logical conclusion, the facile understanding of “judge not, lest you be judged” would eliminate our entire judicial system.  We’d all have very little patience for a drug dealer who said, “That guy in the black robe; who is he to judge?”

Sixth, if Matthew 7:1 forbids all judgment, we cannot discern between moral options, nor can we instruct others to do so.  We tell our children “play fair, work hard, don’t lie, don’t steal, love your mother,” and so on.  How would you answer a child whom you rebuked for a lie, who replied “Who are you to judge?”

In reality we see the inconsistency of such a state of affairs every day in political debates.  Clearly judgment is necessary when making moral distinctions.  Interesting though, how those who invoke Matthew 7:1 in their own defense, cast it aside when ripping politicians with whom they disagree, or when they censure those from opposing political movements or moral persuasions.  “Don’t judge me, but by the way, Governor Dimwitty is a dishonest jerk for supporting policy ‘Y,’ and the ‘Coffee Klatschers are a bunch of jerks too.”  The reality is, we couldn’t even vote in an election unless we “judge” that our political opponent is somehow less worthy, less moral, less intelligent, less capable, less anything than the guy we back.  “I voted for candidate ‘X’ because I’m in favor of policy ‘Y’ which the idiot candidate ‘Z’ opposes.”  “Oh yeah?  Is it wrong to oppose policy ‘Y’?  Is ‘Z’ an idiot?  Who are you to judge?”  Hypothetically, perhaps Gov. Dimwitty, the Coffee Klatschers, and candidate ‘Z’ are all misguided fools.  But it seems rather hypocritical to deny an opponent with whom you disagree the same armor you use to defend yourself.  People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, but whoops!  That’s a judgment too.

Finally, the popular understanding of “judge not” sort of muzzles Jesus, who expended a significant amount of breath censuring others and calling them to repentance.  His command to the woman taken in adultery – “Go and sin no more” – is just one of numerous examples.  Unless we are prepared to label Jesus as a hypocrite, then we need to re-think what He meant in Matthew 7:1.

So friends, not all judgment is bad, and we all judge on occasion.  Jesus actually encourages judging in Matthew 7 as long as it is done rightly.  He does the same in John 7:24 where He says “Do not judge according to appearance but judge righteous judgment.”   Before judging, we must first examine our own hearts to avoid self-righteous hypocrisy.  That’s what Jesus taught in Matthew 7:1-5.