Being the pastor of a small church for the past year, here’s one I heard a lot: “Matthew 7:1 says, ‘Judge not, lest you be judged.'” In fact, it wasn’t just in that setting. Regardless of the setting, any time a discussion of value judgments and lifestyles comes about, someone in the conversation is quick to throw out Matthew 7:1. They may not know the difference between Matthew and Psalms, between Moses and Paul, but by golly, they have memorized Scripture, and the verse they chose to start with was “judge not, lest you be judged.”
Here’s the issue: no one lives this way. No one actually lives it out.
One of the most universally crucial skills in life making value judgments. We decide all the time to do what we calculate to be the best thing in a given situation. Despite the fact that this is reality, when people quote this verse, it is with a mentality that it is *wrong* (note inherent value judgment) to make any sort of judgment based on anything anyone else does, ever.
It’s a personal thing. It’s relative. Nothing is universally better than anything else, and to suggest so is equivalent to High Treason. But again, no one lives this way. Some things are just better than others. Let me give you some examples:
- Clean is always better than dirty. You might disagree, but that doesn’t make the statement untrue. If dirty were better, people would “dirty up” when they have company coming over. But no one does that, because clean is better than dirty.
- Nonviolence is better than violence. When stories of domestic abuse come out, no one rushes to the defense of the abuser. “You know, judge not. You don’t know what he meant by it. Maybe it’s how he shows he loves her.” Bull. No one assumes that. Because it is less virtuous to be violent than it is to express yourself through nonviolence.
- Bravery is better than cowardice. No one ever honored a victim of a terminal disease by saying, “it was a cowardly and timid fight to the very end.” Rather, every fight against terminal illness is “strong,” “determined,” and “brave.” Why? Because even if it were true, the former would not honor the person, because bravery is better than cowardice.
When we were in Muncie I got drawn for jury duty. I was genuinely bummed when I was not selected to be on the jury, because a) I am a nerd, and b) I have enough of an ego to think I would have been an A+ juror. It’s okay to admit you feel the same about yourself!
As the lawyers questioned potential jurors about their responsibility should they be selected, I couldn’t believe how many had “religious objections” to what they were being asked to do. The task of a jury is to determine whether the defendant did in fact (in this case) possess what the District Attorney alleged she possessed.
Time and again what I heard was, “My religious beliefs tell me not to judge.”
Here’s where the insanity lies. The lawyers were not asking for a moral judgment of the person, but rather a decision on whether the person did, in fact, commit the crime. She did or she didn’t. The jury’s task was to determine the likeliness of that fact. NOT determine if she was a bad person because of it.
This is a poor interpretation of this verse that is damaging to our culture, and it is unreasonable to ask anyone to live it out. Jesus said, “Judge not…” but then he judged many people. He condemned sinful action and praised holy action. In the vast majority of his parables, he made a moral judgement upon the characters therein. In one instance, Paul told the Corinthians that he judged them for their passivity without even needing to be there to hear the case, and then told them to cast out the sinner in question. As Christians, we are told to be “wise as serpents,” to “be on our guard,” and to “test every teaching.”
Clearly, we are meant to judge.
So what does Jesus mean when he says, “judge not?” A better way to say it might be, “condemn not.” Don’t condemn someone. We don’t have the power to judge someone’s heart and say, “because of ___________ you are going to hell.” We also are not above any other people, and don’t have the standing to act like we are better than they.
The fact is, life necessitates value judgments. We do it with our kids all the time. You tell them what is good for them and what is not. Again, we are supposed to do this. We are supposed to challenge teachings that the world throws at us, and lifestyle choices and world views and philosophies! We are supposed to be “wise as serpents.”
But what Jesus himself would not do is to make the final judgment. He didn’t come to condemn the world (although he did make plenty of value judgments). God the Father will be the ultimate judge, and our job is to put our trust in Jesus because he is the only counsellor with access to the judge’s chambers.