Matthew 7:1-5 and Luke 6:37-38
In a recent book by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons called UnChristian, they gave a survey to 440 persons who where not Christians to see what they thought of Christians. In one of the questions, they listed unfavorable words to describe Christians and asked them to check the word if it described present day Christianity. 87% said that “judgmental” described some or a lot of Christians.[i] One of the quotes from an interviewee said, “Christians like to hear themselves talk. They are arrogant about their beliefs, but they never bother to figure out what other people actually think. They don’t seem to be very compassionate, especially when they feel strongly about something.”[ii]
I am not sure it took a book to discover that Christians can be judgmental. I am sure we have all heard stories of Christians being judgmental and we have all heard or even said similar comments as the one quoted above. I am also sure that Christians are not the only group of people who struggle with being judgmental. When I take a hard look at myself, I can see that there are times when I am judgmental. So, what does Jesus have to say about being judgmental?
Before we look closely at these two texts in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, it may be helpful to understand some about how religious life functioned for Jews in Jesus’ days. In Jesus’ day, religion defined everything in terms of its purity system. The closer something was to God, the purer it was so that to be close to God meant a person must be pure. There was a system in place to help people know how to remain pure so that something was either pure or it was impure. There were laws about which foods to eat, how to eat, what to wear, cleanliness, etc. If a person followed all these laws, then they were judged to be pure. If they violated these laws, they were considered to be impure.
Another piece of the cleanliness code was that holiness and purity went together. If a person was disfigured, handicapped, or sick, they were considered to be impure. Since to be pure was to be Godly, the sick or handicapped, sin began to be associated with sickness. If a person was sick or paralyzed, it was thought, they were this way because they were sinful. In other words, outward appearances brought judgment to people as being either Godly or sinful.[iii] As a result, people were categorized into person who were deserving of God’s grace and those who are not.
In a similar way, we have ways in which we judge people. We oftentimes use criteria like outward appearances, religious beliefs and practices, ethnicity, etc. Generally, we judge people as being good or bad based upon our own expectations about the way things should. Like those in Jesus’ day, we play the role of God in determining who is righteous and who sinners are, who is deserving of God’s grace and who isn’t. We judge people’s lives to see if they live up to our standards.
Offering Grace rather than Judgment
In Matthew and Luke, we have two sermons preached by Jesus. In Matthew, it is called, “The Sermon on the Mount” and in Luke it is called “The Sermon on the Plain.” Matthew’s account says,
“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is 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 neighbor’s eye.[iv]
The Luke account is longer, adding a rhetorical question about the blind leading the blind,
Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back." He also told them a parable: "Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit? A disciple is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully qualified will be like the teacher. 41 Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, 'Friend, let me take out the speck in your eye,' when you yourself do not see 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 neighbor's eye.[v]
In the sermons recorded in Matthew and Luke, Jesus addressed passing judgment in this way by going right to the heart of the issue. He says in books, “Do not judge and you will not be judged.” Notice the negative comparisons he uses.
(1) If you judge, you will be judged
(2) Do not condemn and you will not be condemned
He then follows this up by saying two positive comparisons.
(1) If you forgive, you will be forgiven
(2) Give and it will be given to you
Luke summarizes these four statements by saying that the measure we give will be given back. If we judge others, God will judge us in the same way we judge others. If we forgive then God will forgive us. Matthew and Luke both seem to hold a theology of reciprocation. This means that when we do something it comes back to us. If we do something positive, it comes back positively, but if we do something negative, it comes back negatively. The gospel writers are not saying that Jesus believed in Karma so much as they are saying God is the ultimate judge who judges our actions. God can use whatever standard he sees fit, so if God sees us being judgmental, God will use this same standard.
When Luke refers to forgiveness, I think he has more in mind that just forgiving when someone wrongs us. I think he is referring to “releasing people from the expectations that you have set for them.”[vi] When we can release people from this expectation, then we experience God’s mercy in our lives for the times that we fall short of meeting his expectation.
On a personal note, I have often found myself being judgmental when it comes to listening to sermons. I love to preach sermons, but sometimes I have a hard time listening to sermons by other people because I want to critique everything in it. Sometimes I will get very nitpicky and critique words or phrases that seem to be “bad theology.” On several occasions I have caught myself and had this thought, “What would you feel like if other person judged your sermons as harshly as you judge theirs.” That is a very sobering thought, but that is what Jesus is reminding us as the consequence for judging other people.
Instead, I want people to think I am a great preacher and to forgive my “bad theology” when it occurs.” I want my wife to forgive my bad math every time I use it in a sermon. I hope the English majors out there can forgive my bad grammar or my spelling mistakes on the power point when they occur. If that is what I want, Jesus is telling me that I need to have this same grace and forgiveness when I see other people falling short.
Being Discerning, Not Judging
Jesus goes on in both the Matthew and Luke text to say that oftentimes we are so focused on the speck in the eyes of others that we miss the log in our own. In other words, we are so quick to judge the fault in everyone else that we miss our own faults. Jesus gives us some good advice. He tells us to take care of our own faults before we try to fix those around us.
We often struggle to find the balance between “being discerning” and “being judgmental.” Jesus is warning us not to be judgmental on the one hand and not overly tolerant on the other. Notice that while Jesus tells that we need to first deal with the log in our own eye, he still tells us that we should help others with the speck in their eye. Our culture in some ways have gone too far in the direction of being “nonjudgmental” that we never help others who are struggling with issues that are very destructive to their life. While Jesus warns against being judgmental, we are still to be discerning.
There are still things in our world that are destructive and harmful. I am still convinced that there are things that are right and wrong. For example, if I were engaging in something in my life that was harmful and destructive and my friend knew about it, but never said anything; he would not be a very good friend. Jesus is not trying to say that we should never make judgments or be discerning, he is just trying to say that we should not neglect our own faults and only focus on those around us.
Ultimately we become discerning when we open ourselves up to the possibility of being wrong and let God, who is the true judge to reveal to us our faults. Then, by the grace of God, we work to make those areas of our own life right. It is amazing how much different we approach others when we have struggled with issues ourselves. Instead of being judgmental, we become compassionate. Instead of arrogance, we have humility, because we know that without the grace of God, we would still be in this same struggle. We acknowledge our humanness and our vulnerability. It is out of our brokenness and dependence on God that we help others to know God’s love. We offer then Christ and allow God to work in their lives in such a way as to clean up the junk in their life.
I think this is the point behind Luke telling us that the blind cannot lead the blind. We cannot lead someone else where we have not gone. We cannot help others remove the spec in their eye until we have allowed God’s grace to remove the log in our own eye.
The best way I have heard said about how to do this came from the book No Perferct People when John Burke first says that we must see everyone as a work of art that God is continually shaping. Then he says the way we approach others is to remember that, “All people are in process, and if they are willing, God is going to be gently cleaning the mud off his Rembrandt until their final day. So we must be patient like God.”[vii]
[i] David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, Unchristian (Baker Books: Grand Rapids, 2007) 28.
[ii] Ibid, 182.
[iii] Ben Witherington The Jesus Quest (Intervarsity Press: Downers Grove, IL 1997) 34-35
[iv] NRSV Matthew 7:1-5
[v] NRSV Luke 6:37-38
[vi] Joel Green, The Gospel of Luke “The New International Commentary on the New Testament” ed. Gordon Fee. (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company: Grand Rapids, 1997) 275. Green actually says “forgive” means “release from obligations” or “give without expectation of return.”
[vii] John Burke, No Perfect People (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 2005)101. This chapter is “Creating a Culture of Acceptance.” His view is that we are all in “process.”