Jesus famously said, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”
Today, some people use this to shut down conversations when the subject turns to sexual morality.
“Didn’t Jesus say not to judge others?” they ask. “Who are you to judge?”
Did Jesus mean his words to be used this way?
If not, what did he mean?
Here are 10 things to know and share . . .
1) Not a cover for immoral behavior in general
It’s clear that Jesus did not intend his words to be used as a cover for immoral behavior.
He did not mean them to be used as a conversation stopper to shut down attempts to admonish people engaged in immoral behavior.
In fact, Jesus himself did rather a lot of admonishing regarding proper moral conduct.
That is, in fact, the subject of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), in which the saying occurs.
2) Not even a cover for sexual misbehavior
Jesus had quite a bit to say about sexual immortality as well—noting, for example, in the Sermon on the Mount that even being mentally unfaithful was a sin:
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart [Matt. 5:27-28].
3) Not a prohibition on admonishing others
Jesus did also not intend his words to be used to stop others from admonishing others when they are committing sinful behavior.
Jesus himself told his ministers:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you [Matt. 28:19-20].
That would include teaching his commands regarding sexual morality.
Also, admonishing sinners is a spiritual work of mercy that we are to engage in:
My brethren, if any one among you wanders from the truth and some one brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins [Jas. 5:19-20].
4) Not an endorsement of moral relativism
Taking Jesus’ teaching out of context, one might try to use it as a pretext for moral relativism—the idea that all moral judgments regarding the conduct of others are to be suspended and each person is to be allowed to define what is morally good for himself.
This is clearly ruled out by what we’ve already seen regarding Jesus’ own teaching on morality and on the need to proclaim them to others.
We do not define moral truth for ourselves. Moral relativism is a false position that is incompatible with the Christian faith.
It is also incompatible with itself. Like all forms of relativism, it is self-contradictory.
If it is wrong to make moral judgments regarding the behavior of others then it would be wrong to judge others for judging!
So what did Jesus mean?
5) What Jesus actually said
A good first step in trying to figure out what Jesus meant is to look at what he actually said—to find out what the context was in which he made his statement regarding judging.
This saying is found in both Matthew and Luke, as follows:
Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get [Mt. 7.1-2].
Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you; 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 [Lk. 6:37-38].
6) An elaboration of the Golden Rule
In both Matthew and Luke, the statements that follow the prohibition on judging indicate that it is an elaboration of the Golden Rule—the idea that we should treat others the way that we, ourselves, want to be treated.
The Golden Rule is, in fact, given its classical formulation just a few verses after the statement on judging in the Sermon on the Mount:
So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets [Matt. 7:12].
And the warning that we will be treated (i.e., God will treat us) as we have treated others has already been stressed in the Sermon:
For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses [Mt. 5:14-15].
We thus see the same principles that Jesus stressed in the prohibition on judging also stressed elsewhere, and that helps us understand what the prohibition on judging means.
7) “Lest ye be judged” . . . by Whom?
Another clue to what Jesus means is the warning he gives.
He first gives an instruction—“Do not judge”—and then he gives a warning: “Lest ye be judged.”
Who is he saying may judge us?
You might think that he means other people will judge us if they see is being judgmental, and it is quite true that people will react negatively to us if they see us behaving in an antisocial manner.
But that’s not what Jesus is saying.
Instead, he’s using a form of expression that Bible scholars refer to as “the divine passive” or “the theological passive.”
This is a use of the passive voice that describes what God will do, but it reverently avoids saying “God.”
You see this usage in the Beatitudes, earlier in the Sermon on the Mount. When Jesus says:
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted [Mt. 5:4].
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied [Mt. 5:6].
He means that those who mourn are blessed because God will comfort them and those who hunger for righteousness are blessed because God will satisfy them.
In the same way, when Jesus says, “Judge not, lest ye be judged,” he means: “Don’t judge or God will judge you.”
This also helps us understand what he means.
8) What Jesus means
Obviously, God will judge us. He’s made that perfectly clear in the Bible, and in the teaching of Jesus in particular.
There will be a Last Judgment at the end of the world, as well as a particular judgment at the end of our earthly lives.
So it isn’t a question of escaping God’s judgment. It’s a question of how we will be judged.
Because, as we’ve seen, the Golden Rule has divine backing: If we treat others mercifully, God will be merciful to us. But if we treat others unmercifully, God will not be merciful to us.
In other words, we should treat others the way we want God to treat us—because the way we treat others is how God will treat us.
9) What kind of judgment do you want?
The sinful part of us would probably say that we’d like God not to judge us at all—to simply not hold us accountable for anything we’ve done.
This part of us might then try to take Jesus’ statement on judging and say, “If I can only avoid making a moral appraisal of others’ behavior, God won’t make one of my behavior. I can then get away with anything, no matter how immoral, as long as I let others get away with it, too.”
But, as we’ve already seen, this is a non-starter. It’s the twisted, fallen part of us trying to find a loophole that will let us indulge our sinful side.
The right approach is to ask: Given that you will be judged for what you have done, what kind of judgment do you want?
If we are in our right minds, we want a judgment done with mercy, compassion, and forgiveness.
And that’s the way Jesus wants us to treat others: He wants us to be merciful, compassionate, and forgiving to them.
In this context, what he means by “judging” is the opposite of doing those things—being unmerciful, uncompassionate, and unforgiving.
10) Why didn’t he say it that way?
Jesus often says things in a way that requires us to think about them.
He uses literary forms like parables and hyperbole to make his points.
In this case, he has used hyperbole, or exaggeration to make a point.
He doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t judge others in the sense of forming a moral appraisal of their behavior.
We can’t avoid doing that, given our nature, and we should not avoid doing that, or the injustice in the world can never be addressed.
But he uses hyperbole to make the statement striking, memorable, and something we need to think about.
That process of thinking about it leads us into a deeper appreciation of his message.
Indeed, the aspects that I’ve tried to bring out here are not the only ones that you can reasonably infer from what he said.
In addition to “not judging” involving being merciful, compassionate, and forgiving to others, it can include other things, such as:
- Giving others the benefit of the doubt
- Leaving the ultimate judgment of others to God instead of simply concluding that someone is (or should be) damned
Jesus’ means us to wrestle with his teachings and mine their depths for their hidden riches.
He does not, however, mean us to use them as a pretext for immorality or as a conversation stopper to shut people down when they are proclaiming a moral truth to us.
What do you think?
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