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To Judge or Not to Judge, That is the Question! (Part I)

24 Aug

Photo by mconnors on Morgue File.

Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is 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 brother’s eye. (Mt. 7.1-5, ESV)

Our pastor preached from this text yesterday morning. He has been doing a series on the Sermon on the Mount for the past several months. This is a passage that needs to be preached; and, even more, needs to be heard.

(I wanted to delve into this pericope a bit through a few posts. Today, I will discuss some general things about this pericope and Scripture in general. Tomorrow, Lord willing, I will deal a little more with the opening part of this passage and then in the next post (or two) deal with the closing portion and some conclusions.)

I remember reading something many years ago that claimed Matthew 7.1 had overtaken John 3.16 as the most memorized and most quoted verse in all the Bible. Since then, I have heard this claim many other times. Whether true or not, the judge not passage seems to have found good-favor in the modern culture.

But why?

To answer this we may need to do a little pondering about our culture on the one hand; and, on the other, a little exegetical investigation into what exactly did Jesus mean when he uttered these (now famous) words. Do we understand him aright? Or, have we misunderstood his teaching here?

First, I would say this: it is often claimed this verse is misquoted by large swaths of the population. However, I do not think misquoting it is the problem. After all, it is fairly easy to quote, judge not, that you be not judged. In fact, any time I have ever heard someone quote it, whether it be a pastor in a pulpit or a pundit in the press, they have quoted it accurately.

Quoting rightly is one thing, applying it rightly is another.

The problem, as it seems to me, is with the latter. The verse does not suffer from misquotation; but rather, from misapplication. There are many who take the verse simply to mean that we can make no value calls about what anyone does at all. That is to say, we cannot say this is right and this is wrong. All behavior then becomes acceptable behavior. Everything then falls into the morally massive middle gray. Right and wrong become obsolete terms. Good and bad are merely subjective categories. Moral and immoral become the terms of puritanical hard-liners.

Now, even to the light reader of Scripture, surely this can be seen as false. Anyone who can sanely and respectfully read Scripture and come away with the determination it teaches an anything goes approach to life, has seriously misread its contents.

Does Jesus say to us, live a laissez-faire sort of life, pay no mind what others do, live and let live, die and let die, don’t pronounce things/people good or bad, actions as right and wrong?

This does not seem to comport very well with the teaching of Jesus elsewhere . . . including only a few verses from this one!

After all, Jesus did teach us to turn the other cheek, but never did he say, turn a blind eye.

Discernment is one of the principle teachings we find of Christ in the Gospel accounts. In fact, one comes across just this thing only a few verses hence from Matthew 7.1.

I am afraid we suffer from a selfie-mentality in our day when it comes to Scripture. That is to say, everything is in a flash, a quick slice-of-the-moment snapshot. While I believe Scripture memorization is important, we must never limit our memorization to only the verse (or verses) we are committing to memory, while ignoring the context in which the verse(s) are found.

Let me give you but one obvious example of the dangers of the above approach. If i memorize Ph. 4.13, I can do all things through him [i.e. Christ] who strengthens me, and do not heed the context I may come up with all sorts of crazy applications for this verse. I may decide that I can climb to the top of a thirty-story building and jump off and fly, because after all, I can do all things through him . . . . I may leap out into the air, all the while quoting the verse marvelously, but misapplying it all the way down as gravity did her work! This would obviously be an instance of taking a passage out of its proper context; and, while this example is a bit extreme and exaggerated, it nonetheless proves the point.

Going back to my previous selfie-mentality statement, it seems we no longer sit down and read long stretches of Scripture. We only take it in in bits and pieces. Our intake looks something akin to a sewer setting out to make an aphgan and all the square patterns are scattered on the floor. We have many squares (many blocks) committed to memory, but no stitching to bind them together.

Just a few verses removed from 7:1, verses 15-20, Jesus teaches against false prophets. These are false proclaimers of God’s word, driven by desires other than God’s glory and his people’s edification and nourishment. They are selfish. Self-righteous. Cons. Charlatans of the highest order. They presume to speak in the name of the Lord, when the Lord has not first spoken to them.

Jesus then goes on to say that they are wolves in sheep’s wool. Well, if you go up to an animal expecting it to be a sheep and discover at the last moment it is really a wolf disguised as a sheep, your reaction toward the animal will change drastically I should think!

Yet, if you do not have discernment, how will you know the difference? If you are blind or ignorant to what makes a sheep a sheep as opposed to what makes a wolf in sheep’s wool a wolf, you will suffer the consequences for your ignorance!

Jesus is saying to us that there are creatures that are sheep: harmless, docile and safe. Then there are creatures that are wolves: predators, meat-eaters, dangerous and sly. And, by implication, Jesus is teaching us that we must know the difference between the two. We must be able, with certainty, to call a sheep a sheep and a wolf a wolf.

The difference between a herbivore and a carnivore is no slight thing!

Jesus furthers the analogy by mixing his metaphors and relating the truth in horticultural language. Jesus teaches there are trees that are good and healthy. These trees produce good fruit: fruit that is edible and nourishing. But, there are also trees that are bad and diseased. These trees produce bad fruit: rotten and inedible.

But, how will you know which is which without the discipline of discernment?

To treat all trees as good trees bearing good fruit and to pick of that fruit indiscriminately leads one to a doctor’s office with an upset stomach; or worse still, the morgue.

Coming back around to 7.1, Jesus clearly then cannot be saying to live life with no discernment or indiscriminately. Such a life would be foolish and rash and lead to serious illnesses and injuries. The person who lives with no discernment is a fool of epic proportions. It is a person who takes no thought of life−no thought of their own well-being or of the well-being of others.

So, based on the sampling we have discussed here and a host of other passages one could cite, it is clear what Jesus did not mean by judge not, that you be not judged. He did not mean that we should never make calls on morality or character. He did not mean to chuck discernment to the wind. He did not mean to live a strictly libertine life with no concern of others. He was not teaching an everything goes mentality.

Jesus was not a situational moralist.  He did not teach all actions are equal and morally neutral.

If we end up with this sort of thinking, we completely misunderstand Jesus’ teaching−not only here, but all throughout his ministry.

Tomorrow, we will take a closer look at this pericope to see if we can discern what Jesus did mean here.

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