Matthew 7 begins with Jesus saying, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” If you were to take a poll in 21st century America, this might be the most well-known verse in all of Scripture. Since our society values tolerance so highly, it is no wonder that a verse that at first glance seems to indicate that Christians have no place telling other people how to live would be very popular. But is that what this portion of the SOTM is talking about? Let’s take a closer look.
By looking at other places in the Bible, and indeed, even other verses in the SOTM, it is clear that Jesus cannot be forbidding His followers from ever assessing the behavior of others. It is absolutely appropriate for Christians to look at the actions of others and determine if those actions are in keeping with the standards of the kingdom (Matthew 7.16-20). We are also supposed to confront fellow Christians when they sin (cf. Matthew 18.15-18; 1 Corinthians 5), and at times we must “judge” as to whether or not we should continue sharing our faith with a certain person or move on to someone else (see discussion of Matthew 7.6 below). All of this indicates that there are times when judgment is not only acceptable, but required. Furthermore, immediately after making this statement, Jesus goes on to assume that we will judge others on occasion, saying that we will be judged according to the same standard by which we judge others.
So Jesus is not saying that His disciples should turn a blind eye to the faults of others, refuse to ever criticize anyone, or avoid discerning between good and evil. What He is saying is that His disciples must be careful in their judgments of others. Citizens of the kingdom should not be judgmental people who actively enjoy looking for faults in others and rapidly and harshly proclaim judgment upon those faults.
Furthermore, there are certain kinds of judging that we should stay far away from. Unlike God, we do not know the hearts of men and women, so we should never presume to judge the motives of another. Additionally, it is God, not us, who judges the eternal destinies of people; it is never our place to tell people that they are going to hell. From a spiritual perspective, that call is simply above our pay grade.
When we do judge others, our judgments should be gentle and grace-filled, because Jesus says that we will be judged by the same standard we use to judge others. With that in mind, we should be generous in our judgments! Besides, we don’t really know what another person has gone through that may cause him or her to do what they do. We might see someone at work who doesn’t smile at us so we assume they are a terrible person or that they hate us, but perhaps they are just upset because a parent passed away or they are going through a divorce and the fact that they didn’t smile had nothing to do with us at all!
Jesus uses a humorous example to further illustrate the problem with judging others. He tells His disciples to imagine someone walking around with a big log sticking out of his own eye who presumes to try to help his brother remove a tiny speck from his eye. The point is clear: we must not be hypocritical in our judging of others. Jesus condemns those who are obsessed with pointing out the faults of others while refusing to confront their own problems. Unfortunately, this is how we act too often: we tend to exaggerate the faults of others while minimizing the seriousness of our own. Jesus tells us to avoid this tendency, and not be hypocritical toward others.
However, this doesn’t excuse us from responsibility toward our brothers and sisters who have a problem: once we have dealt with our own “eye trouble”, we have the duty to help our brother with his. Really, it comes down to our attitude when dealing with the faults of others. We are not supposed to come as a superior judge, pronouncing condemnation on others, nor are we to be hypocrites, pointing out the faults of others while hiding the exact same faults in ourselves. Instead, we come as a brother, concerned for the well-being of others, and wanting only to help them (1).
The last verse in this section (7.6) seems strange in this context, but it does provide an example of a situation in which we are, indeed, called upon to use our powers of discernment and judgments.
First, Jesus says not to give “what is holy” to dogs. “What is holy” could be an allusion to the sacred meats which were connected with religious sacrifices. The leftover portions of what was sacrificed would be consumed by priests, but if there was any left over after that, it would be burned; it would never be given to an unclean animal like a dog. Jesus also says not to throw pearls to pigs: after all, pigs would not appreciate pearls, and after they realized it wasn’t food, would just trample them underfoot. The meaning seems clear enough: precious things should not be given to dogs or pigs who are incapable of appreciating them.
What Jesus seems to be telling His disciples is that they are to use judgment and discernment when they are telling other people about the good news of His kingdom. The good news of Jesus is available to all people, and we can’t know in advance what their response will be, but when people do adamantly reject the message of Christ, it is not our place to continually try to force it upon them. We see Jesus and His disciples follow this same pattern:
- At times, Jesus refused to answer the Pharisees when they opposed Him (Matthew 15.2-3; 21.23-27).
- When Jesus sent His disciples on a mission to spread the gospel, He warned them to move on from those who rejected them in order to find others who would be more receptive (Matthew 10.13-14).
- When Jews rejected the message of Jesus that Paul tried to share with them, he turned to the Gentiles (Acts 13.46; 19.9).
It is never our place to decide ahead of time whether or not someone will respond to Jesus, but Jesus tells us that if people stubbornly reject the message and show themselves to be people who do not appreciate it, we are to honor their desires and not continue to share the treasure (pearls) of God’s Son with those who would only trample over them.
In context, this section of the SOTM doesn’t convey the message that our society wishes it does: the Way of Jesus is not about tolerating any possible behavior or never confronting sin in any way. At the same time, Jesus does warn His disciples about being harsh and judgmental, and we would do well to heed that warning.
- John R.W. Stott, Christian Counter-Culture: The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Downers Grove, Ill., InterVarsity Press, 1978), 179-80.