Thursday, September 13, 2012
"Judge not, that ye be not judged" (Matt. 7:1). How often have we heart that quoted as a means of deflecting criticism! Sometimes the reaction is quite justified – we have all encountered the nosy busybodies who freely offer their negative opinions on just about everything. But sometimes it is not justified; the text is being used as a cover for our unwillingness to take the demands of discipleship seriously. And unfortunately, in today's spiritual climate, all too many churches are filled with members who do not want to live the Christian life, but nevertheless want to be accepted as good Christians.
"Judge not." What exactly did Jesus mean when He said that? Was He calling for a complete suspension of spiritual discernment? Not hardly. He goes on to say, only five verses later, "Do not give what is holy to the dogs" (v. 6; NKJV).
What Jesus probably had in mind was the attitude of the Pharisees, a Jewish sect noted for their strict interpretation of the Law, including all of the ceremonial and dietary requirements. Not everyone in Jewish society shared their outlook, however. Then, as now, there were non-observant Jews, and this included a large mass of the common people who were either too ignorant or too unmotivated to bother with law keeping. As one leading rabbi of the time put it, "an ignorant man cannot be saintly" (Hillel, quoted in m. Aboth 2:6). The actual Hebrew phrase translated "ignorant man" is "Am-haaretz," the "people of the land," a term of contempt applied to the ignorant and ceremonially unclean masses.
Jesus described the attitude of the Pharisees in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in which the Pharisee prays (!): "God, I thank You that I am not like other men – extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess" (Luke 18:11,12). The tax collector, who collected taxes under contract for the Roman government, was undoubtedly guilty of many sins, including extortion and injustice. But what Jesus condemned was the self-righteous attitude of the Pharisee.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus explains further what He means. He tells His listeners, "with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you" (v. 2). In other words, we should apply to others the same standard that we apply to ourselves. Is the problem something that we would excuse in ourselves? Then it is too minor to criticize in someone else. Is it a major problem that cannot be ignored? If it were a problem in me, and I knew it had to be dealt with, how would I want someone else to approach me? Then perhaps I can approach the other person with real integrity.
Jesus then goes on to describe the sheer hypocrisy of criticizing someone else for some trivial offense ("the speck in your brother's eye"), while ignoring our more serious offenses ("the plank in your own eye").
No, this text does not call us to suspend all moral judgment; there are numerous passages of Scripture telling us to exercise discernment and to reject what is plainly bad. But let us approach our fellow human beings with a sense of real humility, recognizing that we have all fallen far short of God's perfect standard. And let our aim be restoration, not condemnation. In so doing we will show love toward one another and bring glory to God.