Few teachings of Jesus are more misunderstood and misapplied than this one; because from everything else Jesus taught, we know he wasn’t suggesting we turn a blind eye to sin. Some then use the “confusion” surrounding this scripture to debate what actually constitutes sin, causing others of us to shy away from dealing with it as such; not wanting to be labeled as intolerant and judgmental. After all, verse 2 of Matthew 7 does say, “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” The lesson often mistakenly taken from this scripture becoming, ‘If you want to remain free from judgment, don’t ever question, confront, explain, correct, discern or judge the right or wrong of any event or any person – ever!’
The real point of this passage isn’t, however, that we mustn’t make wise choices about right and wrong, or that we shouldn’t exercise discernment in who or what we embrace, condone or practice; but that we simply give people the benefit of the doubt. Guarding against becoming preoccupied with “fixing” others, failing to recognize our own shortcomings and sin; coming across as holier-than-thou and hypocritical. (See Matthew 7:3)
How we size others up and interpret their motives is crucial. But assuming we know all about someone else’s motives and circumstances often only serves to exacerbate the situations we find ourselves in. Not that we should merely shrug our shoulders and walk away from openly practiced sin, but understanding where other people are coming from can make a huge difference in how we respond to them. Author Lois Tverberg admitting, “If a person won’t shake my hand, I don’t get angry unless I assume that they’re being haughty – that they think I’m beneath them. If someone forgets to pick me up, I don’t get angry unless I assume they’re thoughtlessly ignoring my needs. Whenever I get angry I look for the selfish or wrong-headed motive that I assume lies behind the person’s actions.” Wrong-spirited judgments are not relegated though to actions we think are targeted at us, but involve assessments on our part of who people are or should be. Again Mrs. Tverberg confides, “If I meet a woman who is assertive and I like her, I’ll say she’s bold and self-confident. But if I dislike her, I’ll call her arrogant and loud-mouthed. My best friend might be ‘disorganized,’ but my enemy is a ‘slob.” A store clerk who can’t answer a question might simply be uninformed, but in my judgmental head, I’ll call him stupid and clueless.”1
But Jesus pronounces a severe judgment on those who express such disregard for others in Matthew 5:21,22; specifically calling for us instead to hate the sin while loving the sinner, which is admittedly a very difficult thing to do – as the sinner comes to represent the sin. But when we don’t do so, it’s almost like we’re daring God to judge us too; as none of us is immune to poorly thought out, inconsiderate actions and responses.
Joseph Telushkin writes, “Judging fairly does not mean judging naively. If someone does many bad, even wicked things, we are not obligated to devise far-fetched explanations to excuse (their) behavior. Indeed, viewing such people favorably can have a negative impact on our own character. One who gets in the habit of ignoring the acts of wicked people (or trying to explain them away) will begin to condone their practices… we must oppose them and take a stand against them.” 2 (Not artificially “judging favorably,” but judging the perceived faults of others from the perspective of “two hands”. As in, was the prayer chain coordinator merely being nosy about my circumstances? Or was she genuinely concerned for my health? On the one hand, was the person who refused to shake my hand at church mad, stuck up or too busy for the likes of me? Or on the other hand, maybe they are extremely shy and uncomfortable in social settings; maybe they had a cold and were protecting me from it. On the one hand, the driver speeding by me in the parking lot was insensitive to the safety of others; arrogant, uncaring, unsafe – irritating. Or on the other hand, maybe he was late for something or the kids were distracting him. Maybe he just had to go to the bathroom really bad!3
While these examples are rather simplistic, they do highlight how even simplistic assumptions can upset us and how by simply reconsidering the hasty assessments we make concerning people’s interactions with us can decrease the tension; and that choosing to interpret other people’s motives in the best light possible has the potential to have a profound effect on how we react to them and how far the incident goes. In fact, because human relationships can be so complicated, Jesus proposed a formula for dealing with people who live consistently contrary lives. “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or tax collector.” Matthew 18:15-17 Notice what that doesn’t give us permission to do; beat him up – physically or verbally – continually berating him for his sin; just leave him be, taking a stand while standing at a distance, giving him room and time to reconsider, to mourn the loss of relationship – shunning intended to be discipline, not punishment – in the hopes of bringing him back to the fold. (See also 1 Corinthians 5:4,5) The idea we need to take away from this is that even when we are confronted with easily identifiable sin in a friend or neighbor, we may not have any understanding of that person’s present circumstances or life experiences. That doesn’t mean we ignore or excuse wrongdoing; it does however, mean we should base all our judgments on the love and consideration we hope to receive from others when we inevitably “come up short” as well. (See Romans 3:23)
In the original Greek, the verb often translated as judge can also mean discern or decide. In court cases it has the connotation of deciding between rival claimants, sometimes condemning one or the other to punishment as allowed by law; the Hebrew word for judge having the same broad usage. With a better understanding of what judging a situation can entail, we can better adhere to Paul’s advice to leave final judgment up to God, who “…will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of (everyone’s) heart.” 1 Corinthians 4:5 James going so far as to suggest that God is the only one truly qualified to set laws and judge whether they are being abided by, so “…who are (we) to judge (our) neighbors.”; at all. James 4:12 The point being, even as we can’t ignore sin, it’s not our job to pointedly seek it out in others and expose them to the world. (See Matthew 7:3-5)
Interestingly enough, an alternative rendering of the command in Matthew 22:39 to love our neighbor as ourselves is, “You shall love your neighbor as one who is like yourself.” Both precious to God – and guilty of sin. Jesus offering the ultimate challenge to us all when he instructed us to, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven.” Luke 6:36,37
1From Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus – How the Jewish Words of Jesus Can Change Your Life, Zondervan Publishing
2From A Code of Jewish Ethics – incorporating a quote from Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv – used by Lois Tverberg - Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus
3Lois Tverberg - Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus
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