Contra Mundum: The Judgmental Jesus

Few things are thought to be more morally pernicious than the edict to not judge others. Sometimes this is given a theological spin with people citing the Sermon on the Mount “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:1-2).

It is common for this imperative statement to be used as a kind of rhetorical club to silence moral critique of various cultural practices. When a particular practice is subjected to such critique those who engage in the practice will complain they are being “judged.” If the alleged judgers are Christian, the claim that “judging is contrary to what Christ taught” is typically added to the charge.

I think this is a misrepresentation of the passage and an affront to common sense. I will address the latter point first. The claim that it is wrong to judge other people is problematic; it is so problematic that it is amazing that anyone gives it credence. For example, if it is wrong to judge other people then since Hitler was another person, it is wrong to say that what he did was wrong. To claim that his actions were wrong is to make a judgment about them and if judging is wrong then it is wrong to judge Hitler. Similarly, Martin Luther King Junior was wrong to criticise racism and doing so judged the actions of racists and William Wilberforce was wrong to make moral judgments about the slave trade as in doing so he was judging slave owners. Taken consistently, the claim that “it is wrong to judge” entails that we should have no legal system, no laws and no courts as all these things involve judging others by deeming certain conduct as wrong.

The problems with this interpretation of Matthew 7:1-2 do not stop there. A little reflection will demonstrate that the claim that it is wrong to judge other people is incoherent. To claim that it is wrong to judge others is to make a moral judgment; in making the statement one is judging that a particular action is wrong. Moreover, when a person announces this to other people he or she is implicitly making a judgment about other people’s actions. To utter that it is wrong to judge others is to engage in judging others. This kind of thinking can easily induce a kind of intellectual vertigo, it is analogous to the person who states, in English, “I can’t speak a word of English” or a person who tries to convince you of the truth of the claim “there is no truth.”

Fortunately, one does not need to attribute to Jesus such absurd, incoherent, platitudes because it is doubtful that Jesus meant anything quite so stupid. Several factors bear this conclusion out. First, one should note that the claim, “do not judge, or you too will be judged,” occurs as part of the Sermon on the Mount. In this Sermon, Jesus regularly used hyperbole to vividly illustrate a point. One should note that interpreting these hyperboles too literalistically leads to obvious absurdities. For example, Jesus states, when referring to the act of looking at another person’s spouse with lust, “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away” (Matthew 5:9). It is evident that Jesus is not advocating self-mutilation but simply making his point about not lusting in a vivid, hyperbolic fashion. Similarly, we he commands people to, “do good deeds before men,” (Matthew 5:16) but a few verses later he tells us, “not to do good deeds before men.” (Matthew 6:1). Taken in a strictly literalistic sense this is a contradiction. However, a reading of the context shows these apparently opposing statements are simply vivid illustrations of the same point; one’s good deeds should be motivated by a desire to honour God, to do the right thing and not by a desire to advance one’s own reputation. In light of such contexts the phrase, “do not judge,” should be seen for what it is, a hyperbolic statement illustrating the point elaborated in the surrounding verses.

Second, when one seeks out this context one can see quite clearly the point being made. The phrase translated in the NIV as, “do not judge, or you too will be judged,” was originally written by Matthew in Koine (a Greek dialect). The Interlinear Bible gives the literal translation here as, “do not judge that you be judged.” In other words, do not judge others in a way that leads one to put oneself under judgement. The surrounding words support this conclusion,

For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. ″Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.″ Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces. (Matthew 7:2-6)

Here the qualifications are evident. One is not to judge in a way that brings judgment on oneself. The reason for this (“for”) is that the standard one uses to judge others is the standard that one’s own behaviour will be measured by. Jesus goes on to illustrate, with a sarcastic example, precisely what he is talking about; a person who nit-picks or censures the minor faults of others (taking the speck out of their brothers eye) who ignores the serious, grave, moral faults in their own life (the log in one’s own eye). His point is that such faults actually blind the person’s ability to be able to make competent moral judgments. This suggests that Jesus is focusing on a certain type of judging and not the making of judgments per se.

In fact, the conclusion that Jesus does not mean to condemn all judging of others is evident from the proceeding sentences in the above quote. Rather than engaging in the kind of judgment Jesus has condemned one should “first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” In other words one should try to rectify the serious moral flaws in one’s own life precisely so one can assist others with theirs. One needs to avoid hypocrisy in order to make constructive and effective moral judgments about others. This would make no sense if Jesus meant to condemn all judging by this passage.

The reference to “pigs and dogs” in verse 6 further bears this out. Dogs and pigs, to Jews, were unclean animals and the term was frequently used to designate people considered to be of low moral character who were “unclean” before God. In this verse Jesus is simply repeating the Old Testament teaching to “not rebuke a mocker or he will hate you: rebuke a wise man and he will love you” (Proverbs 9:8). The implication, again, is that one should try to make constructive judgments rather than simply provoking anger. Constructive judgments involve making judgments.

Just in case I have not belaboured the point enough, my interpretation is further reinforced by what follows after these passages. While reading a passage in its context is not the strength of many popular critics of Christianity, immediately after the cited passage Jesus goes on to warn about the dangers of religious charlatans, which he, rather judgmentally, refers to as “ferocious wolves” in “sheep’s clothing” (Matthew 7:15). In the age of Osama Bin Laden, David Koresh and Jim Jones the danger of such charlatans needs little further elaboration.

In exhorting the requisite discernment, Jesus actually instructs his disciples to make moral judgments about others. He tells his disciples to judge whether a person is a false prophet or not by their “fruit.” Anyone familiar with Old Testament prophetic literature, as Jesus’ hearers were, would know that “fruit” is a metaphor for character. Isaiah’s use of the metaphor is paradigmatic; Isaiah famously described Israel as a vineyard that did not bear fruit. In the metaphor, fruit quite clearly referred to such things as right conduct, justice, morality, etc. Paul uses the same metaphor when he states that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23a). Jesus makes it clear that he is utilising this metaphor. He goes on to stress that in this context the fruit of a prophet is whether he or she “does the will of my Father” and is not an “evil doer.” It is clear then that Jesus here is exhorting his disciples to make moral judgment about other people, to critically evaluate other people’s lives, choices and actions and to make judgments about their spiritual authenticity based on this evaluation. All of this would be very odd if Jesus thought it was wrong to judge.

Moral judgment of religious leaders, of oneself, of the organisations one is contemplating joining, of people one considers associating with, of the political leaders one supports at the ballot box and broader issues in wider culture is a task essential to both authentic spirituality and the competent navigation of everyday life.

I write a monthly column for Investigate Magazine entitled Contra Mundum. This blog post was published in the February 09 issue and is reproduced here with permission. Contra Mundum is Latin for ‘against the world;’ the phrase is usually attributed to Athanasius who was exiled for defending Christian orthodoxy.

Letters to the editor should be sent to: editorial@investigatemagazine.DELETE.com

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