Judge Not

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What did Jesus mean when he said, “Judge not, and you will not be judged.” It’s one of the most commonly quoted verses from the bible (Luke 6:37). Many of us, and not merely politicians, invoke the verse as a first defense when accused of wrong. It is also a favorite stone thrown by those outside the church to accuse Christians of hypocrisy.

In 2007 a book was published called UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity. It’s based on research done among non-Christian 20-somethings. One of their core findings was that nearly nine out of ten young people view Christians as “judgmental.” And given the prohibition against judging issued by Jesus, this would mean most people view Christians as hypocrites.

Given these findings, it’s pretty important that both Christians and non-Christians understand what Jesus means when he says “judge not.” The key is recognizing that the word judge can be used in two different ways in the New Testament. Sometimes judge is used to mean “judge between things,” to differentiate, or discern. In this case we judge between right and wrong, good and evil, righteous and unrighteous.

But this kind of judging-the act of discernment-is not what Jesus is forbidding. In fact throughout the Bible we are commanded to discern. In the same chapter of Luke 6 and in the very same discourse as the famous “judge not” statement, Jesus talks about having the discernment to see the difference between good people and evil people (Luke 6:43-45). He compares them to trees. Good trees, he says, produce good fruit and bad trees produce bad fruit. The call to differentiate good from evil is to judge, to discern, correctly.

This is often what get’s Christians into hot water in our uber-tolerant and increasingly diverse culture. When a Christian labels something as “wrong” or “evil” they are often pounced upon as being judgmental and out of step with Jesus. Sometimes this is the case, as I will discuss below, but very often the accusation is the result of a culture that no longer understands the difference between discernment and condemnation.

F.F. Bruce, a New Testament scholar, explains the linguistic dilemma this way:

“Judgment is an ambiguous word, in Greek as in English: it may mean exercising a proper discernment, or it may mean sitting in judgment on people (or even condemning them).”

It is this second definition, to condemn, that Jesus forbids and he makes that clear when the whole sentence in Luke 6 is read: “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned.” Jesus is saying the same thing in two ways-a common rabbinical device at the time.

He’s calling us to not condemn people, to not pass final judgment and declare them irretrievably guilty. This is an incredibly important idea if you understand the context in which Jesus was speaking. The entire culture of his day was predicated on the notion that some people were acceptable and others were not. And the way you defined yourself, your identity and place in the world, was by comparing and contrasting yourself with others.

So, for example, at that time Jews saw themselves as inherently better or more acceptable to God then non-Jews. They commonly referred to gentiles (non-Jews) as “dogs.” And many Romans had equally dismissive views of the Jews. And these judgments continued even within the each community. Rich people were seen as more blessed and acceptable to God than poor people. The healthy were seen as righteous, and those with diseases or disabilities were judged to be sinners receiving their due.

This is the judgment that Jesus says is absolutely wrong. When we judge/condemn someone we are declaring that they have no value; no worth-that they do not matter to us or God. And we do this as a means of elevating ourselves. The more people pushed below us, the higher in value we must be. Greg Boyd captures the problem of judging really well. He says: “You can’t love and judge at the same time,” because “It’s impossible to ascribe unsurpassable worth to others when you’re using others to ascribe worth to yourself.”

This is the problem Jesus is addressing-the idea that our worth requires someone else’s condemnation.

Of course this wasn’t just a problem in 1st century Judea. Consider what Martin Luther King Jr. said in one of his sermons. He describes why segregation (a form of exclusion and judgment) is so wrong:

Segregation is not only inconvenient-that isn’t what makes it wrong. Segregation is not only sociologically untenable-that isn’t what makes it wrong. Segregation is not only politically and economically unsound-that is not what makes it wrong. Ultimately, segregation is morally wrong and sinful. … “It’s wrong because it substitutes an ‘I-It’ relationship for the ‘I-Thou’ relationship and relegates persons to the status of things.

Judgment causes us to see the other not as a person, but as a thing-as less human and therefore less valuable. And once we do that to a person, or a group of people, it opens the door to all kinds of terrible evil-segregation, injustice, abuse, even genocide. Jesus is warning us about excluding anyone, or seeing ourselves or our group as inherently better than any other. We may disagree and discern another person or group to be wrong-but when that discernment causes us to value another person or group less, then we’ve crossed the line into judgment, condemnation, and exclusion.

Obviously there are, and always will be, people and groups that we disagree with theologically, socially, or politically. But we seem to cross that line between discernment and judgment so easily today. In present political rhetoric, or in descriptions of other faiths and nationalities, we quickly devalue or write off “those people” as less valuable. We exclude them from the status that we feel privileged alone to occupy.

This seems to be the accepted posture on many political television and radio programs. Sometimes these talk show hosts speak about “liberals” as if they’re demonic. Of course many liberal blogs caricature conservatives in equally disturbing ways. If you have strong political views, that’s just fine. Defend your views, disagree with others, engage on the level of ideas-but when we start to condemn those who disagree with our politics, when we see them as intrinsically interferer, we enter dangerous and decidedly unchristian territory.

I wonder what constant exposure to this

kind of rhetoric-from either side of the political spectrum-does to our souls. How it can warp our perception of other people and groups. If you engage these programs regularly, I would encourage you to use discernment (the good kind of judgment) to determine whether constantly exposing yourself to that kind of vitriol is helping you love others. Or, is it teaching you to judge and condemn in order to elevate your own sense of worth and rightness.

When we see other people as wrong, not just about what they believe, but in their core identity as people-then it’s easy to convince ourselves that we don’t have to love them; we don’t have to serve them; we don’t have to respect them. This exclusion and condemnation of others fuels so much of what’s broken in our world today. It’s what convinces one group to kill another; or one person to abuse another.

But Jesus says, not so with you. Not among my people. The Christian is never to judge, never condemn, never exclude, never to see anyone as without value or dignity-even the person we disagree with most. To quote Greg Boyd again, “The Christian’s job is to agree with God that every person you meet was worth Jesus dying for.” We cannot ascribe that kind of value and dignity to a person and condemn them as worthless at the same time. It’s just not possible.


  • Karen

    There is an excellent distillation of the thought of the Desert Fathers on this subject at the link below, and I think you will find much there to affirm your observations, Skye:
    http://www.orthodoxinfo.com/praxis/judging.aspx

    Sadly, my own experience tells me that relative to this wisdom from the early centuries of the Church, we are way biased in our modern conservative Christian expressions in terms of confidence in our own presumed “discernment” (when we actually, in our heart of hearts, never manage to quite divorce this “discernment” from also judging/condemning). This exposes itself in how often we discuss the sins of others (and of the wider culture) proportional to how often we examine our own hearts and confess our own sins!

    Some sayings of the Desert Fathers:

    The old men used to say, “there is nothing worse than passing judgement.”

    They said of abba Macarius that he became as it is written a god upon earth, because just as God protects the world, so abba Macarius would cover the faults that he saw as though he did not see them, and those which he heard as though he did not hear them.

    Abba Pastor said, “Judge not him who is guilty of fornication, if you are chaste, or you will break the law like him. For He who said “do not commit fornication” said also “Do not judge”.”

    A brother asked abba Poemen, “If I see my brother sin, is it right to say nothing about it?” The old man replied, “whenever we cover our brother’s sin, God will cover ours; whenever we tell people about our brother’s guilt, God will do the same about ours.”

    Stories from the Desert Fathers:

    A brother in Scetis committed a fault. A council was called to which abba Moses was invited, but he refused to go to it. Then the priest sent someone to him, saying, “Come, for everyone is waiting for you”. So he got up and went. He took a leaking jug and filled it with water and carried it with him. The others came out to meet him and said, ” what is this, father?” The old man said to them, “My sins run out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the errors of another.” When they heard that, they said no more to the brother but forgave him.

    A brother sinned and the priest ordered him to go out of the church; abba Bessarion got up and went out with him, saying, “I, too, am a sinner.”

    From St. John of the Ladder:

    Fire and water do not mix, neither can you mix judgment of others with the desire to repent. If a man commits a sin before you at the very moment of his death, pass no judgment, because the judgment of God is hidden from men. It has happened that men have sinned greatly in the open but have done greater deeds in secret, so that those who would disparage them have been fooled, with smoke instead of sunlight in their eyes.

  • Stacey

    I understand what the point of this post was meant to convey, but truly, it is little more than an apologetics excuse for bad behavior. The only part I find factually accurate was the two different definitions of “judge.”
    As a Pagan, I once thought as you do, that it’s simply a matter of misunderstanding that creates confusion. If people understood what the real meaning was, they’d come to see their error. Education and understanding is what is needed in order to see the entire spectrum of divinity.
    However, it was my error that did not see things as it really was, that Christianity is the coagulate of confusion itself. That all things being equal, Christianity pollutes a healthy mind, and dooms a sick one. The current media meme is to blame fundamentalism for the deep divisions of this nations religious beliefs. It’s not. It’s the idolatry of the scripture itself. As I Pagan, I know idolatry. Christians are always talking about the “living word,” often beating people over the head in both condemnation and contempt.
    The very phrase “living word” is exactly what the ancient Egyptians called their writing, what we now call hieroglyphs. The very thing the Ten Commandments condemned as “Graven Images.” (Moses led the Jews out of where, again?) Then, without missing a beat, demanded all to follow the “word” without question.
    You see? Hypocrisy is built into the system. Don’t believe it? Just ask a question about “thou shall not kill” and point out the many scriptures where Moses himself killed, raped and committed genocide. You’ll see some beautiful scriptural contortionism take place.
    “But that’s the Old Testament, Jesus talked about Love,” you say? Yes he did.
    He promised a pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die, for the low-low price of your immortal soul. It didn’t matter how evil you are, what kind of a bastard you’d been to everyone around you, eternal pleasure was yours. Once saved, always saved. This gave birth to Christian murderers, Christian Rapists, Christian thieves (televangelists) and worst of all Christian Politicians.
    “Once saved, always saved” is a license for hypocrisy, while emboldening self-righteousness and contempt for everyone else.
    Stubbornly, I refused to recognize the malfunction was endemic to the system itself. The epiphany was only realized at great cost. Now Christians aren’t the only ones who hold contempt. But, my contempt was earned.

  • Karen

    “He promised a pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die, for the low-low price of your immortal soul. It didn’t matter how evil you are, what kind of a bastard you’d been to everyone around you, eternal pleasure was yours. Once saved, always saved.”

    Stacey, I just want to go on record, as an Eastern Orthodox Christian, to say that what you describe above is a modern, western distortion of Christianity. It is not what Jesus taught. (Even most Evangelicals would see what you are saying as a gross caricature of what is taught in some Evangelical schools of thought–though not all), and certainly none of the martyrs and Saints of the Church would recognize this as remotely Christian. Eastern Orthodox Christianity is the oldest form of Christian faith and practice still in existence today (having a demonstrable historic dogmatic, liturgical and sacramental continuity with the faith of the earliest Christians). Orthodox Christians believe Christ certainly taught that we will be judged based on our works (i.e., how we have treated others), insofar as it is our works that reveal what is genuinely in our hearts (Matthew 25). Orthodox Christians do not presume that those officially within the Church will automatically be “saved” (or be found to have truly repented) nor that those outside its visible boundaries will necessarily be lost or damned (i.e., be found unrepentant). In the Orthodox Liturgy, Judas is held up as an example of one who was in the company of Jesus and the disciples, yet who in the end was lost because he could not embrace God’s truth and mercy. On the other hand, there is thief on the cross alongside Christ who spent his life “in the company of robbers” as one Orthodox hymn puts it, yet wound up in Paradise because his heart was capable of being softened before the demonstration of God’s love and mercy and he believed in Christ even as he was dying. God alone is capable of such discernment, and it is Orthodox belief that He will judge everyone completely impartially based on what is really in their hearts, and that He will without fail have mercy on everyone because He IS love (and because ALL will have sinned and fallen short of His glory). Whether one experiences the fiery purity of God’s Presence, His mercy, as “heaven” or “hell” depends completely on how one responds to such unconditional grace, forgiveness, and mercy (whether that is what one is willing to embrace–both for oneself and for ALL others). Obviously, the people in Christ’s parable of the last judgment in Matthew 25 could not have all been “believers” in the explicit sense, or they would have certainly known this parable and the basis of their judgment before Christ, but it seems all in this parable are alike caught by surprise. Christ also did not teach “pie in the sky” so much as proclaim that the Kingdom of God anticipated in the OT was now in the very midst of humankind (in His own Person) and could be encountered here and now in the depths of one’s own heart, in the deep inner recesses of conscience and conviction, which is where the Holy Spirit (Who is also called the Spirit of Love) whispers to everyone “who has ears to hear Him.”

    Orthodox priest, Fr. Stephen Freeman, in his blog “Glory to God for all Things” employs a metaphor of the “Two-Storey vs. One-Storey Universe” to discuss some of the differences between how modern people many times view spiritual reality (i.e., as a “different storey,” a separate reality, from the one we all inhabit in this life) and how people in the time of Christ and in the early Church viewed it (as interpenetrating and permeating all of life as well as continuing beyond it). It might be of interest to you or other readers: http://fatherstephen.wordpress.com/christianity-in-a-one-storey-universe/

  • http://www.weightlosshelpfast.com Donald Urquhart

    I can appreciate where you’re coming from, and I appreciate it an awful lot. Every one seems to be trying to demonize the other side these days. On an individual level we are commanded to only try and correct those who we know are actually Christian. Criticizing people who haven’t converted to Christianity is both pointless and counterproductive. Furthermore, we’re only supposed to ladle out criticism in anything but a humble manner remembering that we are susceptible to the same or even greater level of sin ourselves. We must not fall into a greater trap than we are trying to help our friends avoid.

    Donald from Rapid Weight Loss

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  • Michael J. Teston

    As usual you hit the nail on the head. The Apostle Paul and Jesus do not hesitate to help “discern” what actions and behaviors folk do that might endanger them from experiencing life abundant. Paul ends almost every letter with do’s and don’t dos. The word judgement interestingly is the word takes on the form “krises,” or in English, crisis. Judgement time is crisis time when discernment is crucial, a discernment that could lead to life or otherwise. Veiled in the exchange of are you “saved” is the “your going to hell otherwise” and I or someone else has the capacity to make such a rendering. Eternal destination is not in any of our hands no matter what we hear or don’t hear from another. thanks for your insight.

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