Frequently Misused Verses: “Judge Not”

This is my sermon for the 4th Sunday after Trinity at Grace Anglican Church, examining Luke 6:36-42.

America’s Favorite Bible Quote in the 21st Century: “Judge Not”

This brief quote has been used by many people lately, both by Christians and by non-Christians, to argue that Jesus does not want us to be judgmental. We are told that calling out sins in other people is rude, unloving, hypocritical, and unchristian. This individualistic attitude of “mind your own business” has begun to permeate our cultural mindset, and has severely weakened the ministry of many churches along the way.

However, if you read on to see what Jesus says next, you will find that he is not exactly telling us simply to “mind our own business.” Certainly there are some strong warnings against being hypocrites, but there are also instructions as to how to judge people properly. He begins with some teaching, and follows it up with a parable.

Examining Jesus’ Instruction (v36-38)

“Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”

This verse begins us off with the context of mercy. In some ways this statement is finishing the previous teaching on loving your enemies, but it’s also acting as a transition into the topic of judging and forgiving. We are instructed by Jesus to be merciful just as God the Father is merciful. That doesn’t mean we never punish and ignore sin, but that we don’t use the full extent of the law against people. God, after all, held back punishment upon Israel for a very long time, making enormous allowances for the possibility of repentance. We would do well to imitate that mindset in our own interactions with others.

“Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned.”

These two statements form a pair which literary scholars call “synonymous parallelism.” That means that two phrases are used to say the same thing in slightly different ways. You’ll find this style a lot in the Bible, especially in the poetry of the Psalms, the Wisdom books, and the Prophets. Here, Jesus is making this nifty little statement about judging and condemning, and how we’re not supposed to do them. The first word, judge, is the normal generic word of judge: κρινετε. The second word, condemn, is a very particular word in Greek: καταδικαζετε. It means to “declare guilty or innocent,” and is based on the word δικαιος, which means “righteous.” By putting these two terms in parallel with each other, Jesus is specifying that we are forbidden from a specific type of judgment: we are not allowed to make ultimate pronouncements on peoples’ guilt or innocence before God for their sins. We do not the power nor the authority to decide or declare who is righteous before God; God alone makes that decision.

Instead, we have power and authority to forgive and to give. Jesus gives us another synonymous parallel statement here:

“Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.”

Again we have a lovely poetic teaching here, beautifully reflecting the previous line: “no judgment and no condemnation” gives way to “forgive and give.” Already we’re given a hint that the statements “judge not” and “condemn not” aren’t quite as simple as they seem, because we’re now being told to forgive. How can we forgive unless we recognize that we’ve been sinned against? And if we do recognize that we’ve been sinned against, haven’t we just made a judgment in our minds? Yes, we have made a type of judgment, and Jesus teaches us more about that in the brief parable which follows.

Before we get there, however, we should pay attention to the dynamic of forgiveness Jesus describes here. Genuine repentance & faith leads us to forgive others. We should not think of God’s forgiveness of us as a reward for our forgiving others. Rather, we forgive because we are forgiven. Think back to the first verse of this passage: we are to be merciful because God first shown us mercy. It is the same with forgiveness; we forgive because we are forgiven. We pray this also in the Lord’s Prayer: “forgive us our trespasses (sins), as we forgive those who trespass (sin) against us!”

“Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap.
For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.”

Jesus describes how we are to give and to forgive with this interesting string of expressions which don’t even form a proper sentence in the English language. Imagine measuring a cup of flour: you could just pour the flour into a cup and leave it at that. Or you could pour it in, being sure to make a good measure, and press it down, shaking it together so there are no hidden gaps inside the cup, and then top it off so it’s running over. It’s a picture of generosity: don’t be stingy in how you forgive people, or how you give to others; be abundantly generous! For, just as passing condemning judgment on others gets us in great trouble with God, being abundantly generous toward others makes us more like God.

A prominent 18th-century Bible commentator, Adam Clarke, wrote about this. To paraphrase him: “We live a sort of society that makes mutual help necessary. And since self-interest, pride, and other corrupt passions always end up in our interactions, we can’t help but to offend one another at times. In civil society we must, in order to have some peace, resolve to bear with our neighbors; we must suffer, pardon, and give up many things. Without this giving and forgiving spirit, both our civil society and even our church congregations will end up with nothing but divisions, evil assumptions, hateful arguments, outrages, anger, vengeance, and, in a word, a total break-down of the mystical body of Christ. Thus our loud calling both in society and in the Church is to GIVE and to FORGIVE.”

Examining Jesus’ Parable (v39-42)

Now we turn to the brief parables that Jesus used to elaborate on this teaching.

“Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit?

The same commentator, Adam Clarke, wrote about the blind leading the blind: “[One] who is not illuminated from above is utterly incapable of judging concerning spiritual things, and wholly unfit to guide others.” Just as someone who is blind cannot be a guide to another as they walk down a rocky path, so too is it impossible for an unspiritual person to lead other Christians without ending in disaster.

“A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher.”

Jesus gives us the important reminder that a disciple is not above his teacher – we are all taught by Jesus through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, and no human teacher will ever surpass that. This is why good preaching is always drawn from the Bible, not from the pastor’s personal experience or wisdom. Nevertheless, we human disciples can be taught to be good leaders and teachers. The phrase “fully trained” here is a rich word in Greek also meaning “put together,” “mended,” “instructed,” or even “united” to God. Someone who is fully trained in this sense “will be like his teacher” and able to guide others in the Church accordingly.

“Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.”

The speck, or mote, or splinter, is a tiny piece of dust that disrupts your vision a little bit. A log, or beam, is like a tree branch. Imagine a branch as big as your arm sticking out of your face! Not only would it be very difficult for you to see with that in the way, but it’d also be nearly impossible to get near other people without slapping them in the face! When we have unresolved sin in our lives that we haven’t recognized, and sought repentance for, we’re under a form of spiritual blindness. It’s a compromise that makes it very difficult for us to minister to others in their sinful conditions without doing more damage of our own along the way. If we are to minister to others effectively, and with integrity, we need to be living lives of active self-examination and repentance ourselves. Otherwise we’re hypocrites, and Jesus has a lot of strong words against hypocrites.

This is where today’s culture’s misuse of the verse “judge not” is actually right: we’re not supposed to be hypocrites who try to fix the sins of others while ignoring our own sins. What our culture doesn’t understand, however, is the solution: they say that the solution is to ignore all sin as if it doesn’t exist, and simply mind your own business. Jesus’ solution is quite different: examine yourself, identify your sins, address them, and repent of them. Then, you’ll grow in spiritual maturity, and become more able to help others do the same.

Judging & Discernment in the Church

As I said earlier on, we are not allowed judge in the condemning fashion in which we decide who is righteous or unrighteous before God. The final judgment of salvation or condemnation is entirely in God’s hands. What we are allowed to do, and are actually commanded to do, is to carry out a different kind of judgment, also called discernment. We do this first by taking the logs out of our own eyes. The Prayer of Confession that we use here in the Communion service is just one example of how we can examine and express our sinfulness before God in a spirit of repentance. The more often and the more carefully we judge ourselves, the more deeply we discover how sinful we are. This accomplishes two things: first it helps us to be more humble before a holy God who himself is utterly sinless; and second, it helps us to act more loving toward others in their sins, just as our loving God acts toward us.

Then we will be in a better position to be merciful, as our heavenly Father is merciful. We will be in a better position to forgive others, as we have been forgiven, and to be generous as God has been generous to us. And finally, we will be in a better position to be discerning, able to recognize when others sin, and help them to overcome them. The world already has enough angry hellfire preachers telling everyone to repent. But we always need more discerning, loving witnesses who recognize sin for what it is, call it for what it is, and offer their love and tangible support in overcoming that sin. That is who God is; that is who we are called to be also. Amen.

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About Fr. Brench

I'm a Priest in the Anglican Diocese in New England interested in spiritual formation, theology, and the growth of God's Kingdom.
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