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The Last Word
Jesus limits judging others
Just after a national election, a defeated senator complained about the opposition of certain Christian groups to his candidacy. The senator accused those groups of violating Christ’s own command: “Do not judge” (Matt. 7:1).
I’m sure you’ve heard that argument before, and perhaps have used it yourself. Yet all of us make judgments about people in the common course of life. We do it almost unconsciously when we look for a “good” doctor or want a “dependable” babysitter.
In business, friendship, or marriage, people want someone they can trust; that means that some others cannot be trusted. And parents must often decide which of their children is telling the truth.
In all of those experiences, judgments are made about other people. In fact, I am making a judgment about you by saying that you do those things, even though I don’t know you. I hope you won’t conclude that I’m unfair, because if you do you’ll be making a judgment about me!
How do these common events stack up against Christ’s command? The senator expressed the most popular caricature of what Jesus taught, but the senator was dead wrong. At least he pointed us in the right direction, because Jesus taught about this crucial subject in what we call his Sermon on the Mount.
The Right Way to Judge Others
Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
It was no accident that Jesus made that statement right before he gave his famous command about not judging; Luke 6:37 parallels Matt. 7:1 (“Do not judge, or you too will be judged”). The statement made in Luke 6:36 shows that mercy is the backbone of all that Jesus said about judging.
To understand what it means to “be merciful,” consider the strongly related concept of compassion. Compassion involves being emotionally moved by another person’s distress so that you have a desire to help them.
Jesus was saying that, as we evaluate another person, we ought to do so in a spirit of concern for them. That means that we care about them. Jesus treated mercy as the leading idea and then dealt with judging others as a subordinate application of that theme!
37 “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. 38 Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”
Here we run smack into the main problem: What did Jesus mean when he said, “Do not judge”? That question can be readily solved, if we assume that Jesus knew we would need further elaboration and that he gave it immediately.
In other words, when Jesus said, “Do not condemn,” he was explaining what he meant by saying, “Do not judge.” Believers are not to judge in the sense of condemning another person with harshness and finality.
I have two reasons for thinking that this is what Jesus meant. First of all, the cultural situation in which Jesus spoke supports this viewpoint. At that time, life in Israel was largely influenced by six thousand men known as Pharisees. They had influence far out of proportion to their small numbers. That’s why Jesus could refer to them and say that a little leaven could affect the whole lump of dough.
The Pharisees treated all others with extreme judgmentalism. They looked down on others with a scorn and contempt that would jolt us if we encountered it in our own culture. Their contemporaries considered them harsh, unfeeling, and severe in their criticism. People feared them, and not without reason!
To demonstrate the high and mighty approach taken by the Pharisees, I would like to recount a story out of rabbinic tradition. According to the story, on one occasion in heaven God was having a discussion with the heavenly council about some difficult question of ceremonial purity. After tossing the question around for a while, God and the heavenly council couldn’t resolve it!
So, God sent down to earth and brought up the leading Pharisaic rabbi to settle the question — as if the Pharisees could even teach God a few things! From that lofty vantage point, it isn’t hard to judge other people!
Jesus knew that his disciples had been strongly affected by the precepts of Pharisaism. By contrast, Jesus used the Pharisees and their approach as a case in point of what not to do.
Here’s the second reason for believing that Jesus meant “do not condemn” when he said “do not judge.” Matthew also records an occasion when Jesus was teaching his disciples about these principles. Right afterward he gave them a command that made it obvious that they would not always be able to avoid evaluating other people.
He said, “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs” (Matt. 7:6, italics added). Jesus wasn’t talking about house pets and barnyard animals; he was describing certain kinds of people. To follow this command, his disciples would have to be discerning and make value judgments about people, distinguishing the “dogs” and “pigs” from more receptive people. By using those terms, Jesus was referring to people who treated the Word of God and the miracles of his Son with contempt.
So, Jesus was not saying that we can never evaluate other people or form opinions about them. He knew that his disciples would have to do that. That’s simply part of life. But the spirit in which it is done makes a great difference; compassion is required.
Jesus next switched attention from the negative to the positive. He instructed his disciples about how to make such evaluations properly. Consider the literary arrangement of the four commands in Luke 6:37–38. Jesus used an order that literary scholars would call chiastic, which means that the commands follow an “A-B-B-A” pattern that is common in the Bible:
A “Do not judge” (Luke 6:37)
B “Do not condemn” (Luke 6:37)
B “Forgive” (Luke 6:37)
A “Give” (Luke 6:38)
Each “B” command explains the nearest “A” command. And so in the case of the latter two commands, the thing that Jesus wants us to “give” is forgiveness. Here, too, the theme of mercy predominates.
The last part of verse 38 pictures the way in which God has generously given mercy and forgiveness to us. The picture comes from an ancient grain market. Suppose for a moment that you were going to such a market to buy wheat. After striking a bargain with you, the merchant would use his scoop to measure the quantity that you had agreed upon.
If you happened to be dealing with a particularly generous merchant, he would measure the grain and then pack it down with his hand so as to make room for more. Next he would shake the container so that the particles would pack together more tightly. As a final step of generosity, he would allow the grain to literally run over the top of the scoop as he poured it into your outstretched cloak.
That’s the way that God measures out his mercy and forgiveness for each of us! He doesn’t miss a single opportunity to give us as much as possible.
Bad Models Yield Bad Copies
39 He also told them this parable: “Can the blind lead the blind? Will they not both fall into a pit? 40 The student is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher.
This brief paragraph must be understood by using both culture and context. Jesus was warning his disciples about the deep danger of following the example of the Pharisees. He did so with a brief parable that not only asks questions, but also implies the answers — a useful feature of Greek grammar.
The first question anticipates the answer no: a blind man cannot lead a blind man. The second question expects the answer yes: if a blind man leads a blind man, then they will probably both fall into a pit. Jesus seemed to be asking questions, but actually he was making statements. His audience knew that.
This parable reminds me of an embarrassing incident. The offices for our church staff were to be painted, and one staff member kindly volunteered to get paint samples so that we could pick the color we wanted.
Buried with work, I simply told him to pick a color that he liked and use that for my office too. Several days later, the painters arrived, and his office began to get its treatment. The moment I saw the half-finished office, it set my teeth on edge!
My friend had picked a bright, bright yellow that reminded me of suddenly biting into a lemon. Then I found out that the man I had sent to pick out paint for our offices was color blind! I had sent a blind man to do my seeing for me.
But Jesus was speaking of spiritual blindness and specifically that of the Pharisees. He called them blind guides on numerous occasions. In effect, Jesus was telling his disciples that if they followed the harsh judgmentalism of the Pharisees, then they were no better than blind men following blind guides. They would soon meet disaster along that course.
Jesus challenged his disciples to consider carefully the person they were going to pick as their model in this whole matter of judging others. If they were the disciples of the Pharisees, then they would become more and more harsh and condemning. However, if they considered themselves his disciples, then they must follow his lead in showing mercy. Over time Jesus’ disciples could expect to become more merciful.
Learning to See
41 “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? 42 How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”
I wish we all could have been with Jesus to see the gleam in his eye when he used humor. These verses should at least hint to us that taking everything super-seriously is not a requirement for spirituality. Jesus pictured a ridiculous, exaggerated situation to drive his point home.
Imagine a man whose eyesight was so keen that he could pick out a small speck of sawdust in another person’s eye, without even realizing that he had a telephone pole in his own eye. The word used for “plank” in verse 41 commonly referred to one of the structural beams that would hold up a building.
The Pharisees could spot in others the tiniest infraction of rabbinic rules, while they utterly failed to realize how repugnant their own judgmentalism was to God himself.
The key principle that Jesus expressed in these two verses is that whenever we evaluate others, we should always do it with one eye on ourselves. If we tend to see all of our problems as originating “out there” in the hearts of others, then we are basically looking at people the way the Pharisees did.
Only by realizing that we have problems within ourselves can we temper our evaluation with a measure of mercy. Other people may differ from us in degree but not in kind. Every one of us has personal flaws and could stand some improvement. By dealing with our own motives and behavior, we can become better able to evaluate others with righteousness and truth tempered by mercy.
Jesus is absolutely not suggesting that we must be perfect before we can ever get to the point of judging others. That meaning would produce contradiction not only with our Lord’s own teaching, but also with other portions of the New Testament that instruct us about cases in which we must make evaluations and judgments about others.
I think we could summarize the whole passage with three principles.
- First, mercy must dominate any evaluation of other people.
- Second, it pleases God when we model our lives after people who evaluate others with mercy and forgiveness.
- Third, any evaluation we make of others should take into account our own share of the problem and our own flaws.
Learning to See More Clearly
Use the following concepts to help you in judging others as Christ commands.
Certain things in our own hearts can take us over that fine line into condemning others. Circle the items below that you think may lead you towards judgmentalism:
1. Anger towards someone
2. Personal weaknesses:
(a) Lack of love and compassion
(b) An inflated or sagging self-esteem
(c) A tendency toward perfectionism, dogmatism, and rigidity
3. Learned responses to certain kinds of people and situations
I become more judgmental when I’m angry. If a husband and wife are mad at each other, they really know how to give it to each other with both barrels.
We know intuitively that some people find it difficult to express love or compassion toward others. Such people often find it impossible to love themselves; they become their own worst critics.
Regrettably, some groups of Christians simply exude judgmentalism. A person within such a group will quickly realize that they must either toe the line or suffer the consequences.
Use the following ideas to help you evaluate others more accurately. Consider your own motives and purposes in evaluating others; if you don’t really need to, then don’t! Consider your own life; do you have credibility as an evaluator of the other person? Do you know them well and have their interests at heart? If you passed the motive and credibility tests, then use the following ideas to guide your evaluation.
Evaluate others from alongside, not from above.
Give others time to change and room to grow.
Be willing to revise your evaluations of others. Use other people’s perspectives to refine your own.
Remember how it feels to be on the receiving end of judgment.
So that you don’t misunderstand me, there are some real “jerks” in this world. I’m not saying that they aren’t jerks or that your opinion of them ought to be different. (Remember what Jesus said about “dogs” and “pigs.”) However, we must not reach such a strong evaluation lightly. I think we should also be quick to extend mercy if such a person shows signs of changing.
It may help to visualize two cliffs that you don’t want to fall off of. One cliff consists of thinking that the problem always lies “out there” within other people, rather than “in here” within you. That view of life simply paints others as too evil and you as too good.
But the other cliff can do you an equal amount of harm. It consists of an inability to show mercy to yourself. My early struggle with perfectionism has taught me a lot about how intolerant I can be toward my mistakes. I act more like a Pharisee toward myself than I ever do toward others.
Have you fallen off one of those two cliffs?
Are you willing to try to change that area of your life with Christ’s help? Jesus warned that we must consider carefully who our models are in judging others.
I used to eat lunch weekly with a friend who spent most of our time together running down other people. It was a constant slide down into the same pit. I had my own struggle in that area and didn’t need his help! Perhaps you should consider your own circle of social relationships, and also your church environment.
Are those people helping you to learn more about showing mercy, or are they simply blind guides leading you toward the nearest hole?
A Final Word
When I graduated from seminary knowing the technical matters of theology, I had a lot to learn about interpersonal relationships. That personal deficiency eventually led to some painful criticism from others. With a moment’s thought, I’m sure you can recall similar experiences in your own life.
You and I are going to be evaluated by others for the rest of our lives. There’s no avoiding it. The other side is that we ourselves will evaluate other people. Christ calls on us to use mercy in reaching such evaluations.
We may speak the latest word about someone else, but Christ will speak the last word about them and about us!
Coming next . . .
In Chapter 6, near the end of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, he began to teach in parables. Resistance to Jesus’ ministry was rising as he taught the disciples how to analyze the heart.