The Judgmental Jesus

by Matthew Flannagan

Do not judgeFew things are thought to be more morally pernicious than the practice of judging 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, 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…

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