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Contra Mundum: The Judgmental Jesus

January 29th, 2010 by Matt

Few 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,

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 10 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

RELATED POSTS:
Contra Mundum: What’s Wrong with Imposing your Beliefs onto Others?
Contra Mundum: God, Proof and Faith
Contra Mundum: “Bigoted Fundamentalist” as Orwellian Double-Speak
Contra Mundum: The Flat-Earth Myth
Contra Mundum: Confessions of an Anti-Choice Fanatic

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22 responses so far ↓

  • If you google “judgemental” you see this internally incoherent gem on the second hit:

    “Why do people have to be so judgemental? Why is it so difficult to just accept people as they are? This is something that drives me nuts!”

    LOL
    [Back to study]

  • “Few things are thought to be more morally pernicious than the edict to not judge others.”

    This seems to say the opposite of what you mean. Few things are thought to be more morally pernicious than the practice of actually judging others.
    .-= My last blog-post ..Fasten your seatbelts =-.

  • Nice bit of exegesis. Fits with the comment that what is hidden will be made public — indeed shouted from the rooftops.
    .-= My last blog-post ..Bad photo, nice cat. =-.

  • […] The Judgmental Jesus Matt’s column in the latest Investigate Magazine addresses one of the most quoted (and misunderstood) verses in the Bible: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” […]

  • The topic of judging others is complicated by the fact that the Bible contains many verses concerning judgment not just the verse you mentioned. How exactly does one reconcile ALL of the biblical instructions that I list below?

    There are judgments and curses aplenty from Jesus (leveled at the Pharisees in Matthew and at “the Jews” in John, including Jesus saying “ye know whose children ye are” [Satan’s]). While Paul states, “may their knife slip” when speaking of the circumcision party, and suggests it’s right to curse certain people and declare them “anathema.”

    Yet there are also commands NOT to judge and to act “meekly” and “humbly” even in the face of curses from others and certain death:

    2 Peter 2:21-23 To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.

    Numbers 12:3 Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.

    2 Cor. 10:1 I, Paul, myself urge you by the meekness and gentleness of Christ– I who am meek when face to face with you, but bold toward you when absent!

    1 Corinthians 4:5 Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God.

    Matthew 5:5,7,9,44 Blessed are the meek. . . Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. . . .Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. . . . I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,…

    Psalm 34:14b
    …seek peace and pursue it.

    Proverbs 17:5b, 24:17, 25:21 (New International Version) Whoever gloats over disaster will not go unpunished. Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when he s tumbles, do not let your heart rejoice. . . . If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.

    Colossians 4:5-6 (NLT) “Live wisely among those who are not Christians and make the most of every opportunity. Let your converstation be gracious and effective so that you will have the right answer for everyone.”

    Colossians 3:8 &17 “But now is the time to get rid of anger, rage, malicious behavior, slander and dirty language…’And whatever you do or say, let it be as a representative of the Lord Jesus, all the while giving thanks through Him to God the Father.”

    I Corinthians 5:12,13 “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. ‘Expel the wicked man from among you.'”

    James 4:11 Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge.

    James 4:12 There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?

    Apparently a lot is left up to individuals to determine for themselves how best to act. The famed Scottish Christian, Thomas Erskine, put it this way:

    The most zealous defenders of the verbal inspiration of the Bible admit that there are parts of it of less importance than others. This is a great admission, because another is involved in it, namely that we ourselves must be judges of the comparative importance of these different parts.
    ___________________

    Also compare the following verses:

    Job 5:2 says, “For wrath kills the foolish man, and envy slays the silly one.” So “wrath” is connected with “the foolish man” yet compare:

    Let me [Yahweh] alone that my wrath may wax hot against them.
    – Exodus 32:10 (See also Numbers 16:46)

    The Lord shall swallow them up in his wrath, and the fire shall devour them.
    – Psalm 21:9

    God often angrily loses his temper:

    That the Lord may turn from the fierceness of his anger.
    – Deut. 13:17

    He made Israel to sin to provoke the Lord God of Israel to anger with their vanities.
    – 1 Kings 16:26 (See also: Ex. 32:10; Num. 11:1,16:46, 32:13-14; Judges 3:8, 2:20; 1 Kings 14:9,15:30, 16:2, 16:7, 16:13; 2 Kings 13:3; 2 Samuel 24:1; 2 Chron. 34:25; Psalm 18:7 & Jer. 44:6; Nahum 1:2)
    ____________________________

    Or take the story about Moses descending from a mountain holding Ten Commandments, one of which says, “Do not kill.” But Moses saw that some of the people had begun worshipping idols, and he says, “Kill every man your [idol worshipping] neighbor.” (Ex. 32:27)

    So, depending on the circumstances, we have either “Love your neighbor” (Lev. 19:18 & the Gospels), or, “Kill every man your neighbor.” (Ex. 32:27)

    And the same Moses who taught “Do not kill” also commanded the Israelites to “kill every [Midianite] male among the little ones?” (Num. 31:17)
    ____________________________

    And what about the use of the word “Blessed” to describe two very different sentiments in Matthew 5:9 and Psalm 137:9, respectively:

    “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God.”

    “Blessed will be the one who dashes your little ones against the rock.”
    ____________________________

    Or take Psalm 34:14, “Seek peace, and pursue it;” and Luke 2:14, “Peace on earth, good will toward men [at Jesus’s birth];” and Jesus’s teaching, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God” (Mat. 5:9), and “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you” (John 14:27a).

    And compare them with, “Do you suppose that I [Jesus] came to grant peace on earth? I came not to bring peace, but a sword.” (Mat. 10:34); or, “Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division… I have come to cast fire on the earth and how I wish it were already kindled.” (Luke 12:49,51)
    ____________________________

    Or compare Matthew 5:7, “Blessed are the merciful” with the following verses:

    “Leave alive nothing that breathes… show them no mercy.” (Deut. 7:2)

    “The Lord hardened their hearts… that they might receive no mercy.” (Joshua 11:20)

    “I will dash them one against another, even the fathers and the sons together, saith the Lord: I will not pity, nor spare, nor have mercy, but destroy them… A curse on him who is lax in doing the Lord’s work! A curse on him who keeps his sword from bloodshed.” (Jer. 13:14; 48:10–NIV)
    ____________________________

    Or compare Matthew 5:44, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” with “Chase your enemies and they will fall before you by the sword.” (Lev. 26:7)
    ____________________________

    Or take these two verses that depict the joy of vengeance:
    “The Lord will rejoice over you to destroy you” (Deut. 28:63)
    “The righteous will rejoice when he sees the vengeance, he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked” (Ps. 58:10)

    And compare such verses with: “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles… If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink… He who rejoices at calamity shall not go unpunished.” (Prov. 17:5; 24:17 & 25:21)
    _____________________________

    In Deuteronomy 18:20 Yahweh unceremoniously sentences all followers of other gods to death. Hector Avalos in FIGHTING WORDS, adds that “nowhere in Mein Kampf is there anything as explicit as the policy of killing Canaanites in Deuteronomy 7 and 20 and 1 Samuel 15” (361).

    For Christians, of course, the “Old Testament” has been superseded but note some of the lessons taught in the N.T. In Galatians 1:8 Paul curses any man or angel who dares to proclaim a contrary gospel, and in 2 Peter 2:1 “swift destruction” is prescribed for all false prophets and teachers. Indeed, according to Acts a husband and wife are struck dead immediately after lying to Peter about having given all they had to the church. And in 1 Cor. Paul states that God himself judges Christians by making “many ill, and some fallen asleep [dead]” because of the unsatisfactory way they had been celebrating the Lord’s Supper.
    _____________________________

    To quote Robert Ingersoll: He says: “Honor thy father and mother,” and yet this God, in the person of Christ, offered honors, and glory, and happiness an hundred fold to any who would desert their father, and mother to follow for him. Thou shalt not kill, yet God killed the first-born of Egypt, and he commanded Joshua to kill all his enemies, not sparing old or young, man, woman or child, even an unborn child.
    _____________________________
    Lastly, it’s ironic that in the book of Job God reserves his harshest judgment for Job’s friends who try to come up with a list of reasons why God was punishing poor old Job, i.e., who try to explain and justify suffering, who are apologists for Yahweh.

  • […] wrong to judge other people, then why are you judging me?”. (Actually, I noticed that MandM has a post up about judging right […]

  • Ed

    Of course there is no way in a com box I can address all those passages. I will simply say this, what I think the scriptures teach is that in some circumstances and situations judging people or insulting them is wrong and in others its quite appropriate. This is a matter of common sense. I am sure you can think of times when insulting someone is wrong and others where you are quite justified in doing it.

    The trick is to read passages in there context instead of citing a whole lot of passages out of context, assuming they are making absolute literal unqualified claims and citing them one by one, which is unfortunately a common free thinker tactic.
    .-= My last blog-post ..Contra Mundum: The Judgmental Jesus =-.

  • 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.

    Moreover, the “judge not, lest you be judged” pseudo-argument is itself a judgment of others; the “argument” condemns itself!
    .-= My last blog-post ..I’d rather see you dead =-.

  • Wel,l shoot! If I’d *read* before posting, I’d have seen that you made the point of my post.

    Sorry about that!
    .-= My last blog-post ..I’d rather see you dead =-.

  • […] Jesus really teach that it is wrong to judge others? Great post by Matt at MandM on an often misunderstood […]

  • The judgement that the Bible condemns is the judgement of another from the perspective of how God would judge them. Only God knows the content of a person’s heart. Only God knows each individual so intimately that only He knows where that person stands in relation to Him. It is OK to judge other people for earthly infractions, that is why we have laws. As soon as you break the law, you stand before a “judge” – literally. We (humans) can judge others for breaking any of the 10 commandments or any other law that we live by – either they did it or they didn’t do it. That kind of judgement is easy and the facts will bear that out. A world without laws (and judges) would be anarchy. But for that very same person, we cannot judge where their heart is with God. For example, we may prove that someone is a murderer with the facts that exist and a judge may send that person to jail for life, but God may take that person in to His loving arms upon their death. We are not to be the judge of that person’s relationship with God. Two very different kinds of judgement.

  • 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.

    Right, but that is not to judge others. It does not include a judgment of anyone. And in general you can judge an action without judging persons who might perform the action. I’m pretty sure the Matthew passage is specifically about the wrongness of judging people.

    Now consider the case in which you point out that someone is judging others and should not do that. That again is judging the actions of the person and not the person. It is perfectly consistent to say “for all I know you’re a near saint and you’re certainly a much better person that I am, and you probably have reasons for judging others that I do not know about, it is nonetheless true that judging others is wrong.” This is not to judge the person (not negatively, anyway). It is simply to point out that the action of judging others is not one that is morally justified. And that follows from the Matthew quote.

  • Mike, thanks for that comment. If I understand you correctly, you’re suggesting that there is a distinction between judging a person and judging a person’s actions, and that Matthew only condemns the former.
    I have three things to say in response to this.
    First, even if one grants this point, it would still disable the use of “do not judge” as a rhetorical club to silence theological critique of certain practices, such as abortion or adultery or what have you. The person engaging in such critique could simply respond that they were “only judging actions.”
    Second, I wonder if the distinction between judging people and actions can always be tightly made. After all a bad person is one who intentionally engages in bad actions. If I point out that a person repeatedly and often engages in heinous actions wouldn’t I, by implication, be suggesting that they are a bad person? For example, judging a person’s actions to be murder implies that that person is a murderer.
    Third, I am not sure this response deals with the examples I give of “judgement” made elsewhere in the scriptures or that it is common sense. Jesus seemed to do more than simply judge the Pharisees actions and the same is true of the Prophets. Moreover, when a person says Hitler was evil they are judging the person Hitler. In light of these points, and given the evident use of hyperbole in the Sermon on the Mount, I am not convinced Jesus was giving an unqualified condemnation of judging other people.

  • I think it boils down to common sense, when it is ok to judge and when it is not. We cannot always follow things so strictly because in life, there must be room for flexibility and rationality, no matter what the teachings may be.
    .-= My last blog-post ..Rowenta Professional Iron (DX8800) Review: The Question Of Durability =-.

  • Second, I wonder if the distinction between judging people and actions can always be tightly made. After all a bad person is one who intentionally engages in bad actions.

    Hi Matt,
    I don’t think that’s true, at least not as a sufficient condition of being a bad person. To take one example, someone who consistenyly kills others need not be a bad person, if say he is doing it in self-defense/wartime. So, the point might better be put that you can’t judge a person by his actions, since many actions that appear wrong are either justified (and right) or wrong but blameless. We are rarely in a position to know all that is relevant to the proper judgement of a person. Even further, the idea might be to cultivate an attitude of forgiveness rather than an attitude of judgment, since unexcused moral failure is as much mine as theirs. So even in cases where you are in a position to know, there are at least two morally different attitudes you can take.

  • Is it even possible for a human being not to judge? Interesting article and proposition which necessarily requires a belief in the existence and words of Jesus. Curious.
    .-= My last blog-post ..Enlightenment Myths Debunked =-.

  • Nearly everyone indulges in the practice of judging others at some point or another. One could say that it’s simply human nature or the overt side of the fleshly nature described in Romans.

    However, I have observed that when experienced Christians practice ‘judging others,’ it is usually for the express purpose of exerting control over them. Further, when judgementalism is used in this way it is an extremely destructive tool which is brutally effective at turning Christian’s away from the faith.

  • […] The Judgmental Jesus Matt’s column in the latest Investigate Magazine addresses one of the most quoted (and misunderstood) verses in the Bible: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” […]

  • […] RELATED POSTS: Contra Mundum: Secular Smoke Screens and Plato’s Euthyphro Contra Mundum: What’s Wrong with Imposing your Beliefs onto Others? Contra Mundum: God, Proof and Faith Contra Mundum: “Bigoted Fundamentalist” as Orwellian Double-Speak Contra Mundum: The Flat-Earth Myth Contra Mundum: Confessions of an Anti-Choice Fanatic Contra Mundum: The Judgmental Jesus […]

  • The Judgmental Jesus…

    “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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