There are few Bible teachings as misunderstood and misapplied as Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:1-2 : “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you too will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” What follows is the exhortation to first remove the plank from our own eyes before trying to take the speck from another’s, which I have discussed at length in previous posts.
In a post-modern, multicultural society it has become taboo to venture to comment on anybody else’s behaviour. “Who gives you the right to judge me?” is considered a viable defence against any criticism of one’s behaviour. We have bred a culture where many people fail on one of two extremes: either they are two afraid to be labelled ‘intolerant’, so they allow all sorts of irresponsible behaviour to go unchallenged; alternatively, their sense of moral superiority allows them to pass judgments on others that are both ignorant and disrespectful. Both extremes – apathy and bigotry – are contrary to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 7.
The teaching, if you are prepared to look at it holistically instead of verse by verse, is a warning against hypocrisy more than a warning against passing judgment. They are distinctly different issues. If passing judgment was something Jesus frowned upon, then his interactions with the Pharisees would mark him as the biggest hypocrite of all. The same Jesus who called the Pharisees “blind guides” (Matthew 23) and a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 12:34) is the man who refused to condemn the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11), and with whom “sinners” felt comfortable to engage (Mark 2:15-17).
Clearly there is a place for making a judgment call. The real question is not whether or not we should, but how and under what circumstances. Jesus’ interactions in the incidents I have alluded to above, provide what I think is a helpful framework through which to discern when to judge.
When the Pharisees confront Jesus about fraternising with sinners in Mark 2:15-17, Jesus response is a most enlightening one: that it is the sick who need a doctor, not those who are well. I am struck by Jesus’ comparison of sin to a disease. One does not condemn a person for being sick. That is illogical. Nor will they get well by one’s choosing to ostracise them. The ill cannot simply choose not to be so. They cannot make themselves well, nor can they act or believe themselves into healthiness. The sick need a doctor – an expert with skills and knowledge they simply do not have – to cure them. Jesus’ refusal to condemn is not because he is prepared to overlook sin, but because it would be misunderstanding the issue to do so. He does not tell the woman caught in adultery that her behaviour is okay, but nor does he condemn her. A doctor does not chastise his sick patients for being sick, but provides them with what they need to become well again, and may offer them advice on how to remain healthy. That is how Jesus treats the woman caught in adultery.
Time and time again, when one reads of how Jesus responds to the broken, it strikes me that the aim of Jesus ministry is not to teach people to be good, but to help restore them to life. Implicit in Jesus’ teachings is the understanding that immoral behaviour is a symptom of the disease, not the disease itself. No good doctor treats only the symptoms. For real healing, the disease itself must be tackled. No good works or holy living will alter the ontological state of the soul. Only the Creator of the soul can do that. That, I think, is why Jesus never seems to get worked up about immoral behaviour itself, but stresses that “out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks” (Luke 6: 45) and that it is not what goes into a man’s mouth that makes him unclean, but what comes out of it (Matthew 15). When people address sin only by modifying behaviour, like the Pharisees, they do not address – so to speak – the heart of the matter. Nor can they.
I don’t think that when Jesus said that the doctor had not come to help the healthy, but the sick, that he was inferring that the Pharisees were healthy. Far from it. His interactions with them in Matthew 23 suggest otherwise. But they certainly believed that they were spiritually healthy. They foolishly insisted on equating being good with being spiritually healthy, and Jesus had a lot to say about that.
When those who identify themselves with us – culturally, religiously, as members of our family (however that family defines itself) – behave in ways that do not conform to the moral and ethical codes of that group, members of the group ought to challenge it. Proponents of the “who are you to judge me?” argument fail to take into account that their behaviour always impacts on other people. Irresponsible behaviour always leaves others to tidy up the mess, and I maintain that if you are going to end up being affected by the mess in any way, you have every right to judge the behaviour. In fact, you have an ethical obligation to do so.
Jesus was perfectly right to confront the Pharisees. They were aligning themselves with his religious family, but behaving in a way that negatively impacted on the rest of the family. It would have been utterly indefensible for him to remain silent. And that is what he called them out on, if you read his passionate declamation of their practices. He talked primarily about how their actions were impacting on others.
Note that his condemnation is reserved for certain types of action, not for states of being. It is not their sinfulness that is his primary concern, but their unwillingness to accept that they are. To expand on the doctor image, he is not angry that they are sick, but directs his anger at their stubborn insistence that they are healthy, and their abuse of their power in compelling those in their care to believe that through ‘good’ behaviour, they can remain healthy too.
As Christians, we have a Biblical mandate to “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow” (Isaiah 1:17). We cannot hide behind an erroneous understanding of Jesus’ teaching not to judge. Of course, we must be careful that we are not hypocritical when we make our judgments. Before we condemn others for exploiting or misleading others we must make sure that we are not doing so ourselves. We must be like nurses to the sick: we do not condemn people for being ill. But when the custodians of the sick abuse their positions, when irresponsible, exploitative or even simply ‘blind’ behaviour threatens the wellbeing of the family, it is unconscionable not to speak up.
So I know that I am vindicated when I speak up against the Word of Faith preachers, who are simply exploiting people’s pain for profit, in the name of Jesus. It is not judgmental, but it is judging. I am not unpatriotic when I speak out against a president who acknowledges that his party loyalties (a euphemism for his pocket) supersede his responsibilities to his country’s people. When any Christian practice or doctrine does not conform to the number one family rule: love, I am expected to challenge it. In fact, when anyone belonging to any group of which I am a member dishonours that group through his/her conduct, I can and will challenge it. I would hope that if I ever brought dishonour to any of my families through my actions, that somebody would have the courage to challenge me on it too.