About 2/3rds of the way through the best sermon ever preached (the Sermon on the Mount) right after a wonderfully poetic and tiny bit judgmental section about not worrying, Jesus drops this bombshell on us, “Do not judge or you too will be judged!”
That verse peaked in popularity about a decade ago after a crazy 30 year run built off of the Jesus movement. As the newly baptized hippies were inducted into the membership of the church they reacted strongly against the crazy legalism of their parents and grandparents and held up high the “do not judge” banner.
As evidence of this verse’s crazy popularity, note that it is one of few bible verses where people still quote the King James English (see title above). I also offer as evidence a remark my awesome adult Sunday School teacher made a few weeks back, “Oh, that verse hasn’t come up in a month or two. Before that it came up at least once a week for years.”
That was ironic because although that verse saturated my youth I hadn’t thought of it in years. I had kind of forgot it existed. But one of the joys of being a pastor is that no matter how deep your intellect takes you into the faith, there will always be that baby Christian ready to pull you back up to the surface with kindergarten questions about who we really should judge and under what circumstances.
That last sentence was not as sarcastic as it probably sounded. In fact, after my Sunday School teacher reminded me of that verse’s existence, I realized that I did not have an easy answer to the questions and concerns about the tension between judging and tolerating. It is true that Jesus’ command leaves little room for interpretation. Studying the grammar of the sentence and the meaning of the words leads one to conclude that Jesus really meant we should not judge each other. Looking at the context of the passage and the history of 1st century Palestine eliminates even more nuance to the verse. It literally reads and literally means, “Do not judge or you will be judged!”
However, Jesus said some pretty judgmental things here and there and not just to the religious elite but his own disciples. After all, it was Peter that he called Satan and 9 of his disciples that he accused of having little faith. In the actual Sermon on the Mount and only sentences after the “do not judge” command, he calls his entire audience evil (see Matthew 7:11).
Then the apostle Paul, addressing a serious issue in the Corinthian church, offers, “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?” (1 Cor. 5:12).
And don’t get me started about the cranky prophets of the Old Testament who were extremely judgmental, as was the Old Testament God they spoke for. Though Jesus’ actual sentence and context gives little room for nuance, the rest of Scripture does.
Therefore, while comparing Jesus’ simple statement to the nuances in all of Scripture and the complications in our own contexts, I confess that I really don’t know when it is appropriate to tell someone that they are doing Christianity wrong or when I should just keep my mouth shut and “tolerate” their sinfulness. In practice, I don’t do it well at all.
However, I do know this, judging people is messy. It gets really sloppy really fast. Take for example the church gossip who accuses a young couple of being lousy parents. Or consider the politician who neglects their children for months on the campaign trail while promoting “family values” and accusing the opponents of being “against family!” Or look at the Christian celebrity who uses Facebook, which is run by a very liberal executive team, to denounce Starbucks for being “liberal.” If you really were going to boycott the liberals, shouldn’t you start with Facebook? Or take for one last example the pastor who accuses his church leadership of not praying enough while struggling to carve out adequate prayer time in any given day. Yes, that pastor has been me.
And yes it is true that Starbucks donates money to causes that make some Christians feel very uncomfortable. It is also true that the church leaders need to be spending hours a week in prayer and, yes, most young parents I know need all the help they can get and our country needs to relearn some old family values anew.
Yet the people pointing these things out have huge planks in their own eyes. By opening their mouths they are opening up a very messy can of worms because immediately their life gets the spotlight and that spotlight reveals all kinds of nasty viruses and germs lying under their focus group polished exteriors. Then the argument becomes, “if they can’t live up to the standards they are promoting, that obviously means I can’t!” So we all continue our destructive lifestyles, but feeling a little more arrogant about it.
In turns out that Jesus is right. Judging others is the quickest way to get judged, and not just by God but by every one else. And when we judge others for being judgmental, like all the hippies did, it makes the mess worse. Now we are all going around pointing out planks in each other’s eyes and playing a game of “Whose speck is it anyway?”
I have played that game and it is really messy and not all that much fun.
But there is an alternative that isn’t messy. It is neither judging or tolerating. Instead it is personal repentance. Personal repentance is the act of judging yourself. It is the step of faith that says, “I am the lousy one. I am the bad parent, the neglectful politician, the lazy pastor, the judgmental gossip. I am the one in need of a savior who can clean all this junk out of my life. I am the one who has some things to learn about family values and personal holiness and private piety. I am the one working on these things because I wish they weren’t there in my life. And only through the strength of God, I am overcoming them. My life is the mess and I need the great cleaner.”
The goal of personal repentance is not to somehow keep the judgmental people from judging you or even to judge them back or worse, preemptively judge them. The goal is to turn your own judging spotlight on yourself before they can. To go back to the Sermon on the Mount, the goal is to get the plank out of your eye before anybody notices it. Or at least to acknowledge it before they do, saying, “I have all ready confessed the planks exist in my life and am working on them.”
Whether or not they follow your example is really up to them but at least you found a way through it all. And that is a lot easier and cleaner than the mess of judging.