There are some passages of Scripture that are so well-known that most people can quote the verse even if they’ve never picked up a Bible.
Today’s is such a passage.
Except that it is generally misquoted.
It’s misquoted because most people leave out the second part of the verse. By the title of this message you probably know what verse I’m talking about. That’s right – the judgment verse. To be specific, it’s Matthew 7:1, in which Jesus says do not judge, or you too will be judged.
This morning we are considering the topic of judging, and our Scripture text is a passage that is one absolutely worth returning to from time to time. The passage is part of the Sermon On the Mount, one of the most famous and significant passages in all of the Bible. It’s not a long sermon, if I were to read it this morning, but it certainly packs quite a punch. Filling chapters 5, 6, and 7 of Matthew’s gospel, the sermon contains many tough verses. It contains the command that we are to love our enemies; it contains the passage telling us not to worry; it contains the six you have heard it said, but I say to you warnings; and many other very difficult admonitions and commands.
Let’s read the text for this morning’s message.
Matthew 7:1-5 –
1 Do not judge, or you too will be judged.
2 For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
3 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?
4 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?
5 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.
We should recognize, first of all, that not only are we all judged – we are all judges as well. We are judged, and judge, by vocation (when I tell people I am as a minister I get some interesting reactions, and not all of them positive), gender, ethnicity, politics, appearance, the way in which we dress, and in many other ways.
As much as it is a bad idea to judge another person, it’s also very difficult to refrain from judging. It’s such a visceral, automatic reaction that it often happens before we have time to think about the fact that we are passing judgment on someone. When we pass someone on the street, meet someone for the first time, or observe someone’s behavior, the judgments arise quickly and naturally within us. But while this might be a natural reaction, it does not need to remain in our hearts and minds. That is, while we might have an automatic reaction to another person, or a particular group of people, we should not allow that reaction to define either who we are or how we see others.
But what does it mean to judge? Is it always wrong? Don’t we make judgments about many things, some of which are necessary, and positive? Judgment does have a positive aspect, and that is where we will begin this morning.
To judge is to discern.
Judgment is an unusual word, because not every kind of judging is wrong, or negative in intent. Judgment is one of those rare words that carry several very different meanings, both positive and negative.
A positive meaning is that of discerning. Discerning is the ability to perceive differences, specifically, differences of truth and error, good and bad, right and wrong. We want to be people of good judgment, while not being judgmental, which demonstrates discernment. We want to be good judges of character, without impugning the character of another, which is a demonstration of discernment. We want to exercise good judgment on how we use our time, how we spend our money, and, in a little over three months from now, how we will vote, all of which are discernments.
To discern is to weigh the relative merits of two or more positions or choices and then come to a decision. Sometimes, we call that decision a judgment call. I don’t know if I can explain my decision other than to say I weighed the alternatives and made a “judgment” call.
One area in which people often seek to be discerning is in choosing their vocation. I’m not sure I would want to be a high school or college age student again and be working through questions of vocation. We certainly ought to be praying for those at that stage of life, as that is so much more complicated in our present point in history.
I have often been asked how did you know that God was calling you into ministry? I never know if my answer is adequate, other than to say, I just knew. Discernment often comes in retrospect, looking back and having a more clearly defined view of all that is involved in such a major decision. That is certainly true for me, in looking back on my call to vocational ministry. It was clear at the time, but looking back, I can see with even more clarity how that call came to my life and the ways in which I was able – with the help of others and the guidance of the Spirit – to discern that call.
In seeking to be discerning, we certainly must be very prayerful, we must seek wise counsel, and we have to possess some level of trust in where we believe God is calling us. Having said that, I don’t believe God would ever tie my worth, value, or his acceptance of me to a decision I made about a vocation. I’m not even sure how much our choice of a vocation matters to God, at least in comparison to qualities such as our character, compassion, and moldability.
2. To judge another person is to assume we know more than we do.
We all know that first phrase, repeating it often as a stern admonition that Jesus says we are not to judge. Which is true, of course, but we are, in fact, not commanded to refrain from judging. Jesus says we are not to judge, not because it is forbidden, but because it’s a really bad idea. When we judge another person, Jesus says, we are opening ourselves up to judgment, and no one’s life can withstand the close scrutiny of others. All of us have made mistakes and are sinners, so to point that out about another person only holds us up to a mirror that will reflect our own flawed character and life.
One of the things we are assuming, when we judge another, is that we know more about them than we do. Why is it, do you think, that we are so quick to judge others, especially when we don’t always know the reality of the lives of others?
Back in the 80s, when I was serving as an associate minister, Tanya and I lived next door to a couple who had a daughter, who was about six years old at the time. She told her parents one day, I don’t think that man that lives next door has a job. When her parents inquired why she replied, well, he comes and goes at all different times of the day, and sometimes he’s dressed up and at other times he wears old clothes. To her defense, it was logical for her to think I didn’t have a job, because most people leave the house at the same time every morning, arrive back home at the same time every afternoon, and dress the same, appropriate way for their work. As an associate minister, sometimes I left the house early to go to the hospital, and I would dress for that occasion, at other times I would wear old clothes because I might be in the church attic pulling sound cables, and on other days I might leave the house wearing a suit because I was going to a funeral home. In her logic, I must not have been working. It did make logical sense, but it was also wrong.
Let me be very clear – however much we think we know about the life of another person, we don’t really know their life, their situation, their thoughts, their fears, their struggles, and their difficulties. We just don’t know. As someone who, for many years, has been privy to the lesser-known aspects of people’s lives, I can confidently say that many people do not know what they are talking about when they pass judgment upon others, but that doesn’t keep them from doing so, unfortunately.
I would also add that one of the things that judgment also becomes a defense mechanism for us, as judgment is often based in our discomfort with, and fear of, those who are different from us. Judging – finding a reason to criticize others – then becomes a way to keep a safe distance between ourselves and those with whom we feel uncomfortable. I believe this was at the heart of much of the judgmentalism of the scribes and Pharisees, and also at the heart of their criticism of Jesus. Jesus would not allow distance to exist between himself and any person, but the scribes and Pharisees often manufactured reasons for doing so. The scribes and Pharisees classed others as “sinners,” which justified not only their disdain but also gave them a reason to keep those of whom they disapproved at a safe distance.
The question for us becomes, then, how do we overcome those feelings of discomfort and fears, so that we do not act like the scribes and Pharisees?
3. God wants hearts of compassion, not judgment.
The book of I Samuel contains the story of God calling David to be the king of Israel. Samuel is called by God to travel to the house of Jesse, as God has chosen one of his sons to be the king. When Samuel sees Eliab, Jesse’s son, he is impressed by him, believing that surely the Lord’s anointed stands here (I Samuel 16:9). God says to Samuel, who has made a judgment based on outward appearances, – Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart (I Samuel 16:7). Samuel continues to have the sons of Jesse pass by him – seven in all – and each time is told that God has not chosen that particular son. Samuel finally asks Jesse, are these all the sons you have? (verse 11). David was in the field, tending the sheep. I suspect that he wasn’t brought in to meet Samuel because Jesse assumed that God would choose from among his other sons.
It is so difficult to move beyond what we see from the outside. Samuel could not do so. Jesse could not do so. We cannot do so.
What this means, in essence, is that we must not only struggle to refrain from the action of judging, we must also be intent upon refocusing our hearts and minds in terms of how we will see either individuals or groups. While our first instinct might be, for example, to look down upon another person, we must be intent upon refocusing our attitude so that we recognize the other person is a child of God and is every bit an equal and valid recipient of His love as are we.
This is not easy to do, obviously. It is much simpler to live with our first reaction, to hold onto our initial judgment, and to go on our merry way. But Jesus challenges us to a better way, a way in keeping with his example. It is not easy, but it is infinitely rewarding.
Recently, Tanya and I stopped in Louisville to get something to eat, and as we stood at the counter to place our order, the young man helping us was sitting on a stool. I thought that was a bit odd, as everyone else was on their feet, busy filling orders, and he was just sitting on a stool. To me, it struck me as a bit rude, as I thought, stand up when you’re waiting on customers! Yes, I judged him, and I judged him incorrectly. As Tanya and I sat at our table I saw the young man come around the corner of the counter – in a wheelchair. I was so embarrassed by my judgment of him. In my judgmentalism, I had violated all three of points this morning – I had failed to use discernment; I judged him, when I did not know about his life; and I allowed my heart to be drawn into judgment rather than compassion.
It is sad that, far too often, the picture of faith – and people of faith – is a judgmental, pointing finger. Let us commit to having hearts of compassion, and not judgment!