“Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” (Matt 7:1-5)
Don’t judge! This is one of the most frequently cited teachings of Jesus in today’s world. Christians cite this when they are uncomfortable being criticized by others. Even non-Christians who haven’t read the Bible seem to know what Matthew 7:1 says! For some, that verse is a shield against all disagreement. No one can be corrected or criticized or admonished or told they are wrong or argued with or disputed with or disagreed with in any way, because Jesus said not to judge! Right?
A careful reading of the text will reveal that this is not what Jesus meant. The sermon on the mount in Matt 5-7 is purposefully littered with statements that are intended to be juxtaposed with one another. For instance, in one place, Jesus claims that men are supposed to see our good works (Matt 5:16), but in another place, Jesus claims that we are supposed to keep our good works hidden from men (Matt 6:1). These are not contradictions, but rather carefully constructed “paradoxes” that are designed to get us to think about our motives for why we practice righteousness. In similar fashion, the fact that Jesus orders us not to “judge” (Matt 7:1) needs to be weighed against the fact that Jesus also tells us not to give what is holy to “dogs” or “swine” (Matt 7:6), and that we will know a person’s heart by their actions (Matt 7:15-20)—statements that necessarily imply some kind of judgment being passed by the disciple.
The true contrast in Matt 7:1-5 is not between “judging” and keeping one’s mouth shut from criticism. Rather, the contrast is between hypocrisy and humility. Since “judging” effectively means to have an opinion about something, it is actually physically impossible to never judge anyone ever (unless we just completely abstain from having opinions about people at all). Rather, the contrast is between humility and hypocrisy. Am I the sort of person who imposes double-standards on others? Or am I the sort of person who is willing to humbly acknowledge my own faults and show forbearance to those same faults in others?
Ironically, one of the surest ways to miss the point Jesus is making is to run around making blanket condemnations of others as “judgmental.” “You’re judging me! You’re so judgmental!” is itself a judgmental statement. To criticize someone for being judgmental is itself an act of hypocrisy, since one must engage in judgment to criticize judgment. No amount of semantic quibbling will negate this truth. (Of course, it would be doubly ironic if I did not mention the caveat that this statement itself is a form of “judging”—albeit by a standard that I hope is at least applied somewhat consistently.)
Granted, Jesus’ words mean something. Christians cannot simply make sweeping condemnations of others without first giving careful contemplation to how these condemnations affect themselves. There’s a reason why Paul condemns Gentile sins in Romans 1, only to suddenly start criticizing his fellow Jews in Romans 2 for all the ways that they practice the same behaviors. There’s a reason why Amos gave seven oracles against various nations (Amos 1:1-2:5), only to reserve his most harsh condemnations for his target audience of Israel (Amos 2:6-18). The same principle needs to be practiced today. Before we are so eager and willing to criticize the “others” in a group that is “not us,” we need to first give careful prayerful consideration to ways that we might be engaging in the same behaviors.
In the end, Jesus’ admonition not to judge (lest we fall prey to the standards we ourselves use) is actually a carefully reworded form of the second greatest command to love our neighbor as ourselves (Lev 19:18). If we love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves, then we will be willing to forgive our neighbor of the things we already forgive in ourselves. If we love our neighbor as we love ourselves, then we will not judge them with a standard without first equally applying it to ourselves. “In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 7:12).