Friday, April 15, 2011

Judge not?

When Jesus says, “Judge not, that you be not judged,” does he mean that we are never to find fault with other people’s behavior or try to correct them?

No, he doesn’t mean this at all; but it doesn’t stop people from quoting the verse in a such a way as to imply that we must never say one thing is better than another morally—one behavior versus another; one lifestyle versus another; one culture or civilization versus another; or one religion versus another.

To make judgments of this sort, we are told, violates Jesus’ command. And it’s ill-mannered, to boot. When our opponents quote this verse, they think it is sufficient to put a stop to the debate. They think they have used the one unanswerable argument against us. But there are a couple of ironies here.

In the first place, if the verse means what our opponents say it means—that we shouldn’t make any moral judgments whatsoever—then their quoting the verse is self-defeating. Those who use the verse in an attempt to put a stop to our making moral judgments are themselves making a moral judgment that moral judgment making is wrong.

The second irony is this: the people who use the verse in this way are people who don’t use the Bible as their standard for anything else but this!

Now, the notion that Jesus’ command, “Judge not, that you be not judged,” means that we are to make no moral judgments at all is, frankly, absurd because it’s impossible.

God has made us in his image, which includes, among other things, the ability to make moral judgments.

He has given us the ability to think, to reason, to perceive truth, to distinguish between right and wrong, good and evil. It’s impossible to think and not form moral judgments.

As creatures made in his image, we can no more not form moral judgments than we can not think. Try not thinking sometime. You can’t do it! And just as you can’t not think, you can’t not make moral judgments when you think.

So much of Jesus’ instruction, both in the immediate context of the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere, proceeds upon the assumption that we will (and we should!) make moral judgments.

For example, in the immediate context, Jesus commands us not to act like hypocrites (6:2, 5, 16). He is teaching us both by example and by precept to make a moral judgment concerning hypocrisy and those who practice it.

Consider also what Jesus says just a few verses after he says, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” In Matthew 7:6, he says, “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do now throw your pearls before pigs.” He is saying that there are people who are worthy of these titles—worthy to be called dogs and pigs—and Jesus expects us to judge them as such, that is, to come to the conclusion that that is the kind of men they are.

You make moral judgments concerning people all the time. Let me give you just one example: when you choose a babysitter for your children. You evaluate whether a potential babysitter is a good person or a bad one. I pity your children if you don’t!

In Matthew 7:15 Jesus says, “Beware of false prophets.” But how can we do this if we are to make no judgments?

In Luke 12:57, he says, “Why do you not judge for yourselves what is right [and by implication, what is wrong]?”

When Jesus himself was misjudged concerning how he kept the Sabbath, he didn’t say, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” No. He said, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment” (Jn. 7:24).

God calls us again and again to make moral judgments. Scripture teaches us that it is a mark of maturity to do so. The writer of Hebrews says, “Solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Heb. 5:12). It is a mark of maturity to do this!

“Judge not, that you be not judged,” is undoubtedly one of the most widely misunderstood passages in the entire Bible; and I dare say that it is precisely because it is so widely misunderstood that it is also one of the most widely loved and quoted verses in the Bible.

People who wouldn’t be able to quote any other verse of the Bible to save their lives, can quote this one. They can’t tell you where to find it, but they know it’s there…somewhere. And boy, are they glad it’s there, too, because they think it gets them off the hook of moral accountability.

People use it as a means to create an atmosphere of moral ambiguity, which is to say, an atmosphere in which the distinction between right and wrong is not clearly maintained.

And there are people who have a vested interest in keeping things this way. Evil thrives in an atmosphere of moral ambiguity.

It is not true that all human choices are equal, and therefore to be equally affirmed. It is not true that all religions are equally valid; that all people are equally virtuous (or vicious); that all civilizations are morally equivalent.

We must never fall into the trap of believing that Jesus endorses this nonsense when he says, “Judge not, that you be not judged.”

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