“Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” – Jesus, Luke 6:37
When Jesus said, “Do not judge,” what did he mean?
This statement is used in pop culture as a way of discouraging moral judgments. It is taken to mean, I think, “Do not say to someone else, ‘What you are doing is wrong.’” But this is far too simple of an explanation and it doesn’t take long to debunk this interpretation.
“Do not judge” is often used to mean, “You’re old interpretation of morality (especially in regards to marriage/sexuality) is too restrictive. You really should not make moral judgments.” But, first, this itself is a moral judgment. In this very statement, Jesus is making a moral claim. He is saying that you “ought not” to “judge” and you “ought” to forgive. Second, while the culture’s interpretation of what is right and wrong has changed, it still very much makes moral judgments about what is good and what is evil.
In our culture no one would deny that slavery, sex trafficking, murder, and being a bully are wrong. And when we say they are wrong we don’t only mean that we don’t like them, but that they break some standard of what is good. Even if I “liked” slavery, it would still be wrong. You might object and say, “Yes, those things are wrong, but only because they hurt other people. Whether or not someone is injured should be the standard by which something is right or wrong.” However, I don’t think we even apply this evenly either. The root of slavery is racism. Most people would say that racism, even if it only resides within the mind of the racist, is wrong. Hatred is the root of murder. Again, who will argue that hatred is not wrong? And the root of bullying is contempt. Contempt is a matter of the heart. It means to look down on someone else. But don’t we say with moral fervor, “Don’t look down on other people because they are different?”
So it is clear that we all make moral judgments. This is true in every culture across time. Now, you may raise another objection: All cultures have different “lists” of what is right and wrong. Some things are considered morally objectionable in one culture and not in another. Doesn’t this prove that morality, while possibly sincerely felt, is really just arbitrary? I don’t think it does. That’s because while all cultures differ slightly, there is actually remarkable common ground here, too. Every culture agrees that there at least is a standard, even if they don’t agree on exactly what that standard is. Instead of demonstrating the morality is arbitrary, this demonstrates that the existence of some moral standard is, in fact, universally known, though each culture may only see it dimly.
Finally, the context of this verse makes it clear that Jesus is not condemning moral judgments. Consider the word picture in Luke 6:43-45.
“No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thornbushes, or grapes from briers. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.”
Jesus states pretty clearly here that the heart of a man (whether he is good or bad) can be “recognized”, at least to some degree, by what he says and does. Jesus is making a moral judgment, and he gives us a clue about how to do the same.
So if it doesn’t mean “Don’t make moral judgments” what does it mean?
First, he means, “Do not take the position of God, the position of the perfect and righteous judge.” There are a few things which qualify a person to be the perfect judge. He must know all the circumstances. He must know the person’s heart. He must, himself, be free from any condemnation. Only one person fits that bill: God. In our “moral judgments”, if they must be made, we need to remember that we don’t ever know all the circumstances, or the true position of the person’s heart, nor are we free from accusation. The best we have are clues, and we ourselves are nearly always guilty of the same sort of sin, even if it manifests itself in different ways in our lives.
Second, he means, “Do not judge unfairly.” There are a few ways that we judge unfairly.
We can judge based on outward appearance: “That person looks like a bad apple.”
We can assume the worst about someone: “That action must mean that they are a jerk.” It is a good rule to interpret someone else’s words and actions not in the worst possible light, but in the best.
We can “pre-judge” or judge solely on a first impression, assuming that this first impression gives us an accurate picture of their whole life.
Finally, we could judge someone based on their group; stereotyping.
Third, he means, “Don’t be a hypocrite.”
“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? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” – Luke 6:41-42
The problem with the brother pointing out the speck wasn’t precisely that he was pointing out a speck, it was that he had a plank in his own eye. The problem was hypocrisy. It was pointing out the sin in someone else without dealing with his own sin first.
It is also worth pointing out that this principle “do no judge” comes from a larger principle, which is sort of a restatement of the golden rule. In this section Jesus is basically saying, “do to others what you want (God or others) to do to you.”
If you don’t want to judged unfairly, don’t judge others unfairly.
If you don’t want to be condemned, don’t condemn.
If you want to be forgiven, forgive others.
If you want to be provided for, give generously to others.
If you want to be measured in some way, use that same measure on others.
I want to be judged fairly. I want people to assume the best about me and my motives. I don’t want to be judged because I am part of a particular group. I don’t want others to judge me based on a single experience. I do want people to call me out if I am careening off a cliff! I need other people to hold me accountable. But I want them to do it in a gracious way.
A final word of caution: Moral judgments are always dangerous because we are so good at self-deception. We almost always underestimate our own sin and we almost always overestimate our own knowledge. When making a moral judgment, it is always safest to check what is in your own eye first, and often just leave it at that.
Read all Luke 6 over at BibleGateway.com.