What did Jesus mean when he said, "Judge not, and you will not be judged"? It's one of the most commonly quoted verses from the Bible (Luke 6:37). Many of us, and not merely politicians, invoke the verse as a first defense when accused of wrongdoing. It is also a favorite stone thrown by those outside the church to accuse Christians of hypocrisy.
In 2007 a book was published called UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity. It's based on research done among non-Christian 20-somethings. One of the authors' core findings was that nearly nine out of 10 young people view Christians as "judgmental." And given the prohibition against judging issued by Jesus, this would mean most people view Christians as hypocrites.
Given these findings, it's pretty important that both Christians and non-Christians understand what Jesus means when he says "judge not." The key is recognizing that the word judge can be used in two different ways in the New Testament. Sometimes judge is used to mean "judge between things," to differentiate, or discern. In this case we judge between right and wrong, good and evil, righteous and unrighteous.
But this kind of judging -- the act of discernment -- is not what Jesus is forbidding. In fact, throughout the Bible we are commanded to discern. In the very same discourse as the famous "judge not" statement, Jesus talks about having the discernment to see the difference between good people and evil people (Luke 6:43-45). He compares them to trees. Good trees, he says, produce good fruit, and bad trees produce bad fruit. The call to differentiate good from evil is to judge, to discern, correctly.
This is often what gets Christians into hot water in our uber-tolerant and increasingly diverse culture. When a Christian labels something as "wrong" or "evil," they are often pounced upon as being judgmental and out of step with Jesus. Sometimes this is the case, as I will discuss below, but very often the accusation is the result of a culture that no longer understands the difference between discernment and condemnation.
F.F. Bruce, a New Testament scholar, explains the linguistic dilemma this way: "Judgment is an ambiguous word, in Greek as in English: it may mean exercising a proper discernment, or it may mean sitting in judgment on people (or even condemning them)."
It is this second definition, to condemn, that Jesus forbids, and he makes that clear when the whole sentence in Luke 6 is read: "Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned." Jesus is saying the same thing in two ways -- a common rabbinical device at the time.
He's calling us to not condemn people, to not pass final judgment and declare them irretrievably guilty. This is an incredibly important idea if you understand the context in which Jesus was speaking. The entire culture of his day was predicated on the notion that some people were acceptable and others were not. And the way you defined yourself, your identity and place in the world, was by comparing and contrasting yourself with others.
So, for example, at that time Jews saw themselves as inherently better or more acceptable to God than non-Jews. They commonly referred to gentiles (non-Jews) as "dogs." And many Romans had equally dismissive views of the Jews. And these judgments continued even within each community. Rich people were seen as more blessed and acceptable to God than poor people. The healthy were seen as righteous, and those with diseases or disabilities were judged to be sinners receiving their due.
This is the judgment that Jesus says is absolutely wrong. When we condemn someone, we are declaring that they have no value, no worth, that they do not matter to us or God. And we do this as a means of elevating ourselves. The more people pushed below us, the higher in value we must be. Greg Boyd captures the problem of judging really well. He says, "You can't love and judge at the same time," because "it's impossible to ascribe unsurpassable worth to others when you're using others to ascribe worth to yourself."
This is the problem Jesus is addressing -- the idea that our worth requires someone else's condemnation.
Of course this wasn't just a problem in first-century Judea. Consider what Martin Luther King Jr. said in one of his sermons. He describes why segregation (a form of exclusion and judgment) is so wrong:
Segregation is not only inconvenient -- that isn't what makes it wrong. Segregation is not only sociologically untenable -- that isn't what makes it wrong. Segregation is not only politically and economically unsound -- that is not what makes it wrong. Ultimately, segregation is morally wrong and sinful. ... It's wrong because it substitutes an "I-It" relationship for the "I-Thou" relationship and relegates persons to the status of things.
Judgment causes us to see the other not as a person, but as a thing, as less human and therefore less valuable. And once we do that to a person or a group of people, it opens the door to all kinds of terrible evil -- segregation, injustice, abuse, even genocide. Jesus is warning us about excluding anyone, or seeing ourselves or our group as inherently better than any other. We may disagree and discern another person or group to be wrong, but when that discernment causes us to value another person or group less, then we've crossed the line into judgment, condemnation, and exclusion.
Obviously there are, and always will be, people and groups that we disagree with theologically, socially, or politically. But we seem to cross that line between discernment and judgment so easily today. In present political rhetoric, or in descriptions of other faiths and nationalities, we quickly devalue or write off "those people" as less valuable. We exclude them from the status that we feel privileged alone to occupy.
This seems to be the accepted posture on many political television and radio programs. Sometimes these talk show hosts speak about "liberals" as if they're demonic. Of course many liberal blogs caricature conservatives in equally disturbing ways. If you have strong political views, that's just fine. Defend your views, disagree with others, engage on the level of ideas -- but when we start to condemn those who disagree with our politics, when we see them as intrinsically inferior, we enter dangerous and decidedly un-Christian territory.
I wonder what constant exposure to this kind of rhetoric -- from either side of the political spectrum -- does to our souls. How it can warp our perception of other people and groups. If you engage these programs regularly, I would encourage you to use discernment (the good kind of judgment) to determine whether constantly exposing yourself to that kind of vitriol is helping you love others, or whether it is teaching you to judge and condemn in order to elevate your own sense of worth and rightness.
When we see other people as wrong, not just about what they believe, but in their core identity as people, then it's easy to convince ourselves that we don't have to love them, that we don't have to serve them, and that we don't have to respect them. This exclusion and condemnation of others fuels so much of what's broken in our world today. It's what convinces one group to kill another, or one person to abuse another.
But Jesus says, not so with you. Not among my people. The Christian is never to judge, never to condemn, never to exclude, never to see anyone as without value or dignity, even the person he or she disagrees with most. To quote Greg Boyd again, "The Christian's job is to agree with God that every person you meet was worth Jesus dying for." We cannot ascribe that kind of value and dignity to people and condemn them as worthless at the same time. It's just not possible.