Excuse me, sir, but if I'm not mistaken, you have a bit of a splinter in your eye. Doesn't that hurt? Didn't you notice it there? Well, that thing could get infected if you leave it in. Now, I happen to have a pair of tweezers, and I'd like to consider myself a bit of an expert at this. You can trust me. May I go ahead and just get that splinter for you? … What do you mean, no? What do you mean, I have something in my own eye? No I don't! Don't you think if something that big were in my eye, I'd notice it? Well, if you're going to be ungrateful, maybe someone else could use my help.
Ah, yes, you, ma'am – you have a splinter in your eye, too! May I get that for you? No?!? And you think I have some hunk of lumber in my eye, too? You're the second person to say that today. Come to think of it, I heard that last night. I wonder... Oh! I feel it! I've got to get it out!
Huh, would you look at that? I was blind... but now I see. What a world of difference that makes. Doesn't it? I wonder how I couldn't notice that was there? I guess it's easier to see someone else's flaws than my own.
Do you think there was a chuckle that sunny Galilean afternoon, when Jesus drew that mental picture for all the crowd gathered 'round? The image of a wannabe eye-surgeon, scrambling around to look at the little specks of sawdust in other people's eyes, while oblivious to the humongous thing sticking out of his own? And it sure was humongous. I toned it down. Because the word Jesus used, which some Bible translations render as 'log' and others as 'beam' or 'plank,' is the word they used back in that day for a roof beam – the kind we have in this here church, the big ones that needed fixed after the tornado. Can you imagine somebody walking around with one of those things jutting out his eyeball? And not even knowing it's there? Talk about a hazard!
And Jesus drew that picture to illustrate one simple principle: “Judge not” (Matthew 7:1). It's such a simple clause. Two words. And yet few verses have become the battleground for as much controversy as this one. It used to be that our culture's favorite Bible verse, or at least it seemed like it, was John 3:16: “For God so loved the world...” That's what we were all about, at least in what we professed. That's no longer our culture's verse. That's not their favorite. Instead, this has become the most widely used verse in America. And that wouldn't be a problem if it weren't because it was the most widely misused verse in America!
This country has an obsession with judgment, or what it thinks is judgment. These days, witnessing to just about any standard or norm of behavior is considered 'judgment.' Making any moral distinctions is considered as 'judgment.' If you happen to mention what the Bible says about marriage, that'll get filed under 'judgment' real quick. The same goes at times for drug use, or petty theft, or certain political views, or plenty of other things. Having a restrictive stance, and saying it applies to other people as much as to yourself, is automatically called 'judgment.' And there are few things modern America views as unacceptable vices as much as 'judgment' – 'intolerance,' they might call it, or even 'bigotry' at times.
The irony is that, for a culture that's so obsessed with avoiding 'judgment,' it's a pretty judgmental culture itself. It still draws lines in the sand, if not always where we'd draw them. It still believes in absolutes, even if it says it doesn't. Self-expression, the way you self-identify and present yourself to the work – as long as it doesn't flout the culture's rules on 'judgment,' it's sacrosanct. And any other view must, in the culture's eyes, be judged and removed from public view. But some of our culture's absolutes are still good ones. It still upholds the need for men to treat women with equal dignity and respect – and that's exactly right. And our culture is very quick to judge those who fall short of that standard.
You could go on and on. We live in a paradox. Our culture is obsessed with avoiding judgment, at least what it thinks is judgment, while freely engaging in judgment in ways that are almost unprecedented. Think for just a moment how much judgment you think you've heard this election cycle. Think how much judgment you hear around town in the latest gossip.
We have entire entertainment enterprises whose main attraction is the chance to enjoy the pleasures of judgment within the safety of our own homes, staring at the TV. Our culture is very confused, even if it thinks it isn't, when it comes to judgment.
So we have to ask, “What did Jesus mean, when he said, 'Judge not'?” And that's a bit of a tricky question – the word we have in Greek there has as much variability as our English word. But from the context, we can safely say a few things.
First, Jesus is not telling us that there's no such thing as sin – that whatever you want to do is cool, at least as long as it doesn't hurt anybody. Jesus isn't saying that, and he never would say that, because it just isn't true, and nobody knows that better than Jesus. There is such a thing as sin. There is such a thing as wrongdoing. There is evil in the world, and it is not the same as good; there are definite distinctions between right and wrong.
Second, Jesus is not telling us to never, under any circumstances, mention that such-and-such a specific thing is a sin. Jesus himself listed various sins: “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander – these are what defile a person” (Matthew 15:19-20). So did his apostles – they clearly marked out some behaviors as sinful, and they weren't shy about public airings of those lists: “Put to death what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which is idolatry. … In these you once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth; and do not lie to one another” (Colossians 3:6-9). “The works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness,” and so on (Galatians 5:19-21).
Third, Jesus is not telling us to never, under any circumstances, notice that someone is engaged in a sinful pattern of behavior or say that to them. He may be telling us how and when, and we'll come back to that; but he clearly isn't telling us never to do it. He did it: he called out the Pharisees for their sin. He named Herod's sins as sin. He used the pagan Romans as a stock example of sin. And his apostles went on to name sin outside the church and challenge sin inside the church.
And fourth, Jesus is not telling us to never, under any circumstances, draw the conclusion that a certain person may or may not be saved. That's especially true among people who don't profess to be believers. Jesus has taught us that without faith in him as risen Savior and ruling Lord, there's no salvation. He is the Way; his is the only name under heaven by which we can be saved, rescued from our sin and its eternal consequences. He is the Truth; and whatever dares to contradict him is simply wrong. And he is the Life; every other option leaves us dead in our sins, but he is the sole source of vitality, human flourishing as God designed it. If someone does not even claim to trust and follow him, then it should be obvious to us that they're still outside salvation – not to say they can't be saved, or won't be saved, but that they aren't saved in their unbelief.
But even among professing believers, Jesus talks – and we'll get there in a couple weeks – about knowing them by their fruits. That distinguishes between real believers, real disciples, and nominal believers, mere claimants to the Christian name. Some of those fruits are theological – they have to do with what we believe. If I say I believe in Jesus, but I think he was a great and glorious prophet who witnessed to Israel and then skipped the cross and ascended straight to heaven, that doesn't make me a Christian; it makes me a Muslim. If I say that I believe in Jesus, but I think he was a creature God created first, and that he was an angel before his life-force was put in Mary's womb, and that after his death he stopped existing for a while but was recreated as a spirit without a body, that doesn't make me a Christian; it makes me a Jehovah's Witness. Those are false doctrines. Real believers, once taught the faith, profess the faith.
But some of those fruits are practical – they have to do with what we practice, what we do, how we live. Not to belabor the point, but imagine if I said this: “Oh, yeah, I said the sinner's prayer once. That was about forty years ago. I guess I meant it, at the time. Do I have a relationship with Jesus now? I dunno, maybe. I talk to him when I need something. Not sure if he's really there. But if he is out there, I know I can talk to him just as well when I'm out hunting as I can in church, there's for sure. And I don't let him tell me what to do – I want to treat my neighbors the way I want; I want to behave and believe how I want. I'm sure Jesus would be okay with that. And if he ain't, I don't want to hear it.”
If I said that, if I lived it out, you'd be justified in looking at my fruit and having questions whether I'm really a believer, or just one in name only. Even Paul, the great teacher of grace, followed a list of sins by saying that “those who make a practice of doing such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:21).
So if Jesus isn't telling us those things, what is he saying? As I've been studying this passage, “Judge not,” it seems the best way to explain is to say that, here, 'judge' means 'condemn.' And more specifically: To judge someone means to step into a God-like position above them, to look down at their real or perceived flaws, and to render a verdict with the pretense of divine authority. That's what it means to judge, here.
That's why James writes that someone who judges his brother, while pretending to follow the Law, is actually judging and condemning the Law. Because the Law did not set you up in that role. The Law did not authorize you as a judge of your equals, your own brothers and sisters in the family of faith. If you grab that role that the Law didn't give you, you're effectively saying that the Law was wrong, and the Law needs to be fixed; you're taking God's word and changing it, to make yourself a judge (James 4:11). But, he says, “There is only one Lawgiver and Judge – he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?” (James 4:12).
Paul says the same thing. When you look at other Christians, other believers, they are not your servants. They do not live to please you. They belong to the Lord – the same Lord that you do. They are his servants. And so they answer to him, not to you. “Who are you,” Paul asks, “to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own Master that he stands or falls. And” – here Paul tucks in the gospel of grace, thank God – “he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand” (Romans 14:4).
We can't pass judgment on each other, because we don't own each other; we don't stand in a position of heavenly authority to do so, because we are not heavenly masters over other believers. We are not God. We are called to imitate God, but in his character, not his position, except insofar as he has licensed us to represent him. And this is one where he hasn't. We are not heavenly masters over other believers. We are fellow servants, equals. And all of us will stand, as equals, at the judgment seat for a final performance review. “So then each of us will give an account of himself to God. Therefore, let us not pass judgment on one another any longer” (Romans 14:12-13).
So both Paul and James agree on this point, because they agree with Jesus. This is the same reason why Jesus uses the word 'hypocrite' again (Matthew 7:5), picking it up from the last chapter. Remember, a 'hypocrite' is literally an actor in a play – someone who assumes a role that isn't his own. In Matthew 6, Jesus warned about being like the 'hypocrites,' the Pharisees who turned their religion into public performance art to get praise and adulation – a reputation for righteousness that they didn't deserve. They played the part of a righteous person, but inwardly it was all about themselves, not about God. Here, the 'hypocrite' does something similar. This 'hypocrite' plays the role of master, a sinless moral superior, who can reach out and pick apart the flaws of others.
And it's hypocrisy, play-acting, because the 'hypocrite' not only isn't a master, but isn't even a moral superior! He's got a big ol' roof beam stuck in his eye – he's as blind as the rest! The 'hypocrite' acts the part of the master and abandons the role of fellow-servant; he acts like he's an eye surgeon and forgets he's a patient in the waiting room (Matthew 7:4).
And what gets in his own eye? Partly his own other sins – the same things everyone else has – but partly also the sin of judgmentalism – the intrinsic blasphemy of setting himself up as judge.
That's the problem with judging. We set ourselves up as God. But we aren't God. Not only aren't we God, we aren't even sinless. We don't keep God's Law perfectly ourselves – not even close. And we certainly flunk and break the Law, and thus become law-breakers and guilty of the whole thing, if we arrogate to ourselves the authority to judge.
“Judge not, lest ye be judged” (Matthew 7:1) – if we fall prey to the sin of judgmentalism, won't we have to answer to God for that? Isn't there a risk in not repenting of it, of not bringing it under the forgiveness Jesus offers and laying it aside? If we judge, we're setting ourselves up to be judged for it.
But not only don't we keep God's Law, we don't even keep our own. The standards we hold others to, we're prone to break. And that makes us doubly hypocrites. “For with the judgment you pronounce, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Matthew 7:2). Even if God held us just to our own standards, the standards we employ against everyone else to set us up as superior, none of us would actually pass the test. None of us have lived lives that perfectly accord with even our finely tailored ethics, which we devise to justify ourselves. The very standards we concoct are our own undoing.
The more we play-act the role of judge, the more we set ourselves up for failure. The more we campaign against this or that sin in others, the more we condemn them for it and use it as a point of pride to pat ourselves on the back, the more it merely highlights our sinfulness and becomes the standard by which our sinfulness can be demonstrated to us.
Jesus offers us a solution. He wants to teach us the right way. We have to keep a focus on our own sin. It must have been a challenge for the disciples. Especially the Twelve. They felt proud – proud that they, and not their neighbors or cousins or whatever, had been handpicked by Jesus. Can you imagine? They were probably tempted to think of themselves as better. And now they're hearing the Sermon on the Mount. They hear him talk about throwing the kingdom open wide to people just like them – common folks, like fishermen and farm boys and ordinary people. They hear him say that they – they, and not others – will be salt and light for the world.
And they hear him explain the Law and how to get ahead of it by the Spirit. Before the Law says, “Thou shalt not,” the Spirit will cleanse hearts of the desire. Forget murder; the Spirit creates hearts of peace. Forget adultery; the Spirit creates hearts of pure commitment. Forget divorce; the Spirit creates hearts of contentment. Forget oath-making and oath-breaking; the Spirit creates hearts of simple honesty. Forget regulating retaliation; the Spirit creates hearts of forgiveness. And forget hating enemies; the Spirit creates hearts of love for even them. And the Spirit knocks down idols – idols like praise, wealth, and security.
And what Jesus wants us to do is to reflect on our own lives – how do they match up? Do they look Spirit-led? Am I living toward what the Spirit makes possible, what Jesus calls us to? But what the disciples have been thinking – and Jesus knows it – is, “Ooh, boy, my neighbor Ben really needs to hear that bit on lust – he's got a problem. Oh, and Susie down the road keeps grudges; that bit is perfect for her, I'll have to share that with her later. Now Jesus is saying something about God and Mammon, and that makes me think of those fat cats on Wall Street – wish they were here to listen to Jesus. And what was that Jesus said about not worrying? I'll share that with cousin Zeke, he has anxiety issues. Thanks be to God that I am not like those other people!”
It sounds grotesque, when you say it out loud, doesn't it? But Jesus knows our hearts. Jesus knows that we can hear even his own words, aimed directly at our hearts, and we will instinctively pretend their main focus is on somebody else. We're inclined to maximize everybody else's flaws and minimize our own. We have a tendency to look around and see everyone's little splinters as glaring, massive problems. But when it comes to our own, we pretend it's little and unobtrusive.
And that tendency is a sin especially prominent in the church, sad to say – which is partly why 'judgmental' is one of the first words that comes to American unbelievers' minds when they think of Christianity. And we have to answer for that. So often, we aren't even judging people for their sins against God's standards; we're judging people for their violations of our tastes and preferences.
What Jesus is telling us is that our first focus should be on ourselves. What's stuck in our eye should be, to us, like a big roof beam (Matthew 7:3). Dealing with sin in our own lives should be primary; it should be first and foremost. That should be what is most obvious to us. When our focus is there, then we take what Jesus has been saying, and we apply it to ourselves. We ourselves learn from it.
And once we do, then we can go to other people. But not to judge them. Because now that we've wrestled with sin ourselves, we have to admit that we're not intrinsically better. We aren't exempt. We aren't sinless, we aren't superior. We're fellow-servants with our brothers and sisters in the family of faith.
And then, if it's needed, we can gently correct our fellow-servants' sins – without judging them. We can say, “Hey, I have a confession to make. I've really wrestled with this or that sin. And I'm seeing that you're in the same boat with me. Can we journey together?” Imagine that: coming alongside a fellow traveler, and finding the way together. That's what Jesus is telling us: “First take the beam out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye” (Matthew 7:5).
First, deal with your own sin. Address that with all you've got. Bring it before God in earnest prayer. And then you can help others. Not as a judge. We aren't asked to be judges. We are asked to be witnesses. We don't judge others; we bear witness to how the Judge rules – and how the Judge offers us his heart, since Christ already served our sentence. And we do that as people who are honest about our own sinfulness, our own propensity to sit at the defendants' table. We bear witness to our fellow-servants, our fellow-subjects, and we journey together toward a healthier life, one that follows the Spirit who inspired the Law.
What Jesus is asking of us in this passage is for us to become a clear-eyed church. Step down from the judge's chair. When you hear the word, when you hear God's call, when you hear God's condemnation of sin, think first of yourself and the big beam in your eye. And recognize that all those sinners around you, even in the church – they're really people just like you. They have stories, they have motives, they have fears and wants and loves, they have souls. They don't need your judgment, because you aren't their judge. But they may need your help as a brother, a sister, a neighbor, a witness, a fellow-servant.
Let's spend this week inspecting our eyes – our own eyes, not one anothers'. And then, only then, can we see clearly enough to really help each other on this pilgrim walk of holiness. Thanks be to God, our one Lawgiver, our one Judge – and our Savior, Advocate, and Defender through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.