Ed Rybarczyk at-home in his podcasting studio/office….
By Ed Rybarczyk
Many believe Jesus’ most important words were, “Thou shalt not judge.” Today, in a divisive society permeated by rage, name-calling, and moral confusion, a non-judgmental attitude is prized. But when Jesus uttered those words, was He really ruling out all judgment? What did He really mean? Perhaps it would be helpful to see Jesus in His historic context.
Everywhere he went Jesus engaged Jews and their understanding of the Jewish law. On that front, the Old Testament repeatedly commands us to make judgments and guides how to make them. For instance:
Exodus 23:6: “Do not pervert justice for the sake of lawsuits from the poor. Stay away from false charges.”
Leviticus 19:15: “Do not render an unrighteous judgment; do not be partial to the poor or show deference to the great.”
Proverbs 31:9: “Speak and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.”
The Old Testament is uniform: if there are no possible distinctions to be made, if there is no judgment for crimes, there can be no societal justice. Again, civil justice is only possible if righteous and fitting judgment is made.
But there’s further nuance to be gleaned from Old Testament passages, nuance that promotes the ancient adage, “Do not judge a book by its cover.” For example, in 1 Samuel 16:7 God said to Samuel about Eliab, a potential candidate for king, “Do not look on his appearance or height…for I do not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
That same appearance-versus-hidden-qualities distinction appears in 2 Chronicles 6:30: “May you hear us, Lord, from heaven…forgive us…for only you know the human heart.” The Jewish law was clear: we cannot know a person’s deepest motives by looking at externals, only God peers into the soul. God sees what we cannot see.
Because we know Jesus regarded the Old Testament as God’s authoritative revelation, we are not surprised to learn that He affirmed it in His own teachings. Here He is in His Sermon on the Mount, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while a 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 neighbor’s eye. Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine.” (Matthew 7:1-6)
The first thing we notice is that Jesus was affirming Old Testament teaching: we should not judge based on appearances. Just because someone has a speck in their eye – colloquial speech for a character flaw – does not mean we should condemn them. We have no idea why they have that flaw and we have no idea whether they fight against that flaw. Jesus is clearly echoing the Jewish law that we not judge based on appearances.
Second, we hear Jesus emphasizing the matter of motives. How can we assume what someone else’s motives are when we do not even pay attention to our own motives? Seriously, we believe we can clearly see the sliver in their eye but we cannot see the log in our own eye? In Jesus’ thinking that is an ugly disconnect. Today we might call that sliver-and-log dynamic a matter of projection: we land on and emphasize a minor flaw we see in someone else’s character, a flaw about which we ourselves are having a profound struggle. Judging like that is clearly hypocritical. On this front once again we see Jesus affirming ancient Jewish teaching: don’t assume you know someone’s motives. Only God sees the heart.
Third – and this point is commonly overlooked regarding Jesus’ own judgment – He positively commends we make judgments. At the end of his comments on bad judgment (Matthew 7:6), he pivots to commend good judgment – “Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine.” Simple logic dictates in order to know who is a dog or who is a swine – more colloquial speech, this time about those who would trash holy things – that a recognition, a distinction, a judgment must positively be made. Yet again? That process of discernment echoes the Old Testament on making righteous judgments. For instance, Jesus directly commanded proper discernment in John 7:24: “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.”
What are our seminal take-aways from Jesus on judgment? 1) Don’t judge by appearances, only God sees the heart. 2) Don’t be a hypocrite and condemn people who have less of a character struggle about something than you do. And, 3) when you do judge do so with righteousness. In all of those Jesus was taking established Old Testament teaching and passing it along in language familiar to the common folks. Even more? Jesus was in fact not saying what is so commonly attributed to Him: that He was against making judgments. What He did want? Righteous, just, and fair judgments.
Ed Rybarczyk, Ph.D., is both an ordained minister and a retired History of Theology professor. He now produces and hosts the Uncensored Unprofessor podcast @uncensoredunprofessor.com. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.