We may not know where it’s found, what context it’s used in, but we know it’s in there. Grouped with other well-known verses like the Golden Rule and most of the 10 commandments is the Biblical phrase “Don’t judge.” To quote the verse in its entirety we can look to Matthew 7:1 where Jesus, in the middle of his sermon on the mount, proclaims, “Don’t judge people, and you won’t be judged yourself.” And many reading this quietly or enthusiastically proclaim, “Amen! That’s right!”
It appears easy enough on the surface and to our earbud-filled ears it sounds ideal. This has become the anthem of our day and the go-to pitch for cultural peace and harmony. If only everyone lived this out the world would be in such better shape, right? But would it?
Today, we interpret Jesus’ statement as a call for the courtroom of cultural and moral judgment to be being emptied for the sake of tolerance and equality. The new standard is to remove the judge from the stand, adjourn the jury, and simply let people live their lives in peace away from scrutiny. This is becoming the height of cultural perfectionism and to make any statement that even remotely shows disagreement with another’s opinion, choices, or lifestyle is to pick up the judge’s gavel and declare a verdict of guilt. And who are you, or who am I to have such authority to swing that gavel? Therefore, leave it lie. Don’t judge. Clear the courtroom, for the court of public (or even private) opinion is now adjourned.
Yet, upon closer evaluation we discover that this barren hall we desire simply does not and can not exist. How can it? Someone has to sit behind the bench and declare a recess. The court cannot determine this for itself. When someone says “don’t judge” they have just declared a court order, a judgement you could say, on the rights of another. To tell another person not to judge is to determine that your verdict on the situation overrules theirs. You become the judge behind the bench. The same question then arises in different form as we ask who then does has the authority to declare such a verdict?
“Fine,” we may say, “I won’t tell others not to judge, I’ll just practice that behavior myself by not judging others.” Well this sounds fine and reasonable, but you are still elevating your ideals over those of others even if you choose not to express them. At some point, because others will not carry your same sense of quiet rejection of judgment, your values are going to clash with those of others. And what then? And where does this value begin and end? Surely some things are worthy of judgment, while others situations demand judgment. Your value of not judging others simply can not apply to all people and all things in all situations. Life is full of decisions, choices, judgment calls and verdicts of right and wrong. To make those decisions, some sort of court order must be exercised. By this I mean that even your right not to judge others and the extent of that right has to come from somewhere or someone that you deem authoritative. Again the question; how holds such authority? Therefore, the court, even if muted, is still in session.
Then where does this leave us? If we go back to Matthew we find that Jesus alone appears to carry the authority to make such a statement. He alone is the only person who can decree “do not judge” because he is the only man who himself is blameless. He has the moral authority to make this declaration because in the courtroom where we ridicule and fight with one another, Jesus stands above it all clean and guiltless. Therefore, when we look at the Scriptures we see Jesus as judge, as the one who declares right and wrong, guilt and innocence. So, he gets to swing the gavel while we sit in the defendants chair.
In this way, Jesus is right in that we should not judge others. We have no right to judge because we are just as guilty as the person next to us. What an awful place to be in. Each day we find ourselves dragged into the judgement seat. No wonder we want to defer judgment on others because perhaps by doing so we can escape judgment ourselves. But once again, as pointed out earlier, the court is in session and we find ourselves on the stand with a tree in our eye. We plead our case on a daily basis but to no avail. The guilt remains…unless it can be taken by someone else.
At this point the scene in the courtroom changes as Jesus, the innocent and blameless judge, takes our place and receives our sentence upon himself. He has ruled and found us guilty and worthy of death, yet he takes the guilt from us and goes to death on a cross in our stead. As a result, the trial is now over. The courtroom has been cleared because the verdict was handed down when Jesus went to the cross. The moment we believe in Jesus as our substitute, as the one who accepted our conviction upon himself, the gavel fell and the court dismissed. Jesus went to trial for you and for me.
Now I’m no longer required to stand in any courtroom and I can take any opinion leveled at me because I already have my verdict. This verdict also frees me from the need to elevate myself above others because I am as guilty as they are. This freedom has nothing to do with my worth but everything to do with Jesus’ value. No longer am I judged by others because my sentence is in and I have been found innocent by the blood of Jesus.
You see the problem we have with the courtroom is not the judgment, it’s the guilt and sentencing that comes with it. We want the court of law but we don’t want the verdict that we know is coming against us. We want so desperately to avoid our own guilt that we posture to refer from judging the guilt of others in hope that we too will be spared. This is why others want the court dismissed. If we don’t judge others, maybe the log in our own eye will be overlooked.
However, if we just receive God’s verdict in Jesus, then we can actually help one another remove the planks and splinters we have in our eyes. As neighbors we can become closer because our desire to is love and help one another. This just is not possible if we’re all walking around with oaks growing through our pupils. As believers we become free to be judged by others, to be criticized, because the opinion of the only one who counts has been given. And He finds me valuable. He finds you valuable as well.