Steve Kerr is a pretty typical coach in how he approaches referees: the Golden State Warriors coach sometimes rides them when they make unjust calls. “I would never say things that I do to referees to a person in normal life,” he told Michael Lewis on a recent podcast. “I feel like there is this personal offense, like something unfair is happening.” I get it. Every time I watch my beloved Kentucky Wildcats, I yell, “That’s pitiful, ref!”
If our disdain for being told we’re wrong was limited to referees and sports, our predicament wouldn’t be so dire. Yet everyone, from toddlers to retirees, wants their behavior justified. We want the ref to make the call against the other team; we want friends and family to approve of our life choices; we want everyone on social media to agree with us. We don’t mind a fair and impartial judge—so long as he rules in our favor. We want an advocate in a judge’s robe.
Consequently, Jesus’s prohibition against judging in Matthew 7:1 has become a mantra in our autonomy-idolizing, referee-despising culture. When others try to judge our actions, we simply remind everyone, “Judge not.” We call on Jesus of Nazareth to aid the politician who has a questionable voting record, the celebrity embroiled in his latest scandal, or basically anyone who has made a morally questionable decision.
This pithy verse is the ultimate trump card for securing an undisputed victory in any argument. Here’s how it usually works: quote Jesus (“Judge not, that you be not judged”); act like anyone who disagrees is foolish or intolerant; then make a clean getaway with Jesus at the wheel. This is the mic drop of all mic drops.
Sadly, too few onlookers will paraphrase Inigo Montoya: “I don’t think that verse means what you think it means.”
Flourishing and Judgment
To understand Jesus’s famous soundbite, it’s worth considering the equally famous sermon it comes from. With his antidote for anxiety ringing in the crowd’s ears, Jesus changes direction: “Do not judge in order that you may not be judged!”
Wait, what? Jesus has just addressed the daily judgments people make about what they eat and wear, explaining that one key to life in his kingdom is not worrying about those things. So, what kind of judgments is Jesus condemning?
The Sermon on the Mount provides a path to flourishing, but the path is laden with judgment. Jesus does not prohibit the moral and relational judgments necessary to navigate a fallen world and pursue his reign. For example:
- In 5:17–20, Jesus doesn’t throw away the basis for his audience’s decision-making—the law and the prophets—but rather fulfills them. He then commands his followers to display their God-given righteousness by keeping and teaching the law’s commands.
- In 5:21–48, Jesus explains that obedience in his kingdom goes beyond the symptoms of law-breaking, to the heart and spirit of what the law teaches about attitudes toward God and others.
- In 6:1–24, Jesus exhorts his hearers to give, pray, fast, and pursue wealth motivated by love for God rather than the praise of people. Such obedience will be judged positively by God.
- In 7:13–14, Jesus uses a comparison to make a judgment about the broad road that leads to destruction as well as the difficult, narrow gate that leads to flourishing under his kingship.
- In 7:15–19, Jesus teaches his followers to judge whether a prophet is true or false by the fruit his life and teaching produce. This wise judgment must take place, for God’s final judgment looms on the horizon.
So if Jesus fills the sermon with various kinds of judgment that lead to flourishing, what kind of judgment does he condemn?
Don’t Weigh with Broken Scales
In Matthew 7:2, Jesus explains that “judging” is a lot like measuring (Mark 4:24–25; Luke 6:37–42). Our culture still makes this comparison, in fact, by portraying justice with a balancing scale. With poetic parallelism, Jesus tells his hearers to judge with a fair scale, rather than the unfair scales they experience regularly. Judge with integrity and empathy, not hypocrisy.
With the tension building, Jesus tells a joke. It’s memorable, funny, and packs a punch. Imagine the scenario Jesus presents: one man has a splinter in his eye, the other has a two-by-four. All of us have had an irritating object in our eyes, but hopefully we can’t say the same about a beam of wood. There are two implications in this analogy. First, how could anyone see a splinter without noticing a massive beam? Second, why does the guy with a piece of lumber sticking out of his face offer to do painstaking eye surgery on his neighbor’s eye?
Jesus calls the person with the beam hypocrites. So, what’s the fix? Does Jesus tell both guys to find a mirror and deal with their eye problems by themselves? No. Jesus tells the guy with the beam to get it out before helping his brother with the splinter. Nevertheless, he doesn’t remove the responsibility of believers to help spot and remove sin from the lives of those they love: “and then you will see clearly to take out the splinter from your brother’s eye” (7:5).
This passage isn’t difficult because Jesus forbids making judgments; it’s difficult because Jesus demands his followers show humility when they judge—something that doesn’t come easily. Jesus forbids them from being hypocrites and making hypocritical judgments.
Principles for ‘Judge Not’
At least four brief principles stand out when trying to grasp what Jesus is—and is not—saying here.
1. Be careful about using a single Bible verse to make a point.
I don’t know anyone who likes it when their words get twisted, so let’s do our best not to do it to Jesus or the Scriptures.
2. Make judgments with empathy and grace.
Followers of Jesus must make moral judgments, with a full awareness of their own sinfulness (Gal. 6:1–2).
3. Never judge with hypocrisy.
Jesus commands his followers to make judgments about sin; however, we must diligently avoid viewing ourselves as better than others who sin.
4. Don’t cower in fear when a judgment needs to be made.
We shouldn’t use Jesus’s warning against hypocrisy as an excuse to absolve us from declaring unpopular truth.
In the end, Jesus is the advocate we need and long for. He is just and the justifier of the person who trusts in him (Rom. 3:26). He doesn’t turn a blind eye to sin; instead, he sees it—and then takes the judgment we deserve so we can stand justified and live under his wise rule.
Let’s pursue flourishing together in Jesus’s kingdom. May he empower us to judge with clarity, humility, courage, and with beam-free eyes.