“Stop judging, that you may not be judged” is one of the best-known and least-understood Bible verses
A few years ago, I recall hearing that the most well-known of scriptural passages had changed from John 3:16 to Matthew 7:1 — “Stop judging, that you may not be judged.”
It is also one of the least understood passages. Perhaps nowhere is this seen more than in the topic of sexual ethics, with the phrase being catapulted into a conversation upon the slightest scintilla of a whiff that the activities within someone’s lifestyle arrangement are not being condoned, let alone celebrated.
But judging someone’s actions is hardly the same as trying to judge his or her soul. We cannot waste our time attempting to judge someone’s soul in the same way that we cannot waste our time attempting to draw a square circle – it is impossible, so do not do it.
Let us look further at the next portion of the passage, which is often neglected: “For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you” (Matthew 7:2). In other words, do not apply a moral standard to others that you are unwilling to apply to yourself. Yet, apply it with equity: “Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove that splinter from your eye,’ while the wooden beam is in your eye? You hypocrite, remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:3-5).
Did you catch that last sentence? Address the ills in your own soul, and then address the ills in your neighbor’s. This is far from the commonly held belief that Jesus expects us to look the other way and not seek to charitably correct others’ faults as well. After all: “Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him” (Luke 17:3); “Stop judging by appearances, but judge justly” (John 7:24). We must thereby recall that one of the spiritual works of mercy is to “admonish the sinner.”
Yet another unfortunate circumstance that we find with the misuse of Matthew 7:1 is that many who brandish it like a mace in conquest against encouraging others’ sanctity end up pretending that not even God himself exacts ultimate judgment. This abhorrent position requires a steely-willed refusal to assent to Jesus’ role in this regard: “The Father has given all judgment to his Son, so that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him” (John 5:22-30); “Whoever rejects me and does not accept my words has something to judge him: the word that I spoke...” (John 12:48); “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). In sum, Jesus said “Stop judging, that you may not be judged,” not “Do whatever you want, and pretend that I will not judge more justly than your neighbor was capable.”
Taking “stop judging” as one’s only go-to teaching of Christ’s is like taking the ability to locate a plane's black box as the main criterion for becoming a pilot.
To offer another analogy, yanking Matthew 7:1 out of one’s otherwise ethos-less rhetorical back pocket is scripturally tantamount to being in the court of law or another circumstance of judgment and attempting to improperly apply the now-pat phrase “I plead the Fifth [Amendment],” according to what has been seen on television or otherwise misinterpreted. These phrases do not simply get anyone off the hook, and they only account for a part of the expectation regarding one’s ultimate disposition.
In fact, the judgment that Jesus is speaking of is the precise opposite of how it is often regarded – in other words, we cannot make up our mind about who others are, so as to make them believe that they are excluded from the prospect of redemption.
Imagine if the early Church, which was being so harshly persecuted by Saul of Tarsus, had made up their mind definitively about who Saul was before his famous conversion. Imagine if Saint Monica had made up her mind about who Augustine was and given up on arduously praying for him to change his licentious ways. Those are examples of problematic perspectives that Jesus was countering when he taught us not to cast judgment on others’ souls.
For further reading on this topic, I recommend two recently published books: Dr. Edward Sri’s Who Am I to Judge? Responding to Relativism with Logic and Love (Ignatius Press, 2016) and Dr. Ulrich Lehner’s God Is Not Nice: Rejecting Pop Culture Theology and Discovering the God Worth Living For (Ave Maria Press, 2017).