A new section of the Sermon begins with 7:1. The Lord turns from speaking about his disciples’ attitudes toward money and the things of the world and turns to their attitudes toward other people.
v.2 The first reason for refraining from a judgmental attitude toward others is that it invites a similar judgment in return – from men, but especially from God. When you pass judgment on others, Chrysostom the great early Christian preacher said, “you are making the judgment-seat dreadful to yourself, and the account strict.” [NPNF, x, 158] The Lord said a similar thing earlier in the Sermon on the Mount in 6:14-15. I remember that Dr. Schaeffer used to say that God would need to do nothing more to condemn us all a thousand times over than simply to hang a tape recorder around our necks and then hold us to the same standard according to which we had condemned others.
v.3 The reference to “brother” indicates that this teaching has to do primarily with relationships between Christians; but the principle extends to our attitudes toward all people as the Lord has already indicated earlier in the sermon. Even pagans can treat generously those who are generous to them. A Christian’s behavior is to be marked by the generous judgment they extend to all men. The point is that, if Christians are to treat non-Christians so well, how much more should they treat generously their own brothers and sisters.
v.5 The second reason why we should refrain from a judgmental attitude is that our own faults make it hard for us to exercise this judgment without pride. If we sin, if we make ourselves worse, by pointing out the sins of others, what good is that? The Lord’s illustration, drawn from the carpenter’s workshop, illustrates the hypocrisy always involved in the kind of judgmental criticism condemned in vv. 1-2. The existence of the speck implies that there may well be a fault in the life of the other person. “The error is not in the diagnosis, but in the failure to apply to himself the criticism he so meticulously applies to his brother.” [France, 143] The Lord is calling attention to a curious feature of human sinfulness: that it makes us supersensitive to the faults of others and insensitive to our own. [Maurice Roberts, BOT 301 (Oct 1988) 1] We characteristically exaggerate the faults of others and minimize our own. This is our pride expressing itself, Jesus says, nothing more. It is hypocrisy because our proud judgmentalism masquerades either as kindness toward the person whose faults we are pointing out – for his own good! – or as our own passion for truth or righteousness. “How difficult it is,” C.S. Lewis wrote to a friend, “to avoid having a special standard for oneself.” [Letters to an American Lady, 58]
v.6 “Swine” and “Dogs” as metaphors for human beings are some of the most derogatory terms in the Jewish vocabulary. [Hagner, i, 171] They suggest men who are wild and have dirty habits. Pigs were, of course, unclean to the Jews. To call certain men by these names is akin to the Lord calling the Pharisees a brood of vipers. Clearly this statement, standing alone as it does in the context, is intended to qualify the absolute prohibition against judgment in v. 1. God’s gifts, especially the truth of the gospel, are not to be laid open to unnecessary abuse or mockery nor are Christians to court persecution unnecessarily. Later in the Gospel of Matthew the gospel is described as a pearl of great price, a pearl to be shared with the world (13:45-46), but the preachers of the gospel are also instructed to shake the dust of their feet off against a town or house which would not receive their message (10:14). In other words, there is a proper kind of discrimination that Christians should practice that is very different from the censorious and proud spirit that is condemned in vv. 1-5.
Matthew 7:1 has sometimes been referred to as the most popular verse in the Bible! And it is true that many people who never read the Bible nevertheless know this verse by heart, at least in its more terse KJV form: “Judge not lest ye be judged.” Many people who couldn’t recite John 3:16, no matter how many times they may have seen the reference emblazoned on a banner or poster on Monday Night Football, can tell you that the Bible says “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” It is not hard to understand why people would like this verse. They understand the statement to render them immune from criticism by others. Others can’t condemn their behavior without inviting condemnation upon themselves. People regularly take this verse to mean that Jesus is forbidding people to criticize other people. Leo Tolstoy, the Russian novelist, actually took the view that Jesus’ words here forbade the institution of any human court of law. [In Stott, 175]
There is a particularly grotesque illustration of that popular way of thinking about judging others furnished in Genesis 19 and the account of the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. If you remember, the angelic messengers arrived in Sodom the night before its destruction and were given hospitality by Lot, Abraham’s nephew. The debased men of that city later demanded that Lot turn his guests over to them so that they might use them sexually. When Lot refused, they replied, “This fellow came here as an alien and now he wants to play the judge.” That is, who is Lot to condemn our behavior or to look down on our way of life? That is very like the response Solzhenitzyn got after the Russian novelist pointed out the obvious about Western culture in his famous commencement address at Harvard. Who is he to tell us how to live? Who is he to criticize us? And many take the Lord’s words as justification for such an attitude, as if they render us immune from all criticism, no matter our way of life.
But that understanding utterly mistakes the Lord’s meaning; it fails to grasp that Christ is not here intending to free people from criticism but to lay them under a sacred obligation. He is not lightening our load, he is making it heavier! He is not speaking to those whose behavior is bad and telling them that they shouldn’t have to worry about being criticized. He is speaking to his disciples and telling them that they should be humble in their attitudes toward others and in their speech to and about others. And what is that true humility? It is living with such an active awareness of one’s own faults that, conscious of God’s grace to us in defiance of our own sins, we practice a like generosity in the evaluation of the life and conduct of others. As earlier in the sermon, we show others the spirit of mercy and forgiveness because we know full well how much God has had to forgive in us.
When the Lord commands us not to judge others, he is obviously not forbidding us to make proper distinctions between right and wrong. He is not even forbidding us to condemn certain men or certain behavior. Verse 6, with its warnings about casting our pearls before swine, is proof of that and later in this same chapter we are warned to “Watch our for false prophets.” To judge a man to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing, as the Lord tells his people false prophets are in v. 15, is obviously a judgment rendered against another man. Such a judgment plainly is not forbidden when, in 7:1, Jesus says, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” Later on in the Gospel the Lord will tell us that if we observe our brother sinning we should go to him and show him his fault, just between the two of you.” Facing a person with his sins is not forbidden here. “Do not judge,” John Stott writes, “is not a requirement to be blind, but rather a plea to be generous” in our estimation of others and their conduct. We are not to be censorious. “Censoriousness is a compound sin consisting of several unpleasant ingredients. It does not mean to assess people critically [that is, accurately and with moral sophistication] but to judge them harshly. The censorious critic is a fault-finder who is negative and destructive towards other people and enjoys actively seeking out their failings. He puts the worst possible construction on their motives, pours cold water on their schemes and is ungenerous towards their mistakes.” Such a person sets himself up as a judge and claims the authority to pass judgment on the lives of others. [176-177]
I know of no wiser or more incisive comment or interpretation of Matthew 7:1 than Johann Albrecht Bengel’s four words: sine scientia, amore, necessitate. That is, do not judge another unless you really have all the facts, unless you are motivated by love for him, and unless it is really necessary for you to intervene. Do not judge without knowledge, without love, and without necessity. If you can’t judge in that way, then leave judgment to better people than yourselves. That is precisely what the Lord means. What he is after in us is the spirit of the gospel of God’s grace rising up in our own hearts and expressing itself in our attitudes toward others.
Remember how the Lord said, earlier in this sermon, that when Christians practice the higher, greater righteousness to which Christ has summoned his disciples, the world would notice those good works and praise our father in heaven? Well, nothing is calculated more to impress the world than the spirit of true humility and humble love. Treat others with generous judgment, place the best construction on what they say or do, be patient with their shortcomings, forgive their sins – in other words, treat them both as you would like to be treated yourself and, still more, as the Lord has treated you – and such behavior will bring glory to God. In this world, such an attitude is sufficiently unexpected, it is so unusual, that people can hardly fail to notice it.
This congregation has been furnished a splendid illustration of this principle this week and it is my privilege to share it with you. In a way, no one faces the challenge of not judging people, in the sense in which our Savior commanded us not to judge, more regularly than our deacons. Every week, virtually every Sunday, virtually every Wednesday night they are speaking with people who have come to the church for help, usually for financial help of some kind. Many of these people have dug themselves into a hole by their own behavior. Many of them have been irresponsible and it is that irresponsibility that has led to the crisis that they are facing. That is not always the case, but it is very often the case. It is not uncommon for them to lie, to misrepresent their situation in order to place it in a more favorable light in hopes of persuading the deacons to pay their rent or their light bill or their ticket home. Week after week in these conversations, your deacons will tell you themselves, they struggle to keep a right spirit in their hearts, to be generous in their estimation of these people, and to remember, as they deal with the aftermath of these people’s sins, how many sins the Lord has forgiven them. And week after week, month after month, thousands of dollars that you have given to the deacons’ fund are paid to landlords and to the utility companies and the like.
This week we received a letter from Faribault, Minnesota, a small city south of Minneapolis.
Dear Faith Presbyterian Church,
My name is Amy Hartin. I came to your church for financial assistance about 4 years ago. At the time I was a member of the Bahai faith and had been sober for about 9 months. I came to meet with the deacons and I made it quite clear that I had no intention or even interest in becoming a Christian. I thought that because of this they would surely turn me down and turn me away. But that is most certainly not what happened. They agreed to pay my rent in full. I was amazed and thought surely this was the greatest gift from God. The Lord had worked through them and allowed me to stay in my house. However, 4 years later I realize that that alone was not the greatest gift I received that night. Before I left them they gave me a Bible. A Bible that stayed on the shelf for three years. When I picked that book up after so long, I read what they had written in the cover and then started to read the rest. I have to tell you that from the moment I picked it up after 3 years my life began to change.
I read my Bible daily. I want you to know that your generosity and love has guided me to a place in my life and a relationship with God that I never could have imagined. I have found a wonderful church here in Minnesota and have had the wonderful opportunity to help out in Sunday School. And, I will be baptized on February 15, 2004. I was asked to share my story of conversion with the congregation a couple of weeks ago and am including that with this letter. I wanted to share it with you as your church has been so instrumental in this transformation. Again, I want to thank you for sharing God’s grace with me.”
God bless you! Much love and gratitude,
P.S. You might also be interested to know that I have now been sober just under 5 years.
Now that letter is wonderful enough. But, as she said, she sent along the account of her coming to Christ as she delivered it in her church, St. John’s Lutheran, on February 1st, 2 weeks ago. It fills out the details wonderfully.
“I was raised in a very religious family though it was not Christian. Now, when people ask me how I decided to be a Christian or what led me to this belief I have a difficult time trying to explain it. There have been so many “God” moments along this journey it is incredible and those types of things are very difficult for me to explain. But I will try my best.
About four years ago I was going through a very difficult and low time in my life. During this time I lost my job and as a result could not pay my rent. I called United Way and they gave me many phone numbers of places to call. I called all but one and none of them could help. At this point I went to a relative to ask if I could stay with their family and they turned me down. I had no other choice but to call this one last place. This place was a church. Faith Presbyterian Church. I called and made an appointment to meet with the deacons. I must tell you I was terrified. I knew what they would say and I knew they would not help but I had no other option but to try. So, I went. On the way there I prayed and prayed and prayed that God would be there with me and hold my hand. I was terrified because my understanding of Christians was that they thought anyone who didn’t believe in God the way they did was surely going to end up in hell and why would this Church want to help someone like that? They wouldn’t. I wanted so bad for them just to love and not be judgmental.
Well, I got there [and] sat in this room talking to these deacons and sure enough the Bible and Jesus came up. They asked what I believed and I told them and they quoted the Bible saying that no one comes to the Father but through [Jesus]. And, of course, I got defensive. They told me that they were not there to argue with me but that this was their job and that they wouldn’t be doing their job if they didn’t tell me this, if they didn’t try to give me this message. That calmed me down a great deal. Somehow I understood this and I knew God was sitting there right beside me helping me through this meeting. So, we got done talking and I was asked to leave so they could talk [among themselves]. I left the room and knew what they would say. They couldn’t help either. They wouldn’t help either. I went back into the room when they were ready for me and still I knew but they floored me by saying that they had decided to pay my rent for me. I could not believe it. I had made it perfectly clear to them that I was in no way interested in converting to their belief but they were willing to help. They were willing to help a non-Christian. I was literally STUNNED! As we were wrapping up they gave me a Bible. I went home and put the Bible somewhere where it was not touched for some years later. Over the next few years, especially this past year I started questioning the faith I had grown up in. During this time I moved here to Minnesota and got very close to a Christian woman (actually a St. John’s member, Patty Austvold) whom I developed an incredible amount of respect [for] and most of all trust in. I had finally found a person I could voice my fears and questions to. And so I did. This led me finally, after three years, [to] pick up that Bible that the church had given me. This is the Bible and as I opened it I saw that they had written in the cover: ‘Amy, Please read John chapter 3 (p. 921) and John 14:6 (p. 936). Then keep going! May you know the joy of sin forgiven by the Lord Jesus.’
I tell you, I did just that. I read what they had suggested and then continued to read. I couldn’t put it down. It really seemed like the best book I had ever read. I started listening to Christian radio and watching certain Evangelical programs. Eventually I was led to Pastors Crippen and Johnson who have given so freely of their time and they in turn led me to study with Ruth Hansen which is just incredible and has been so helpful in answering my questions.
Today, even though it has taken four years, the love shown by that church in Washington has led me to the belief that Jesus is my Lord and Savior. He died on the cross for me and not only for me but for all of us. I am truly forgiven and truly loved by God and I gotta say there was a time when I didn’t know that. He has come into my heart and made me whole. He continues to speak to me through the Bible, other people, through St. John’s and through the Spirit; all I have to do is listen. Thanks. Peace be with you all.”
When the letter arrived, we checked our files. Amy Hartin came to the church Wednesday, January 12, 2000 needing help to pay her rent that was past due. She spoke with Doug Bond, Phil German, and Ken Kvale. A check for $360 was sent to her landlord the next day. The notes on the page record her history of alcoholism – which she had honestly admitted to our men – that her family lived in Minnesota, that she had studied at Pierce College, and that she had an interview the following day for a job as a baker.
Now, that is a surpassingly wonderful story for which I know all of us are deeply grateful to God – grateful for his grace in Amy Hartin’s life, grateful that she wrote to tell us about it, grateful that we had a small part in her entrance into eternal life. We faxed a letter to St. John’s on Friday to tell her that the congregation of Faith Presbyterian Church would be thinking about her and praying for her on the day of her baptism. We are also sending her a gift – Elizabeth Elliot’s biography of Amy Carmichael, inscribed by the three men who met with her four years ago.
But, no one with Christian blood in his or her veins, does not immediately understand how close all of this comes to the very heart of our faith and Christian life – generosity in the judgment of others because of God’s generosity to us.
Oh, we know well enough how impatient we can be with other people, how quick to put the worst construction on what they say and do, how easily we believe the worst of them, how unsparing we can be in our criticism – certainly in our minds, even if we know better than to speak everything we think! But we also know how deeply we resent this when others judge us and, as surely as we know we are sitting here in this church on this Lord’s Day morning, we know how utterly hypocritical it is to make such ungenerous judgments of others all the while counting on the Lord to overlook our many faults and judge us in mercy and love.
The reason we should not judge others in the way Jesus forbids here, without knowledge, without love, and without a need to do so, is because it is not right for Christians to have a censorious spirit when they have been treated with such mercy by God. It is not right; it is never right. It is a crime against the love of God, against our own salvation, and against our Redeemer.
But our young sister, Amy Hartin, has added this further reason: nothing so communicates the substance of our message, this pearl of inconceivably great price, than that we Christians, we followers of Christ, should demonstrate in our treatment of others how much God’s mercy and love have overtaken our hearts.