Chapter 11: The Perils Of Judging

The Sermon on the Mount
by Roger Shinn

Chapter 11: The Perils Of Judging

From the Sermon on the Mount read Matthew 7:16. For the parallel passages see Luke 6:37-38, 41-42. To follow up the theme look at John 8:1-11; Romans 2:1-4.


The most famous louse in all history is the one Robert Burns saw on the hat of the proud woman sitting in front of him in church. In amusement he watched its crawlings, which the "fine" lady knew nothing about. And he put his thoughts in the lines,

Oh wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us

To see oursels as ithers see us!

But actually we normally prefer not to see ourselves as others see us. We prefer to keep our own picture of the self. So someone has revised Burns' lines to read:

Oh wad some power to ithers gie,

To see myself as I see me.

In either case the problem is evident. We share the common human failing of passing judgments on other people -- judgments in which our own pride and defensiveness take the place of understanding. At the same time they, we know, are passing judgments on us. We worry about their judgments. More often than we admit or even realize, as we go through the day's paces, the subconscious levels of personality are saying tormentingly to us, "What will they think of me?"

We can build a cruel and miserable world in this process. Even when we are eager for friendship, we find ourselves sizing each other up. Often one of the great embarrassments of courtship is having to meet his (or her) family. Justifiably or not, there is the feeling that we meet them, not to make friends, but to pass in review and be judged. And those parents are equally uneasy as they face the scrutiny of this young person who has won the interest of their son (or daughter). In a moment walls may arise that will take months or years to melt away.

Going through life, we have to "make a good impression." It's such a job that sometimes we must even try -- this is really curious -- try to be natural. The one thing that logically should take no special effort seems more than we can accomplish. But we are making warped judgments of others. . - . they are making warped judgments of us. - . - we are making warped judgments of ourselves. . . - and no one can break the cycle of vicious judgments. . . - and no one quite realizes how vicious they are.

"Judge Not. . ."

In this situation Jesus says, "Judge not, that you be not judged." The whole network of misery is broken apart with one clear sentence. But is this possible? Every decision of life requires judgments. To take the time to read this chapter involves a judgment as to the use of your time -- and of the relative values of the institutions and persons who make demands on your time. We must continually judge, evaluate, criticize, and choose.

Yet we see what Jesus means, as he goes on: "Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?" Among Jesus' listeners the exaggerated language -- like that of a tall story -- probably provoked a laugh. The speaker in one of his typical ways was using absurd language. But the laugh perhaps gave way to the profound smile of self-recognition. Yes, we do just that. Is something wrong with us? Then let's discover and gloat over a fault, however small, in someone else.

The centuries since Jesus have invented new names for this old experience. Psychologists talk of "projection" and "transfer." People project their inner troubles on society or the universe; they transfer their own guilt feelings into accusations of other people. How often we laugh bitterly at the person who so obviously criticizes in others the very qualities which we resent in him. He sees the speck and misses the log. But, then, we do too.

The apostle Paul says that, whoever you are, you have no excuse for judging another. "For in passing judgment upon him you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things" (Rom. 2:1). Kierkegaard tells of the thief who stole a hundred dollar note, then saw a second thief swindle it from him. The first thief hauled the second into court and demanded justice. The judge asked the embarrassing question of where the money had come from and found both accuser and accused guilty.

Maybe we resist that way of putting it, saying: "Of course, I'm not perfect. I make my mistakes. But there are some things I don't do and I have a right to complain when someone else does them." But are you sure? You have not murdered. Have you never hated? (Matthew 5:21-22)? You have not committed adultery. Have you remembered Christ's definition of adultery (Matthew 5:27-28)? You have never sworn falsely under oath. Have you been utterly sincere (Matthew 5:33-37)? Every accusation that we make is transferred by Jesus to the deeper level, where no one can proudly claim virtue. "In the moment that you are truly aware of God's presence you certainly would not think of looking at a mote in your brother's eye, nor would you think of applying this terribly strict standard -- you who are yourself guilty." (Works of Love by Soren Kierkegaard, translated by D. F. and L. M. Swenson, p. 308. Princeton University Press, 1946. Used by permission.)

That realization dawned upon a startled group one day. They had caught a woman in the crime of adultery. There was no doubt about it, she was guilty. The law said she should be stoned to death. They brought her to Jesus, told him their story, and put him on the spot. What now would he do with his fine words about forgiveness? Would he ignore a crime clearly defined in the Law of Moses? His answer was as clear as the crime and the Law, and far more profound. "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her" (John 8:7). Read the rest of the story. See how the shamed crowd drifted away. See how Jesus neither condemned the guilty woman nor made light of the wrong she had done.

Luke puts the words, "Judge not" immediately after the words, "Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful." That helps us to see the point. We cannot stop evaluating, but we can be merciful. We remember that it is the merciful who shall obtain mercy. We who crave mercy can show mercy.

God's Kingdom and Human Government

Again the question of practicability arises. Does not Jesus undermine the possibility of sound civil law and judicial procedure? Forgiveness is beautiful, mercy is lovely. But we cannot let murderers run at large, our mercy thus permitting more murders. What if God does find us all guilty of inner sins? Society must be concerned with overt acts that disrupt peace and justice. In this area some are guilty and some are not.

True. But Jesus too is true. As we have seen before, Jesus gives us the truth of the kingdom of God. He shows us our human life as God sees it. He exposes the hypocrises and deceptions of life. He does not, in all this, take the place of civil government.

At this crucial point, however, we are not entitled to say: "Oh, that means we can ignore Jesus in politics." A judge, passing sentence on a criminal, might think (as, we know, some judges do think): "This man before me may be no more guilty before God than I. If I had been in his shoes, I might have done what he did. Only God, not I, can judge his life. I do know that he has violated the laws of society and harmed other people. To prevent his continuing to harm them, society denies him freedom. As the agent of society, I must pronounce the sentence. As I do so, I pray that God may have mercy on his soul and on the souls of all of us."

The governor of an important penal institution has hanging over his mantelpiece a wood carving which says: "Every man is fighting a hard battle; therefore, be merciful." Mercy cannot entirely replace judicial procedures and forceful restraint of lawbreakers. But it can transform justice so that it does not resemble vengeance. It can eliminate the kind of vision that sees specks and ignores beams. It can work to help rather than to humiliate the criminal.

The Need to Discriminate

In Matthew's report the warning against judging is immediately followed by a jolting contrast: "Do not give dogs what is holy; and do not throw your pearls before swine." That puzzling sentence does not seem to fit the development of thought. Matthew is the only New Testament writer to report it. In the early church, we know, it was used to exclude curious spectators from the Lord's Supper, a celebration reserved for those who came in reverent faith.

If the statement belongs here -- some scholars doubt it, or consider it part of a lost parable -- it is a reminder that all the dangers of judging cannot relieve us of the need to discriminate. Jesus often made this point. He warned his followers against false prophets. He denounced evil. He makes us more intent to discern between good and bad, between seeming good and true good. He awakens a more sensitive conscience, a surer power of evaluation. What he rejects is the impulse to stand in judgment over others, as though we could take God's position and see truly into the lives of our fellowmen.

The warning against judgment has special force when we think of other peoples, especially those for whom we feel some hostility. The tendency of all "in-groups" is to judge "out-groups" harshly. Often such judgments actually endanger the world. Consider a few examples.

1. Some investigators in 1952 set out to discover, through the pollster's techniques, some of the bases of international hostilities. Their findings help us to "see ourselves as others see us." Americans described themselves with such adjectives as peace-loving, generous, intelligent. Foreigners described us as progressive, practical, conceited, domineering. In selecting adjectives to describe themselves, Americans picked thirteen complimentary ones for every uncomplimentary one.

2. Shortly after the war with Japan, the Reverend Mrs. Tamaki Uemura, a distinguished churchwoman and president of the Japanese YWCA, visited the United States. When a New York taxi driver learned she was from Japan, he said: "You folks had better all repent over there. America is always right."

3. An American political scientist studied closely the official propaganda from Russia for several years. He found plenty of criticisms of the policies of other nations, but never a single hint that Russia might ever be wrong. On the other hand, an American news reporter, traveling in a Russian ship, overheard through his porthole a sarcastic conversation between two Russian sailors. One said that in America everything was wonderful and nothing wrong or bad. "Would you like to be there?" he asked the second. "Oh, no," came the answer, "I am sometimes both wrong and bad."

4. Several psychologists and social scientists in 1961 released results of their studies Soviet-American relations. They reported that each society consistently interprets the actions of the other in the worst possible way. The result is a pathological inability to communicate.

5. In situations of racial tension, prejudiced people cannot see other people accurately because of stereotypes. The white Gentile, for example, fits the Negro and Jew into his preconceived picture. The facts about persons make very little difference, because those facts are apprehended through the stereotype.

In all these cases, the "beam" in an observer's eye leads him to condemn others without asking about himself.

A Religion of Grace

We have seen before that the Sermon on the Mount leads us to the point where we put our confidence not in our goodness but in God's grace. We dare not judge because we are not fit to judge. In every judgment we condemn ourselves. Even after we have been told this, we continue to judge. Try it for a week and see! You may find Jesus' warning restraining you, and you may find the power of Christian love tempering your judgments. But still, buried deeply in the subconscious foundations of personality where we cannot root it out, is the tendency to go on measuring others, judging them, taking satisfaction in our petty triumphs over others.

Thus our hope lies in God's grace -- his forgiving, healing, empowering love. As Augustine put it, "he who thinks he lives without sin puts aside not sin, but pardon." None of us is fit to throw that first stone. But pardon is real. God promises mercy for the merciful.

'Twas a thief that said the last kind word to Christ:

Christ took the kindness and forgave the theft.

Robert Browning

So the Sermon on the Mount leads us to the message of the cross.