Next time you’re walking around town, find a stranger and ask him/her about Jesus. Ask which of Jesus’ teachings is most important for our day and culture. Almost certainly you’ll hear something resembling the beginning of the seventh chapter of the Gospel of Matthew:
Jesus said to his disciples: “Stop judging, that you may not be judged. For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you. Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye?
Yes, this passage (and others like it in the other Gospels) is almost certainly the most popular passage in all of Scripture in today’s culture. In fact, it’s basically become something of a defense mechanism for anyone whose actions have been questioned. How often do we hear the phrase, “Don’t judge me!” shouted anytime someone is accused of anything that might appear to be lacking in virtue? Of course, this verse is rich in wisdom from the Lord – otherwise he wouldn’t have said it – and we ought to follow its meaning. However, a good way to arrive at the true meaning of a Bible passage is to look at it in the context of the entire Book it’s in, or even in the context of the entire Bible. In this case, let’s look only at the surrounding passages in Matthew’s Gospel.
For starters, only ten verses after this passage, Jesus tells the same disciples: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”
Seven verses after that: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in Heaven.”
In the preceding verses Jesus tells his disciples, “When you pray […] When you fast […] When you give alms […]” (i.e. ‘Actually DO these things – they’re not optional.’) and, “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and mammon.” (If you want to read the entire Gospel of Matthew, click here to get the full picture.)
What’s the point of all of this? Many people read Jesus’ words, “Don’t judge,” and interpret that to mean, “Focus only on yourself. Let other people do what they want and we’ll figure it all out with them when they die.” This is not the Gospel! Let’s take a look at John the Baptist, about whom Jesus had this to say: “Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist!”
Go to your Bible and find the places where John the Baptist enters the scene. Usually they are towards the beginning of the Gospels, but he also shows up in the middle of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (here’s a list). Here’s the typical message from John the Baptist: ‘Repent of your sins! The Messiah is coming! Prepare for him!’ The modern reader might suggest he wasn’t following the command to refrain from judging. He certainly wasn’t focusing only on himself! It seems more like he was focusing on preparing people to meet their Lord by way of telling them to rid themselves of their sinful ways. It turns out that he wasn’t judging them, but simply desiring their salvation!
Another scene: Mark 6:17-20
Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, whom he had married. For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” So Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to, because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him.
Had John confronted someone today with those same words, “Don’t judge me!” would have been shouted in return. In a way, that’s what happened in this scene, though it’s clear Herod knew John was right. John, for his part, is sticking to his mantra: ‘You need to stop sinning and get ready for the Messiah!’ He wants them to be free from their sinful actions when they meet Jesus. This, too, should be our goal in our relationships with others, both to be free from our sinful actions and to help others to freedom from their sinful actions. Of course, remember that Jesus is the final judge of each person, but he has given us commands concerning how to live life well. If we find a person who is not living life well, then we can imitate John the Baptist and help redirect our neighbor’s actions. Read what a fellow by the name of John Henry Newman had to say about John the Baptist:
…it is difficult to rebuke well, that is, at the right time, in a right spirit, and a right manner. The holy Baptist rebuked Herod without making him angry; therefore he must have rebuked him with gravity, temper, sincerity, and an evident good-will towards him. On the other hand, he spoke so firmly, sharply, and faithfully, that his rebuke cost him his life.
We who now live have not that same extreme duty put upon us which Saint John was laden; yet every one of us has a share in his office, inasmuch as we are all bound to rebuke vice boldly when we have fit opportunities for so doing…
Take these words to heart. Follow the example of the holy Baptist. Boldly love people into Heaven.