“Judge not, lest ye be judged.”
It’s one of the best-known and most popular sayings of Jesus Christ, partly because it sounds so biblical, and partly because it’s such a useful retort for anyone who doesn’t want his behavior evaluated by others. But what does it really mean?
As any first-year Bible student learns, the first key to understanding a passage is in evaluating the passage in context. Understanding when and why the speaker said what He said, and reading what He said before and after what He said, can help us to more fully understand what He meant.
Here’s the context: Jesus is on a roll – He’s in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, described by the NIV Study Bible commentary as “the first of five great discourses in [the book of] Matthew.” He’s just finished one of the most beautiful rhetorical flourishes in all of literature (“…do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own”) and he’s beginning a new course of thought. The statement from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 7, verses 1-5, as it appears in the NIV (New International Version) is as follows:
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”
So what does it mean?
First of all, it must be noted that Jesus was no ordinary street preacher. His rhetorical skills were fantastic, and His philosophical point of view was so at odds with the paradigm that he helped to revolutionize Western thought, not to mention world religion.
Secondly, it’s worth mentioning that Jesus wasn’t (as far as we know) responding to a specific situation, as He so often did. Instead He was giving a long discourse on lifestyles and attitudes. He was speaking of the way that we ought to live, and explaining why.
The passage itself contains no admonition against judgement. That’s obvious when one considers the last sentence (…then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”) But it is a warning. It’s an admonition that judging others will result in closer scrutiny of your own faults, and a not-too-veiled warning about the possible consequences. It’s also clearly a call to the hearer or reader to clean up his own act, because a clear conscience gives him a better platform for evaluating and judging the world around him.
What does this all have to do with Eliot Spitzer? Eliot Spitzer judged others; he found them to be errant in their behaviors, and he prosecuted them. And he didn’t stop there, to quote the Wall Street Journal, he “made his career by specializing in not just the prosecution, but the ruin, of other men.” Ironically, Governor Spitzer prosecuted those associated with prostitution with a particular gusto. And his destruction of others makes his own fall all the more painful.
It is perhaps a great pity that Spitzer’s humiliation and cleansing will probably leave him better qualified to deal with the similar problems of others, as Jesus suggested. But by then we will have discarded him.
What is the great principle at stake here? There are several:
Judgement is not a bad thing, but it can be a very dangerous thing for one who stands in judgement.
Sympathy is in short supply because most people have no use for it until they need it themselves.
Redemption isn’t an easy thing to achieve, partly because of what must precede it (conviction) and partly because of what often prevents it (pride). But once granted, redemption is a great gift that can facilitate even greater achievements.