“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.” (Matthew 7:1)
Jesus’ words about judgment are strong and straightforward, yet they are so often misunderstood. To understand them rightly, note two things. First, he does not say “Judge wisely!”, as you might think he would say. He really says: “Do not judge!” Second, understand what Jesus means, by looking at what he does.
If we look at how Jesus acts, he really does avoid judging when dealing with people. Without once compromising or scaling back his message, Jesus welcomes and associates with everyone, both those the world condemned (the prostitutes and tax-collecting extortionists of his day), and those whose wrong actions he himself warned against: such as the scribes and Pharisees. When accused of associating with sinners, Jesus simply pointed out that it is not the healthy, but the sick, who need a doctor (Matthew 9:12). Jesus is willing to talk to and to be with anyone, even those who are condemned by others, even those whose wrongdoing he himself warns against, even those who the world condemns, yes, even those, such as the woman who washed his feet with her tears (Luke 7:38), who condemn themselves. Who has more right to judge people than Jesus? But he doesn’t. Instead, he spends time with them. He listens. He helps. He heals. He forgives.
Aha, we might say, Jesus doesn’t condemn, he accepts everyone even if they do wrong, so perhaps the wrong they do isn’t really so wrong; perhaps there is no guilt, no real harm in what they do? But no, that is judging too. Remember that it is as much an act of judgment to acquit as to condemn. Jesus doesn’t acquit either. He goes to dinner with the Pharisees but is clear about their hypocrisy. He goes to dinner with the tax collectors but he doesn’t say their extortion is OK: they know he is against it, so much so that Zaccheus the tax collector, after dinner with Jesus, repents and promises him to pay back everyone he has wronged (Luke 19:8). Indeed, when people bring a woman caught in adultery to Jesus for judgment, he refuses to condemn her, but he does not acquit her either: he tells her to “go, and do not sin again.” (John 8:11). No, Jesus does not pretend sin isn’t bad. He simply defers judgment, to leave room for love, healing, repentance and forgiveness.
That should come as a very great relief to us. We all are sinners, guilty of something. What good does it do to be free of theft, adultery or murder if one embraces slander or greed, pride, envy or excess? One sort of millstone around the neck (Matthew 18:6) is as good a boat-anchor as another: either way, it’s “sink“, not “float“. What good is there in comparing millstone necklaces on the bottom of the sea? “Well, at least mine isn’t that!” So what? You’re under too!
Jesus knows what people need, he knows what really matters. What matters is love, connection, relationship, conversion of the heart, forgiveness, and healing. He reaches out to each person where they are. He doesn’t cut himself off from people who need him. He defers judgment in favor of connection, and by that connection, he helps untangle the person from whatever their boat-anchor may be. Yes, in the end, there will be a judgment, when we “give our final answer” and lock it in. But until then, there is Jesus, loving and forgiving, drawing each person towards what is right. This is the example he sets for us: not to condemn or acquit, but to love like he does.
©Agapios Theophilus, 2017