Reflections on the Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 7:1-6, 15-20

As we turn our attention to the seventh chapter of Matthew’s gospel, we encounter one of the most well-known, and least understood, verses in the entire Bible. The New International Version translates verse one this way: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” The fact that this verse is so well-known, and so poorly understood, makes it an easy target for those who want to weaponize Scripture for their own personal or political purposes.

Even apart from these malicious endeavors, it can be difficult to understand how we can obey Jesus’ command. Evaluation seems to be a fundamental mental operation rooted deep in our psyche. Moreover, we who live in the Western world (as well as those who live in other countries influenced by the West’s political philosophy) are called upon daily, as members of democratic societies, to make judgements about people and policies.

Nevertheless, we as Christians have a responsibility to obey Jesus’ commands. This means that we are going to have to devote some significant time and effort to discerning exactly what he meant. We need to ask what Jesus could mean by “judge,” why he tells us not to engage in this behavior, and how this command is related to other teachings in the chapter.

Statement of the Problem

Let’s begin by providing a succinct statement of the problem. Many people—both inside and outside the church—believe that Jesus is here saying that we cannot criticize other people for how they live or even render an evaluation of the relative goodness of one way of life over another. The practical import of this way of interpreting Jesus’ command is to prevent Christians from being politically or socially active on issues of moral concern.

There are at least three problems with this way of interpreting Jesus’ command. First, it seems to run counter to everything we learn from the Old Testament. In the New Testament, God’s people do not have political or social power, but they do in the Old Testament. And they are repeatedly commanded to defend the innocent and to condemn the guilty. Second, it could be argued that Jesus violated his own command every day of his recorded life. The rhetoric that Jesus used against the religious leaders of his day was certainly “judgemental,” and he sometimes directed such rhetoric at the crowds that followed him or even at his own disciples. Third, Jesus’ own followers regularly rendered verdicts on the relative value of one way of life over another. Rarely, they even rendered verdicts on specific people.

The Meaning of the Command

Even with these objections in mind, it is not hard to see why people interpret Jesus the way that they do. The meaning of the key word in question (“judge”) points us in that direction. At its core, the verb translated “judge” has to do with the mental process of making a choice. In extrapolating how that basic meaning manifests itself in the Greek of Jesus’ day, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature lists six ways that the word could be used in the Greek of Jesus’ day.

  1. “to make a selection”
  2. “to pass judgment upon (and thereby seek to influence) the lives and actions of other people” (This meaning has two sub-classifications that are of particular importance for the present discussion. In one sense, the word can be used in a neutral sense to describe any opinion expressed about the life or actions of another. In the second sense, it can be used specifically of negative opinions expressed about others [hence Bauer suggests glosses like “find fault with” or “criticize”]. Interestingly, Bauer contends that the word is used in the first, neutral, sense in our text.)
  3. “to make a judgment based on taking various factors into account” (The idea here is to “think” about something.)
  4. “to come to a conclusion after a cognitive process” (When the word is used this way, it can refer to the process of making a decision about an issue or the process of forming an intent to pursue a course of action.)
  5. “to engage in a judicial process”
  6. “to ensure justice for someone”

Given Jesus’ background in Judaism, it is difficult to imagine that he could have in mind here a formal judicial setting (although option #5 has as one of its subcategories the idea of arguing with others, and perhaps Jesus could have had that in mind). It is also difficult to imagine that Jesus could be prohibiting his followers from thinking about things or making choices (although it is interesting that the verb “judge” does not have an object). So we are left to assume that Jesus has in mind option #2.

It is important at this point to return to an issue that has already been broached above. Most interpreters ascribe a decidedly negative slant to the behavior that Jesus here condemns, and we will see below that there are good reasons for doing so. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that Bauer’s lexicon puts our passage in the neutral category of option #2. In other words, Jesus is here condemning any evaluation of other people, whether it be negative or positive. It is the evaluation process itself, and not just its results, that is problematic.

If this is, in fact, how we should interpret Jesus’ teaching here, why would he (or at least Matthew) have that perspective. The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament is a resource used by a large number of conservative scholars and pastors. It is a highly problematic source (for reasons that we do not have time to discuss here), but, in this case, it makes a point that is worthy of our consideration. In the Judaism of Jesus’ day, judgement was the exclusive prerogative of God, and it entailed not only condemnation of the wicked but also deliverance for the righteous. It was both punitive and salvific. If this theological presupposition is the backdrop against which we should read Jesus’ command, then it means that it implies that we do not have the knowledge necessary to determine either who should be condemned or who is worthy to be praised, and it would remind us that we do not have the right to pronounce either condemnation or salvation. Only Christ can save, and only Christ has the right to sanction.

There is one final issue that we need to consider as we think about the meaning of Jesus’ command. What is the genre of this saying? There are some indicators (like the fact that our verbe “judge” does not have an object) that this is a wisdom saying. This means that Jesus is not here giving a legal rendering that is to be applied to every situation regardless of the circumstances. Rather, he is articulating a principle of God’s Kingdom that is to guide the general approach to life of its citizens.

The Justification for the Command

Thus far, we have tried to respond to the hermeneutical and ethical problems created by Jesus’ command by paying careful attention to what he may have meant. Now we need to turn our attention to how he justifies the command that he gives. That justification unfolds in two phases. In the first phase (v. 1b), Jesus asserts that we will be judged if we judge others. In the second, phase, (v. 2), Jesus argues that we will be judged with the same criteria that we judge others.

In both cases, it has been traditional for scholars to interpret the passive voice verbs as indicators of divine action. I am not entirely convinced by this consensus. It is entirely possible that Jesus is simply describing how the world works. But regardless of how we adjudicate this matter, Jesus is saying that the very nature of things makes judgement a bad idea. There is, to borrow language from John Walton’s interpretation of Job, a “reciprocity principle” that animates human life (either because it is endemic to how the world works or because it is a foundational principle of God’s Kingdom). It is a reciprocity principle of mercy, and it undergirds all that Jesus has to say in the Sermon on the Mount. Those who show mercy (5:7), who seek reconciliation (5:9, 23-26), and exercise forgiveness (6:12, 14-15) will receive the same (and much more) from God. Those who demand their rights and condemn the wrongs of others will find their demands and condemnations turned back on them.

In light of how Jesus justifies his command, it seems appropriate to return to the question of what the command actually means. With this justification, Jesus seems to be putting the emphasis squarely on the negative ways that we evaluate people. Rather than issuing a general prohibition of evaluation, Jesus seems to be pointing our attention to the ways that we pronounce condemnation upon others without adequately considering how our condemnation might apply to us.

The Context for the Command

This impression is strengthened as we turn our attention to the context of Jesus’ command, but some additional complications are also introduced. In vv. 3-5, Jesus presents a ridiculous (and, as Craig Keener points on in his commentary on Matthew, a humorous) illustration of the principle he has articulated. Again, the accent is on fault-finding, and here Jesus introduces another problem inherent in the practice. Just as greed distorts our perception of reality, so also our perception of the faults of others is distorted by our own shortcomings.

In v. 6, however, Jesus seems to switch the flow of his thought in a way that is so radical that it threatens to overturn all that he has said thus far. A lot of debate swirls around this verse, but I think that its meaning is relatively clear. Followers of Jesus possess the treasures of the Kingdom, and they would be foolish to share those treasures with people who will only despise them.

Jesus is not here making a point that is radically at odds with the message of the Old Testament. Indeed, it stands comfortably within the wisdom tradition’s warnings about the uselessness of sharing wisdom with fools. Nevertheless, it does seem to be at odds with what Jesus has just said, since judgement—at least in the narrow sense of evaluation—is inherent in the act of determining that a particular person is a “dog” or “pig.” Moreover, the very act of shielding the treasures of the kingdom from such people could be seen as an act of judgement (in the larger sense of condemnation or punishment).

My point here is not to suggest that Jesus’ thought is inconsistent. Rather, it is to suggest that we need to allow for some nuance in how we understand his command in verse one. Although the command is presented as a generally applicable principle, vv. 3-5 shift our focus to the inner life of the Christian community through the use of sibling terminology. Likewise, the apparent exception turns our attention outwards and focuses on those whose boorishness or hostility is so pronounced that it cannot be ignored.

Vv. 15-20 further contextualize Jesus’ command in verse one. There, Jesus implores his followers to carefully examine those who claim to be prophets. Jesus acknowledges the difficulty of evaluating such people. The very nature of the false prophet is that he or she will appear to be a faithful follower of Jesus but is actually a destructive tool of the devil. Nevertheless, Jesus urges his followers to examine the “fruit” that alleged prophets produce. Is the produce of their lives consistent with what one would expect from a person that has been faithfully following Jesus, or does it reflect a heart that is dominated by other, darker forces?

Once again, Jesus has drawn us into a vocation that seems perilously close to judgement. We are being asked to extraplate someone’s character from their behavior—precisely what verse one seems to forbid us to do. It is important to note, however, that the urgency of protecting God’s people from false and destructive leadership is what motivates Jesus to issue this command. We are not here permitted to evaluate the lives of anyone we choose. Instead, we are to focus our evaluative work on those who want to stand as God’s spokesperson and lead God’s people.

Personal and Political Reflections

In spite of the careful exegesis that I have tried to do here, I am not convinced that I fully understand what Jesus is trying to say in vv. 1-5. What is more, I am convinced that, like Isaiah before me, I am a man of “unclean lips” living among a people of “unclean lips.” America is a place that thrives on judgmentalism, and I have participated fully in this cultural malody. I need to stop judging people. It is a job for which I am poorly qualified, and it distracts me from the job that Jesus has given me—to bear witness to the sacrificial and restorative love of God.

Nevertheless, I am troubled by where this line of reasoning leads. I am convinced that we as followers of Jesus must also bear witness to the truth. More importantly, I am convinced that we have an obligation to advocate for those who suffer. Yes, we do this by suffering with them and by bearing witness to the injustices that they experience, but we also do it, I believe, by using the political, social, economic, and physical power that we have been given to protect such people.

These conflicting impulses often collide in the arena of politics. We cannot be naive about the agendas and motives of those who seek positions within our government. But we also cannot pretend that we come to the task of examining such motives or agendas with undiluted objectivity or unpolluted altruism.

Join the Conversation

And that is where you come in. Share your insights about how we can live out Jesus’ teachings in the “Comments” section below. Don’t be afraid to tell us how you have failed in this area and what you think those failures have taught you.

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