Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. 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? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. (Matt 7:1-5 ESV)
What is Jesus really trying to say here? Is it okay to judge, or can we not? Well, clearly the text says we can’t judge, but it is also very clear in other parts of the Bible that we are to judge between right and wrong. What’s going on?
Well I think it might be helpful to introduce two(-three) terms: condemnation and discernment(/evaluation). I will argue that this passage makes sense when we understand the verb “judge” used here with the former meaning (to condemn), and not the latter. After we are called to discern and seek out Wisdom. Not to do so would be wicked. Indeed, we are not to call good what is evil, nor to call evil what God says is good. We are not moral relativists.
Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount warns us not to be our own Arbiters/Judges. We do not take matters into our hands in terms of a judgment of condemnation; we cannot be vigilantes. And lest we become puffed up in self-righteous pride, we ought to remember our wretched state before God, and that if it were not for God’s grace freely given on Jesus’ cross, and the crediting of Christ’s righteousness unto us by the Holy Spirit, we would not even dare to demand justice be done to ourselves and receive our just deserts.
If we took matters into our own hands, it would be as if we were kids at a friend’s house for his birthday party and a mutual friend broke the host family’s vase, and we decided to make him pay for it (whether monetarily or receiving discipline from us). You see, we are unqualified to condemn the guilty party, because it is not in our place. We do not lay claim to what he has damaged; that’s none of our business. It’s a matter to be dealt between him and the hosting family.
We must remember that sin is ultimately an offense against God. We are not the center of the universe! God is. And no one belongs to themselves. Non-believers belong to God because he is their Maker. Believers belong to God, doubly-so!, because God is both their Maker and their Redeemer, having bought his beloved with the death of his Son.
So when someone sins, especially to us, we must not forget the log in our eyes – we are like criminals who were pardoned, and when we are sinned against, let us remember that we got we didn’t deserve in Jesus’ grace and mercy. But that does not mean we say it’s no big deal. Sin is a big deal, even if it’s just a small sin. We do not trivialize sin. Sin is evil; it is wicked; it is loathsome. We must not make it out to be any less evil than that. We discern what is good and acknowledge what is evil. But we are not to condemn it in the sense that we play God and replace him as the Ultimate Judge.
Now I can’t even pretend to understand what’s going on completely, but we must balance other parts of the Bible, where salvation is understood not only as the exaltation and vindication of the Righteous/Elect, but also the defeat of Evil! Done with wisdom and humility, we can ask God to punish injustice and even the wicked! Going back to my example of the broken vase: we cannot demand the guilty child to pay for the vase, but, done without spite, we can and even should “tattletale” and report the deed to the parents of the birthday boy. In other words, we can “tattletale” on God and demand that his justice be done. To demand justice to be done is most certainly to recognize injustice first and call it out for what it is. But we recognize that 1) we are the ultimate injured party and 2) we have no right to judge (in the sense of condemnation) the guilty party. All these are reserved for God, the Ultimate Judge.
But let’s back off a bit. A lot of the time, we may actually be the guilty party. We are the ones who hurt others (or ourselves) and ultimately offend God. Let us be careful not use Jesus’ words in Matt 6 to justify ourselves. We cannot use the excuse, “Oh, but you’re not perfect either; you have a plank in your eye” to release ourselves from any responsibility or guilt. Jesus wouldn’t have us do that. Because if you belonged in Christ, you are called to be perfect, for he was perfect just as his heavenly father was perfect.