Tupac, Miley Cyrus, and plenty of other celebrities have been known to say: “Only God can judge me.” And truth be told, many of us believe they are right. We believe only God can judge others, followed by paraphrasing Matthew 7:1 quoting Jesus, “judge not lest you be judged.”
Yet, here is a great example of how one verse (when read in isolation) gives us the wrong message.
Is this really a passage suggesting to lay aside all critical-thinking and live with total tolerance?
It does not appear so. Let’s read this verse in context and see what Jesus is really getting at!
Matthew 7:1-5 says:
1 “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2 For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. 3 “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? 4 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? 5 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.
While many stop after verse 1, it is important to keep reading. Verse 2 enlightens us to the reality that the measuring stick of judgment we use on others will be used on us. After all, most of the time we are hard on others where we seek mercy for ourselves. Just earlier in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says:
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7).
Since this is still part of the Sermon on the Mount, the context is important. Jesus wants us to be agents of mercy, not judgment. So, does judgment have any place? The Greek verb behind “judgment” (krinō) has the idea of discerning right from wrong; guilt from innocence; and that which produces flourishing from destruction. The idea of discernment must not be abandoned, especially when it can help benefit someone else (see verse 5).
Jesus’s point is that our judgment is skewed when we look at other’s faults while having a “plank” in our own eye.
A “plank” in our eye can be a variety of things. It can even be a routine activity that is antithetical to the way God desires for us to live. In this regard, whatever the sin may be, it prevents us from seeing God at work in and around us (Matthew 5:8 MSG). We all are susceptible to having planks in our eyes, and yet we are better at seeing them in others. However, how clearly are we actually seeing other people if we are looking at them through the lens of our own blind spot?
Our critique of others needs to start inward before it moves outward.
This way we see our own error and flaws and then become more merciful and empathetic toward whomever we even think of “judging.”
The passage challenges the hypocrites who are harsh with their judgments. A hypocrite is someone who criticizes someone else for the very thing they are guilty of. What Jesus is calling us to is to be people who know of the “planks” in our own eyes so that we can have those removed and help others remove theirs. In this way, our judgment of others can be restorative, not denying the reality of what may be impeding their vision, but not being blind ourselves. As you can see, this is not a license to go around condemning people. Quite the opposite; it is a responsibility to go around serving people.
Pulling planks out of eyes is helping people see the truth of how good God is, instead of honing in on how terrible they are.
Sometimes the best way to understand the principle of an ethic is to see it played out in a case study.
We have been in a sermon series looking at the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). The example of the “older brother” in the story is similar to the issue Jesus talks about in Matthew 7:1-5. However, it is played out through a parable (an allegorical story). How so?
The older son had a responsibility as the older son. Sure, he would receive 2/3 of the inheritance according to ancient cultural customs, but with that came more responsibility. One of his roles was to be a mediator to help hold the family together.
When the younger son came demanding his inheritance prematurely what did the older son say? Nothing. And that was precisely the problem.
Nothing in the text leads us to believe that the older son took on his role as a mediator or as a mentor to his younger brother. Instead, he stood idly by as the son made a detrimental mistake. A mistake that would cause the whole family shame and financial hardship. And one that would lead the younger son down a path of recklessness.
Yet, the older son’s apathy of concern and passivity of action were not his only sins in the story. Where else did he miss the mark? He protested the party that was meant to welcome the younger son home (Luke 15:25-30). His refusal to join the party demonstrated that his judgmental spirit had no intention of pulling the plank from his brother’s eye. He would have rather his brother never return.
How would the story have looked differently if the older son acted in accordance with Matthew 7:1-5?
For starters, the younger son would have had a brother to mentor him at a time of clear immaturity. This does not insinuate the method of condemning his little brother. Instead, it could be that he hears out his younger brother’s aspirations and walks him through the dangers of that path. Clearly, the younger son was blinded with a “plank” in his eye, yet the story reveals, just as Jesus’ teaching did, that most people have a plank in their own eye.
When someone is blinded to the dangers of the path they are on (i.e. has a “plank” in their eye). Active intervention (not passive tolerance) is the loving response. The older brother was completely tolerant of his younger brother’s actions. All concern for his younger brother appeared to be absent.
But the truth is: Tolerating someone’s self-destructive path is not a loving response.
Tolerance works when the choices being tolerated do not cause harm to self or others. But that was not the case for the prodigal son, whose actions both caused harm to himself and his family.
Why didn’t the brother act this way? The answer is quite simple… he saw himself as a slave and not a son (Luke 15:29). He had his own identity issues to work through. Now to us, today. As long as we are seeking to walk in our identity as God’s children, we will be compelled to live differently. This includes learning how to “judge” properly.
How to “judge others” in a Christ-like way is like walking a tightrope. It is easy to error on either side and lose balance!
Our judgment of others always comes down to our goal behind it. We will either “judge” with the goal of sentencing or saving the person. Either we sentence them (make a statement about their condition with no hope of restoration). Or, we seek to save the person by helping identify the “plank” impeding their vision, and remove it (Matthew 7:5). The Holy Spirit will do the work of dissolving our blind-spots, but we can be conduits that help in the process. We can end up being the tool the Spirit of God uses to remove the very thing impeding someone’s vision. And that way, we are helping “judge” for the benefit of others.
The truth is we are going to find ourselves on both sides of this passage. Sometimes we will be the one helping others with the “plank” in their eye. And sometimes we will be the one being helped with our own blind spots. On both sides, humility is key. We have to be humble enough to know how to help and be helped in a way that leads to transformation.
When our eyes are clear of debris, we can better see God’s goodness and plan that is laid out for us.