Judge not that you be not judged (Mt 7:1). It has been pointed out many times in articles and sermons that Jesus was not here teaching that it is absolutely wrong to judge others in any manner and under all circumstances. There are situations in which it is necessary to make judgments on other people; times when we must decide whether others are good or evil; occasions when we simply have to criticize the character as well as the conduct of someone. In fact, as has often been noted, Jesus did not finish the Sermon on the Mount without actually commanding judgment. We are not to give that which is holy to the dogs or cast pearls before swine. This requires making a judgment on those who fit the description. We must also judge between the narrow way and the broad way; between good fruit and bad fruit; to determine the worth of the tree; to identify false prophets.
What has not been done often enough is to point out precisely what Jesus did refer to in his commandment. In this place, the Master used the present imperative with a negative. It has the meaning of “stop doing it” or perhaps “do not keep on doing it.” The word “judge” here does not carry merely the idea of discernment or discrimination, but rather it means to criticize. In other words, Jesus literally said, “Stop criticizing so that you will not be criticized.” Jesus was not telling his disciples that they should never criticize anyone at any time, but that they should not be constantly criticizing all of the time. He was warning against the critical, fault-finding spirit that sees only the bad side of people and is constantly picking at the weaknesses of others. Such practice takes the joy out of the disciple’s life and subjects him to criticism by others. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
Do we know anybody like that? Do we know someone who sees only the faults in those he professes to love, and who is very vocal in calling attention to those faults? Do we know any parents who are always criticizing the way other parents rear their children? Do we know any church members who never praise but always point out quickly the inadequacies in the elders, the deacons, the preacher, or the Sunday school teachers? Do we know anyone who likes to play god –a harsh and unloving god—with the lives of others? God will deal with such, and he will not be playing! Perhaps we should look in the mirror to see if we spot someone who has slipped into such a habit of criticism in ignorance of the Lord’s teaching.
Those modern versions that render verse 3, And why do you keep on looking at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye, and not notice the log that is in your own eye? hit the nail on the head for once, both as to the spirit and the literal meaning of Jesus’ words. It is a little bit humorous as an illustration; not really funny, just enough to bring a smile or a little grin. Unless, of course, it saws a bit too close to the line of one’s own life and habits. The point is not difficult to grasp. Too many of us are prone to notice the small deficiencies in other people while remaining totally oblivious to major problems of our own. This is not to say that a speck of sawdust in one’s eye is inconsiderable, but it is certainly of less importance than a log. There are bad habits and unattractive characteristics that all of us possess that are relatively minor. We ought to get rid of them, but they will not kill us spiritually unless we hold on to them rebelliously. In contrast, there are grave faults that cannot be justified for a moment. And the worst part of such major faults is that they prevent our being able to help our brother with his minor ones. I need not wait till I am sure that I am perfect before trying to help someone else to a better way of life. But I had better be pretty sure that on the whole, my life is straight and true before I go around criticizing other people.
It is the essence of hypocrisy to judge in the fashion here discussed by our Lord. Therefore, he did not hesitate to say, You hypocrite. It is really the hypocrisy that the Master was condemning.