Jesus' Parables for Disciples
11. Judging Self and Others (Matthew 7:1-6)by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
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Perhaps the best New Testament image self-righteous judgmentalism is the Pharisees pressing Jesus to condemn a sinful women. Lucas Cranach the Younger, detail from "Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery" (after 1532), oil on copperplate, The Hermitage, St. Petersburg. Full image.
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.
6 "Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces." (7:1-6)
Probably one of the most misquoted and misused verses in the New Testament is found in verse 1 of our passage:
"Do not judge, or you too will be judged." (7:1)
It is a hard saying. Can it mean what it seems to? So often I hear people chiding any negative statement with this verse. If we can't make critical judgments, doesn't our ability to choose between good and evil disappear?
The basic meaning of the Greek word for judge (krinō) is "to set apart so as to distinguish, separate." Then, by transference, "select" and "pass judgment upon."1 The word is used in the New Testament to refer to all kinds of judging, and such a broad definition doesn't refine our understanding much.
Next, we go to the context, and find that it seems to limit the usage of the word. Jesus requires of his disciples several critical judgments in this chapter:
- "First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye" (7:5). Both discerning the plank in your own eye and then discerning the speck in your brother's require critical judgment.
- "Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs" (7:6a). Jesus expects us to discern "dogs" and "pigs."
- "Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them" (7:15-16). Jesus expects his followers to discern false prophets from true ones.
So the command "Do not judge" cannot prohibit all critical judgments.
Notice, too, that the context here is "brothers" (7:3, 5), fellow believers. Jesus is speaking about the kind of judgmental attitude that can spring up among religious people within the religious community. You've seen it: picky, picky, picky. No one is quite good enough to please them. Some men and women act as if they have the spiritual gift of criticism.
If you look even more carefully, you see that we are not prohibited from discerning sin or problems in our brother, or even seeking to correct them. But we must first examine ourselves to make sure nothing in us prevents us from seeing clearly. Then, and then only, says Jesus, you can "see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye" (7:5).
Psychologists describe the phenomenon of "projection," defined as "the attribution of one's own ideas, feelings, or attitudes to other people or to objects; especially, the externalization of blame, guilt, or responsibility as a defense against anxiety."2 Jesus' comments on judgmentalism are given right after a discourse on worry or anxiety. Interesting.
We saw a sad example of this a number of years ago when televangelist Jim Baker's sexual sins were exposed. Who was one of the loudest critics? Televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, whose own sexual sins were exposed a few months later. I've seen this kind of behavior occur throughout my own ministry. Those who are most critical tend to be those who condemn themselves for the very same sins. In condemning others, they are affirming their self-condemnation and self-loathing.
Jesus does not require us to suspend our critical faculties. But he is warning us not to be censorious or quick to criticize, since our judgmental attitude may reflect our own sins more than our brothers' sins.
So how should we understand verse 1? J.B. Phillips renders it, "Don't criticize people, and you will not be criticized."3 In The Message, Eugene H. Peterson paraphrases it, "Don't pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults -- unless, of course, you want the same treatment."4
John Stott prefers the English word "censoriousness,"5 marked by or given to censure.6 This is exactly it -- not an objective, discerning judgment, but the harshness of one who is a fault-finder, a blamer, one who puts the worst possible construction upon an act, one who condemns sternly.
Q1. (Matthew 7:1) Have you ever caught yourself severely criticizing others Christians behind their backs -- or to their faces? What is the attitude that underlies censoriousness? How can the psychological concept of "projection" motivate harsh judgment? Why must Christians show love in the face of a brother's or sister's failing?
Healing and Restoration
Perhaps the most striking picture of God's grace and restoration is from Jesus' parable of the Prodigal Son. This painting is by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, a detail from "The Return of the Prodigal Son" (1667-70), National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, oil on canvas, 236.3 x 261 cm. Full image.
Wouldn't it be refreshing to be part of a church where brothers and sisters would encourage one another to love and good works, and be very gentle with one another's weaknesses? Yes, our obligation as brothers and sisters is to help one another escape from sin, but we need to carry out this duty very carefully and lovingly, like fine eye surgery:
"Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ." (Galatians 6:1-2)
Now let's look at the second half of verse 1, "... or you too will be judged." Judged by whom? J.B. Phillips assigns it to others, a kind of "what goes around, comes around" philosophy. But I don't agree. I think Jesus is talking about God's judgment of us. It goes back to the principle of 6:14-15 that if we withhold forgiveness of others, then the Father won't forgive our sins. David Hill comments, "The meaning is that, if you condemn, you exclude yourself from God's pardon."7 Other commentators agree.
"With the measure you use, it will be measured to you [by God]" (7:2).
We see a similar use of the idea of measuring in Luke's gospel:
"Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you." (Luke 6:38)
Here Jesus talks about kinds of measures. I think of sets of measuring cups and measuring spoons in our modern-day kitchens. There are various sizes. In this passage there is no doubt that God is the one who will measure out the blessing to you in accordance with the measure with which you give.
Q2. (Matthew 7:1-2) Read a similar passage in Luke 6:37-38. According to Matthew's account, what is our fate if we measure out big heaps of judgment with a critical spirit? According to Luke's account, how can measuring be both positive and negative? What should we measure out instead of judgmentalism?
If we measure out criticism to our brothers, then God will measure out criticism to us on Judgment Day. If we measure out blessing and encouragement, then that will be measured out to us. If we use a tiny measuring cup, we will receive a tiny recompense. But if we heap on the criticism, then we can expect a heaped up judgment on ourselves.
This makes some evangelical Christians uncomfortable. To them it smacks of "works righteousness." We would like to escape any judgment, even though the scripture is quite clear that even Christians will be judged for what we do in the body (Romans 14:10; 1 Corinthians 4:3-5; 2 Corinthians 5:10). We will be rewarded for that which is worthy, and our rewards will be stripped from us for that which is unworthy. Paul writes, for example,
"... His work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man's work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames." (1 Corinthians 3:13-15)
Now you can see why the epithet, "God damn you," is so damning. When we call down God's judgment on others, we risk calling down the same kind of judgment for our own sins, for "with the measure you use, it will be measured to you." It certainly behooves us to examine ourselves carefully before proceeding.
Why is it that Christians are sometimes the most harsh and strident and self-righteous people? Because they don't take seriously Jesus' clear teaching in this passage.
I find it hard to believe that Jesus said verses 3-5 with a straight face. The comparison is intended to be funny. Picture a man with a large plank of timber in his eye stooping down to perform minute eye surgery on a man with only a sawdust speck in his eye.
Yet that is what we do when we try to correct others without careful self-examination and surrender so that God can cleanse our own lives. Jesus calls those who are quick to correct others without correcting themselves "hypocrites," and enjoins them to take the plank out of their own eye first.
Jesus' classic parable on this contrast is the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.
"To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.'
"But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.'
"I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." (Luke 18:9-14)
Before criticizing someone else we need to humble ourselves before God and repent of our own sins. Then in humility we can serve others in genuine love, rather than genuine pride. Notice, in Matthew 7:5, after they remove the plank from their own eye, then they can see clearly to help their brother. They probably also have a good idea of how painful this surgery is and will be extremely gentle and understanding.
Q3. (Matthew 7:3-5) What about this parable is humorous? Why do you think Jesus compares a speck of sawdust with a plank or beam? What does the speck represent? What does the plank represent? According to this parable, when is it okay to remove a speck? When is it not okay?
Verse 6 is also difficult to grasp:
"Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces" (7:6).
One of the keys is to understand the view of dogs and pigs in Hebrew culture. Pigs, of course, were considered unclean animals; Jews were forbidden to eat pork of any kind. Only Gentiles raised pigs (Matthew 8:30-34).
We think of a dog as "man's best friend," but that was by no means the view of the period we are studying. Rather they were scavengers around the towns and cities. They might eat the decaying flesh of carcasses in the wild, which would have deeply offended the Jews' understanding of holiness and ritual cleanness. Dogs are looked down on in verses like Proverbs 26:11 and Matthew 15:26-27. The Jews also used the word "dogs" to refer to Gentile outsiders (compare Philippians 3:2 and Revelation 22:15).
Can you imagine giving holy food from the temple to an unclean dog scavenger? Of course not! Pearls were extremely precious. To throw them into the pig pen would be to not only lose them in the slime, but also to anger the pig, who might come after you for throwing him inedible food.
So who are the dogs and swine Jesus is referring to? They seem to be people who openly reject the gospel of Christ. Consider these verses:
"If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town." (Matthew 10:14)
"When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and talked abusively against what Paul was saying.... The Jews incited the God-fearing women of high standing and the leading men of the city. They stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them from their region. So they shook the dust from their feet in protest against them and went to Iconium." (Acts 13:44-45, 50-51)
"When the Jews opposed Paul and became abusive, [Paul] shook out his clothes in protest and said to them, 'Your blood be on your own heads! I am clear of my responsibility. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.'" (Acts 18:5-6)
Jesus is instructing his disciples to discern those who reject the gospel outright, and not to continue to declare it to them so that it is continually slandered and discredited. Rather, go to those who are receptive and hungry for hope.
Q4. (Matthew 7:6) In Jesus' day, what did dogs and pigs have in common? What would holy food and pearls have in common? Read Matthew 10:14; Acts 13:44-51; 18:5-6; and 28:17-28. In what kinds of circumstances did believers turn away from a continued sharing of the gospel? To what kinds of people did they continue their witness?
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It is Good News though, make no mistake. And its goodness includes forgiving and cleansing even those whom we condemn and criticize. If we let it, the Good News of God's mercy can extend to our own hearts, as well, displacing the caustic tongue with love and graciousness. God grant it!
Lord, I can't count the times when I've had to stop myself from harsh criticism of a brother or a sister. I'm guilty of this kind of judgmentalism. Forgive me. Make my lips sweet with love and grace. And show your grace to me in my sin. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.
- Krinō, BDAG 567-569.
- Merriam Webster's 11th Collegiate Dictionary.
- J.B. Phillips, The New Testament in Modern English (Macmillan, 1958).
- Eugene G. Peterson, The Message: The New Testament in Contemporary Language (NavPress, 1993).
- Stott, Sermon, p. 176.
- Merriam Webster's 11th Collegiate Dictionary.
- David Hill, Gospel of Matthew (New Century Bible Commentary, Eerdmans, 1972), p. 146.
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