"Judge not, that you be not judged, for with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get back."
We love these words that Jesus spoke in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:12). But as with many of his lessons, this one is prone to misapplication. Many trip over it and rise from the dust to follow a different path. Others pull this arrow out of their quiver to fire back at judgmental Christians.
Sometimes we invoke these words when we wish to avoid the responsibility of making uncomfortable discernments. We would rather walk past injustice or destructive behavior without investing any emotional capital. "I won't judge," we say to ourselves, as if our inaction is somehow noble. But in our hearts we know that Jesus is not calling us to a life of disengagement.
At other times, we say, "Don't judge me!"
This is not so much a good defense as an angry retort. We know we are not taking the high road, but like the woman caught in adultery, we want to hear Jesus say, "Neither do I condemn you." We forget that he also told her, "Go and sin no more" (John 8:11).
But if we wish to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves, we do not have the luxury of avoiding judgment. The serpent can only be wise by discerning truth and right, and the dove can only be harmless by recognizing and avoiding the potential harm she can cause.
So what are we to do with this difficult lesson?
Jesus' aim was not to make us better judges, but better citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. To live under the sovereign rule of God is to accept God as the final arbiter and judge. This is both a great relief and an awesome obligation.
We should recognize that this is not a call to non-judgment, but a command to self-judgment. "Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?... First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor's eye" (Matthew 7:3-5).
We all need to correct the ones we love when we see they are making a mistake. We all need that loved one to do the same for us. But the first is more effective when we have seen the fault in ourselves, and the second is rendered moot when we have done the unpleasant task for them.
When we are correcting, we can ease the sting by saying, "I have made this mistake myself, and I want you avoid the pain it caused me." When we are being corrected, we keep the peace between friends if we can say, "You're right. I caught myself too."
We also should be mindful that while we are walking the tightrope between Godly discernment and petty faultfinding, we are under the watchful eye of the One True Judge, whose gaze pierces the veil of hypocrisy, yet whose mercy is never-ending. However we judge, it should be with the humility that comes from knowing our finitude and unworthiness. Whatever speck we wish to point out, surely there is a log in our own eye we have not even discovered yet.
So let us approach the task with fear and trembling, for there is a higher court to which all cases are appealed, and our own case is next on the docket. The measure we give will be the measure we get back. Meanwhile, our nobler task is to find the log which, by God's grace, we can flush out with tears of gratitude.
Brian Dale is pastor of Allen Memorial Methodist Church in Oxford.