What Did Jesus Mean by, "Do Not Judge"?

Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. Matthew 7:1-2[This article is the April En-Gedi Monthly Article. If you are interested in receiving them by emial, sign-up online at http://www.egrc.net/. ] (1)

What did Jesus mean by “do not judge?” This is one of those sayings of Jesus that can be unclear. It is can sound like Jesus is saying to look the other way when you see sin. From everything else that Jesus says, Christians know he couldn’t be suggesting that we show no discernment, but we still struggle to find a way to sort out wrong but never actually call it that, so that we don’t judge. While Jesus’ demands are high, we can give up trying to follow them if they don’t make sense to us.

An alternative is to listen to some of the discussions going on among others in Jesus’ culture, and see if they can shed some light on his words. Interestingly, other rabbis of Jesus’ time taught ideas close to this concept of “do not judge.” While their words do not have the authority of Jesus’, and we need to be discerning about our conclusions, they have some good ideas that Jesus may have been expanding on in his teaching on judging. Personally, the insights I have found in the rabbinic context have made it one of the most important commands that Jesus gave, which applies to my life every day.

Judging Others FavorablyWe can find some of the discussion of Jesus’ contemporaries in the Mishnah, a collection of Jewish sayings which was written about two hundred years after Jesus but includes teachings from Jesus’ time and before. The most important reference was from a rabbi who lived over a hundred years before Jesus who said, “Judge everyone with the scales weighted in their favor.” (Yehoshua ben Perechia, Avot 1:6) In a later source, the Babylonian Talmud, it says “He who judges his neighbor favorably will be judged favorably by God.” (Shabbat 127a). It is interesting to see how reminiscent this is of Jesus’ saying, “with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” To “judge in favorable terms” was considered as important as visiting the sick and devotion in prayer, and teaching the Scriptures to your children! A story was told to illustrate the point:

A man went to work on a farm for three years. At the end of
this time, he went to his employer and requested his wages
so that he could go home and support his wife and children.
The farm owner said to him, “I have no money to give you!”

So he said to him, “Well, give me some crops I’ve helped
grow.” The man replied, “I have none!”

“Well then, give me some of the goats or sheep, that I’ve
helped to raise!” And the farmer shrugged and said that he
had nothing he could give him. So the farm hand gathered
up his belongings and went home with a sorrowful heart.

A few days later his employer came to his house with all of
his wages along with three carts full of food and drink. They
had dinner together and afterward the farm owner said to
him, “When I told you I had no money, what did you
suspect me of?”

“I thought you had seen a good bargain and used all your
cash to buy it.” Then he said “What did you think when I
said that I had no crops?”

“I thought perhaps they were all leased from others.” He
then said, “What did you think when I said I had no animals?”

“I thought that you may have dedicated them all to the
Temple.” The farmer answered him, “You are right! My son
wouldn’t study the Scriptures, and I had rashly vowed all of
my possessions to God in my prayers for my son. But, just a
couple days ago, I was absolved of the vow so that now I
can pay you. And as for you, just as you have judged me
favorably, may the Lord judge you favorably!” (2)

This story has elements in it of not condemning another, and also a parallel of, “For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” Could this enlighten us to the gist of what Jesus is saying? The idea from the text is that the hired hand always gave the employer the benefit of the doubt, by imagining the best possible motivation for his actions that otherwise seemed suspicious. This is exactly what the rabbis meant by always judging a neighbor favorably.

This seems like a nice thought, but hardly an earth-shaking interpretation of Jesus’ words. But, what if we applied it to our own lives, what would happen? Just imagine going to church one morning and all the choices you make in deciding how to react to the situations around you.

• On the way there, a car passes you on the road and cuts you off. Why? The driver is has no regard for speed laws! He is just trying to impress people!
or, maybe the driver is late for something, or his kids are driving him crazy.

• In church you are told to greet the people around you, but the woman in front of you was obviously avoiding you, trying not to make your acquaintance. Why? She is obviously a snob and you didn’t dress well enough today!
or, maybe she is new to this church or uncomfortable meeting people.

• A woman asks you afterward about the surgery she had heard that you had. Why? She is a busybody who just wants to put her nose in your business!
or, maybe she genuinely worries about others, and wants to share your burdens.

In almost every situation, we have the choice to look for a good motivation or a bad motivation behind other people’s behavior. The way we interpret others’ motivations has a profound effect on our reactions toward others. This idea of the rabbis to “judge favorably” certainly was a great one, even if it isn’t exactly what Jesus said.

Imagine another scenario, where a “worship war” has broken out in a congregation, with the older members want to sing hymns and the younger members want a rock band. Typically, the older people say things like, “They have no appreciation for the richness of hymns – they only want to be entertained!” And, the youth say, “The old folks don’t care about reaching the lost – they just want to do things the same old way!”

What would happen if each group stopped assigning negative motivations to the other group? What if the “hymns only” group started saying, “Maybe the younger members of our church think that they can bring new meaning to the service by putting it in their own words…” And what if the “rock band” enthusiasts started saying, “Maybe the older members find more meaning in what’s familiar rather than in what sounds strange to them…” How long would the conflict last in that church? How long would it be before both groups would try their best to love and accommodate each other?

Interestingly, Jewish culture even up to the present day has tried to instill in its people the ethic to “judge favorably.” There is a Jewish group that meets simply to practice finding ways to give the benefit of the doubt when it appears someone has done something unkind. They reflect on hurts in their lives and then propose ways to excuse the perpetrator. For example, when one of them didn’t receive an invitation to a wedding, they would say, “Perhaps the person was under the impression that they had already sent an invitation,” or, “Perhaps they couldn’t afford to invite many people.”(3) One Jewish website called, “The Other Side of the Story” is filled with stories of situations where a person looked liked he was doing wrong, but then turned out to be innocent.(4) The point is simply to teach others the importance of judging favorably.

Jesus’ words, “Do Not Judge”Even though the rabbis’ words are wise, they aren’t exactly what Jesus said. How does Jesus teaching about “do not judge” compare? Personally, I think that Jesus was starting with what the other rabbis taught, and then increasing the challenge. His audience already knew about judging favorably, from a hundred years before him. The famous rabbi Hillel who lived shortly before Jesus said, “Judge not your fellow man until you yourself come into his place.” (Avot 2:5) His idea was that we shouldn’t judge because don’t have full knowledge of another’s life experience. You can’t know if someone struggles with depression or some wounding in their past. Hillel’s idea is a step closer to what Jesus said, and it shows that the discussion of “judging” was still going in Jesus’ time.

But, Jesus’ reasoning is different even from Hillel’s. He was a realist who knows what humans are like. Given what we know about human nature, we expect that people will sin willfully and intentionally. At some point it will be undeniable that a person’s intention was evil, and we can’t pretend that it wasn’t. Jesus points out that our response must be to remind ourselves of our own sinful hearts—the only hearts we really can know. When we realize that we are sinners ourselves, we know that we can’t demand judgment on others. We need to put aside condemnation and extend mercy instead, if we want God to have mercy on us. As Jesus said, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven…For with the measure you use, it will be measured out to you.” (Luke 6:35-38)

Instead of saying, “Judge favorably,” perhaps Jesus would have said, “Judge mercifully! Do everything you can to extend mercy to others.”

Obviously, this not saying to avoid having discernment. We can discern whether an action or an outward attitude is wrong. According to Paul, the church is also obligated to discipline sinful practice among its members (1 Cor. 5:1-5). And if the wrong is committed against us personally, Jesus tells us to show the person his sin in hopes of his being repentant so that we can forgive. (Matt 18:15-17) Also, in Leviticus 19:17-18 it says, “Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in his guilt. Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself.”

While we can discern sin in practice, only God knows the whole motive of the heart, so we need to leave final judgment up to him. To judge another is to presume to have both the knowledge and authority of God himself. So when we are in a situation where we are tempted to condemn another, we need to step back and hand it up to the Lord, and remind ourselves that that is his job and not ours. If we want God’s mercy, we need to be merciful. As James says, “There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you who judge your neighbor?” (James 4:12)

Applying these words to our lives

I find that actually both the rabbis’ words and Jesus’ words are extremely useful in my life every day. My attitude toward others becomes more loving when I assume the best, rather than the worst about people. If was able to always “judge favorably,” it would be impossible to have a critical or cynical spirit towards others. I’d start saying things like, “Maybe she was short tempered today because of problems at home.” When I had an argument with a friend, I’d assume that she felt that her opinion made sense and should be defended. When I hear a negative attitude toward my faith, I’d say, “That person must have had some bad experiences in the past with Christians in order to make him feel that way.” It is a lot easier to reach out in love when I let God judge other people’s motivations, and not do it myself.

Even when people are clearly in the wrong, we can still extend mercy to them by giving them as much benefit of the doubt as possible. For instance, if someone has sinned against me, it is a lot easier to forgive after I’ve said, “Maybe she didn’t realize how very hurtful her actions would be to me….” It often helps when you confront sin too. Imagine that a man in your Bible study is becoming involved with his secretary. You might say, “Herb, I know Sue is attractive and you have worked long hours together! And you and Helen have had your difficulties and you need someone to talk to. But for whatever reason you’ve gotten involved, you need to think of your commitment to Helen.” By being merciful by giving someone the benefit of the doubt even when he is clearly in the wrong, you can more easily suggest that he change.

Other Ways of Judging

If judging (or judging negatively) is defined as believing the worst about others, it includes many other types of hurtful behavior. All insults are forms of judgment. If I like a woman who is assertive, I’ll describe her as “bold and self-assured.” But if I don’t, I’ll judge her negatively by calling her “arrogant and loud-mouthed.” A man may simply be uninformed, but when I call him “stupid” or “clueless,” I’ve judged him negatively. James says, “Do not speak against one another, brethren. He who speaks against a brother judges his brother.” (James 4:11) If you think about it, gossip relies heavily on judgment. People who love to gossip usually have a habit of looking for wrongdoing in a person’s life in order to share it with others. Criticism, cynicism, and complaining are all based on searching out the negative everywhere we can find it.

Negative judgments are particularly toxic to marriage relationships. In the book Blink,(5) Malcolm Gladwell describes a study of married couples that examined at the rate of divorce compared to the attitudes that the couple showed toward each other in interviews five or ten years earlier. The interviewers looked at dozens of variables, but found only one factor that could almost surely predict divorce—an attitude of contempt. When one or both partners habitually spoke to the other with disdain or disgust, even in the most subtle ways, the marriage was often moving toward a break up. If you think about it, contempt is the end product of condemnation, which comes from a history of judging unfavorably and without mercy. It is a way of saying, “I have reached my verdict, and there is nothing good in you.”

People who struggle with chronic anger can often find the root of their problem in looking for something wrong in other peoples’ actions—by their own act of judging negatively. If you think about it, anger always involves an accusation of sin. If you invite someone to an important meeting and it’s ruined because they missed it, you may be upset about the failed meeting, but you won’t get angry if they just had car trouble. But if you discover that they didn’t come because they simply had no respect for your position and didn’t want to make the effort, then you get angry. Next time you are angry, ask yourself what sin you are accusing the other person of. Then remember that Jesus says that you are a sinner too – and you can’t ask God for his mercy if you won’t be merciful to someone else!

Christians would do well to focus more on judging favorably and extending mercy – both ways of showing God’s grace. We’ll find that over time, it really has the potential to transform our personalities to be more like Christ. To hear Jesus one more time,

Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge,
and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will
not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.
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 6:35-38


(1) This essay was based on articles originally published in February 2002 & February 2003, with some new reflections on the topic.(2) B. Talmud, Shabbat 127a

(3) J. Telushkin, The Book of Jewish Values, (c) 2000, Bell Tower, New York, ISBN 0609603302, p. 35.

(4) Find other links on judging favorably in En-Gedi’s article section on Jewish Ethics.

(5) M. Gladwell, Blink (c) 2005, Little, Brown & Co, New York, ISBN 9780316172325, pp. 30-34.

Published in: on April 20, 2007 at 1:05 pm  Comments Off on What Did Jesus Mean by, "Do Not Judge"?  
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