What is the most popular verse in the Bible? It used to be John 3:16. Billy Graham probably quoted it every time he broadcast on television.
But today this is not the verse we hear most often quoted. There is a more popular verse. People who are not even Christians love to quote it. Do you know what it is? You guessed it: "Do not judge."
This is a shortened version of what Jesus said in Matthew 7:1, and in nearly every contemporary conversation, it is wrenched out of context, radically misunderstood, and misapplied.
The verse reads: "Do not judge, or you too will be judged."
Some quote this as though Jesus gave them permission to condone any behavior under the sun. As if he meant we can do our own thing without fear of anyone correcting us, because we won't correct them either. We'll scratch each other's back and get along. That makes Jesus out to be a moral relativist, which is a distortion of the truth.
Here is N.T. Wright's translation: "Don't judge people, and you won't be judged yourself. You'll be judged, you see, by the judgment you use to judge others! You'll be measured by the measuring-rod you use to measure others!" (Matthew 7, verses 1-2).
These words are a warning about the attitude of judging. Jesus doesn't eliminate appropriate judgments. Never does he endorse a ‘values-free education' or ‘everything-is-up-for-grabs' morality. We have to make a careful distinction between what Jesus said and meant, and what we sometimes want to read into his teaching.
We are not told to stop making judgments. We are expected to make judgments about all kinds of things. We make judgments daily about eating good food or throwing out bad food. We make judgments about which person to hire. We make judgments about our car tires before we go on a long road trip.
And we make moral judgments too. That is why we monitor our own behavior and guide and correct our children. That is why we make decisions to have drug-free school zones. If we have a moral compass, we can use it for guidance.
For evidence that Jesus expected people to make judgments, look at Matthew 7:15. He warns his followers about people who are false prophets, "wolves in sheep's clothing." He judges that some people are true and some are false, and he expects his followers to know the difference. That requires judgment.
So what did he mean in Matthew 7:1-2? There Jesus focused on the inner attitude of the person making the judgments. As Paul Copan says, "What Jesus condemns is a critical and judgmental spirit, an unholy sense of moral superiority. Jesus commanded us to examine ourselves first for the problems we so easily see in others."
We can't help remove a cataract in someone else's eye when we have a cataract in our own eye. It takes insight to see that what bugs me about someone else, may actually be a problem in my own life as well. Is John too stubborn? Maybe I'm stubborn too. Is Lucinda too arrogant? Maybe I'm arrogant too. Just as much? Well, any little seed can take root and grow. Tend to your own garden before you tend to your neighbor's.
What Jesus warns about is adopting an attitude of superiority and fault-finding, or a stance that makes you a hypocrite. But that warning does not give us permission to pretend that morality doesn't matter.
We cannot cite the "judge not" passage while we ignore Jesus' command to make proper judgments: "Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment" (John 7:24).
Jesus didn't teach that we should tolerate anything and everything in the realm of behavior and morality. Good things need to be promoted and advanced, not merely tolerated. Bad things need to be opposed, not tolerated at all. True toleration isn't about indifference to other people or ideas, but it is about treating others with respect and dignity even when we disagree.
And Jesus didn't have an attitude of contempt towards "sinners." They sensed his compassion and vital help. He had a lot less patience with the proud and arrogant.
The hard thing to do is find the right balance. When we make judgments, may we do so in an attitude of humility and not superiority, out of true concern and not indifference, having first confronted the problems in our own life before focusing on those same problems in other people.
The Rev. Mark Koonz is pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran Church. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 509-525-6872. Pastors in the U-B circulation area who want to write may call Catherine Hicks at 509-526-8312, or e-mail at email@example.com.