I think that one of the most confusing – as well as difficult – teachings of Jesus is that of whether or not we should or can judge others. I doubt I can shed any light on this, but I am willing to try, even if I go down in flames. In Matthew 7 & Luke 6, Jesus told his disciples that if they do not judge, they will not be judged – do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Jesus did, however, tell lots of stories about the work that real judges do, and he warned his followers to make nice with their accusers, lest they get dragged before the judge. In the Gospel of John, Jesus talks a whole lot about judgment, and is clear that, while judgment is a real thing, it is not our job to do it. One of the most telling passages about judgment is when a woman is dragged before Jesus because she was caught in the act of adultery. Jesus tells the lynch mob that anyone present without sin may go ahead and throw the stone. I don’t think this passage condones adultery (Jesus tells her to sin no more) – I think this is about justice. If she was caught in adultery, where was the other person? Judgment is a sticky thing.
So I want to turn to the teaching about judgment that I personally find to be most helpful. It appears just twice, with Jesus telling the crowd that before they can help someone else, they must deal with their own problems. “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, “Friend, let me take out the speck in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly enough to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” (Luke 6: 41-42). To point out another person’s sin is not acceptable until each one of us deals with our sin, which may be much larger. Jesus uses hyperbole to illustrate that judgment is not about condemnation, but about assisting another person to do and be better. We can make a judgment only after we have fixed our own problems, and then, only to be of assistance.
I know that I am guilty of judgment, even though I believe I am being helpful. I also know that just about every person I know is the same. It is a hard thing to admit when we have done this, because we know that Jesus is very firm about this – especially when it comes to forgiveness. We cannot be forgiven by God if we are unwilling to forgive others. And yes, I know that some hurts are worse than others, and I personally do not know what anyone else has gone through. And I also admit that when I hear the stories of pain and suffering that some folks go through, I am not at all sure that I would be able to forgive either.
Forgiveness is also not without limits. Jesus is asked how often we should forgive, and He answers, “7 x 70” and “77 times”. This is often interpreted as meaning “always”, but I don’t think this is true. I interpret this as meaning we should forgive more than we might want to, but that there is also a limit. Too often, we hold grudges or say “I can forgive, but I won’t forget”. I understand not forgetting – nobody wants to get burned over and over. But too often, this really means that in our remembering, we have not forgiven. I think this is a growing edge for all of us, and the challenge is that, while not being judgmental, we also must maintain a sense of right and wrong. If someone says Nazi-like things, is it wrong to say that person is a Nazi? If someone drives drunk and kills someone, are we wrong to say it out loud? I will continue to struggle with this – and I hope that those who do God’s work to help me see this will consider what may be in their own eye, just like I constantly try to do the same. Peace!
Steve Ohnsman has been the pastor of Calvary UCC in Reading, PA since 1999. He has a BA in Religion & Philosophy from Wilmington College (OH), an MDiv from Drew Theological Seminary (NJ), a DMin in Christian Ethics from United Theological Seminary (OH), and a PhD in Leadership from Alvernia University (PA).