Jesus warning about judging others is one of the most misunderstood admonitions in Scripture. It is most frequently used to attempt to fend off unwanted criticism and least used to examine our own disapproving fault-finding with others. Jesus’ instruction to avoid judging others does not mean that we suspend our critical faculties. But it does mean that we do everything in our power to give our neighbors the benefit of the doubt.
Luther says it well in his explanation of the Eighth Commandment, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”
What does this mean? – We should fear and love God so that we do not betray, slander, lie, or gossip about our neighbors, but defend them, speak well of them, and put the most charitable construction on all that they do.
This is central to what Jesus means by “Not Judging.” It is a positive and community creating attitude that promotes good relationships. It is an active opportunity that God’s Spirit leads his people into. It results in a stronger more confident bond between neighbors who “have each others’ backs.”
Jesus advises us to put our critical energies to work on ourselves. His amusing analogy of the log in our own eyes interfering with our ability to provide helpful criticism for others sets the stage. We can be useful to each other with good suggestions, but it must be accompanied by deep humility over our own faults. If we start from the perspective of our own failings we can actually be more helpful to our neighbors than if we jump past the self-examination step in critical thinking.
Along with his instruction to refrain from unhelpful criticism, Jesus also encourages us to use good judgment in our relationships with other people. Right after his instruction to “not judge,” Jesus tells us to think critically, so that we may know when we are in the company of human “dogs or swine.” These kinds of people present a danger to us and the message of the Gospel. Careful discernment about their troublesome nature is not a judgement against them. It is simply wise. God himself will deal with them in his own way. Remember St. Paul was just one such dog or swine until he met the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus.
Careful use of criticism, especially negative criticism, is pattern in a life guided by the Holy Spirit. Look for this pattern to emerge in your life. Speak with God about it, if it concerns you and stand ready to be amazed by the transformative power of Christ’s Spirit at work in us.
So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 7:12)