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Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Sunday Study: The Virtue of Judging - Jesus was not a Relativist

About a year ago I gave a talk on moral relativism for Thinking Matters Tauranga. During that talk I noted that relativism entails that one cannot apply the moral principles you (or your culture) accepts to the practices of other people (or cultures). I was critical of this position arguing that it suffers from all sorts of problems. Predictably, someone in the audience asked me a question about Jesus’ comments in the Sermon on the Mount,

"Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Matt 7:1-2)

It is common to hear people interpret this passage as a commandment to not “judge other people;” in fact, it is common for people to use this statement as a kind of rhetorical club to silence Christian theological and moral critique of various cultural practices. When a particular practice is subjected to such critique those who engage in the practice will complain they are being “judged,” that Christians are being “judgemental” and that this is contrary to what Christ taught.

"In other words one should try to rectify the serious moral flaws in one’s own life precisely so one can assist others with theirs."I think this is a mistaken interpretation of this passage. In fact, if one wants an example of the claim that it is wrong to make moral judgements about other cultures in scripture, the most explicit example actually comes from the men of Sodom in the story of Lot. When the men seek to sodomise Lot’s visitors, Lot condemns what they desire to do as a “wicked thing.” Their response is recorded as follows,

"Get out of our way," they replied. And they said, "This fellow came here as an alien, and now he wants to play the judge! We'll treat you worse than them." They kept bringing pressure on Lot and moved forward to break down the door.

Here the men of Sodom objected that Lot is from a different culture and yet he dared “play the judge.” Jesus was not defending the men of Lot's behaviour in Matt 7:1-2. Hence we need to look closer at this passage that is so often cited.

First, the claim that it is wrong to judge other people is problematic; it is so problematic that it is amazing that anyone gives it credence. There are several reasons for drawing this conclusion. For starters, if it is wrong to judge other people then, since Hitler was another person, it is wrong to say that what he did was wrong; to say that his actions were wrong is to make a judgement about them and hence, judges him. Similarly, Martin Luther King Junior was wrong to criticise racism and William Wilberforce was wrong to make moral judgements about the slave trade. Taken consistently, the claim that it is wrong to judge entails that we should have no legal system, no laws and no courts as all these things involve judging certain conduct as wrong and condemning and punishing those who engage in it.

Not only would these historical and contemporary cases of judging be wrong, much of the Hebrew scriptures, parts that purport to describe people faithfully following God's will, in fact, are exercises in wrong doing. The Prophets offer, in some instances scathing, moral critiques of (and hence make moral judgements about) the actions of Israel, Judah and also surrounding nations such as Assyria and Babylon. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, etc in uttering such judgements were engaging in sin. It is not just the Hebrew scriptures that are implicated in wrong doing, the opening chapters of the book of Romans contains a moral critique of both the gentile and Hebrew cultures of Paul’s day; Paul made judgements about other people. In fact, if one seriously believes that judging is wrong and contrary to the will of God then Jesus was a sinner. Jesus after all made some very harsh and scathing judgements about the Pharisees and Sadducees throughout the synoptic gospels.

The problems with this interpretation of Matthew 7:1-2 do not stop there; a little reflection will demonstrate that the claim, that it is wrong to judge other people, is itself incoherent. To claim it is wrong to judge others is to make a moral judgement, it is to judge that a particular action is wrong. Moreover, when a person announces this to other people, he or she is implicitly making a judgement about other people’s actions. To utter it is wrong to judge others therefore is to engage in judging others. This kind of thinking can easily induce a kind of intellectual vertigo. It is analogous to the person who states, in English, “I can’t speak a word of English” or a person who tries to convince you that the claim “there is no truth” is true.

Fortunately, one does not need to attribute to Jesus such absurd, incoherent, platitudes because it is doubtful that Jesus meant anything quite so stupid. Several factors bear this conclusion out.

First, one needs to note that the claim, “do not judge, or you too will be judged,” occurs as part of the Sermon on the Mount. In this Sermon, Jesus regularly used hyperbole to vividly illustrate a point; interpreting these hyperboles too literalistically leads to obvious absurdities. In Matt 5:9, for example, Jesus states (when referring to the act of looking at another person’s spouse with lust) “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away.” It is evident that Jesus is not advocating self-mutilation but simply illustrating his point about not lusting in a vivid, hyperbolic fashion. Similarly, Matt 5:16 commands people to, “do good deeds before men,” while verse 6:1 tells us, “not to do good deeds before men.” Taken in a strictly literalistic sense this is a contradiction. However, a reading of the context shows these extreme statements are simply vivid illustrations of a point; one’s good deeds should be motivated by a desire to honour God not a desire to advance one’s own reputation.

Similar things apply to the statement, “to swear not at all.” A statement, which at face value, flatly contradicts both the Old Testament and the practices of Paul and Jesus; however again, an examination of the context shows that this is another hyperbole, illustrating the principle that one should be honest in all one’s dealings, one should not use legal loopholes and so on. In light of this context, the phrase, “Do not judge,” should be seen for what it is, a hyperbolic statement illustrating the point elaborated in the surrounding verses.

Second, when one turns to this context, one can see quite clearly the point being made. The phrase translated in the NIV as, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged,” was originally written by Matthew in Koine and then transliterated from the Greek. What is stated is, “Do not judge that you be judged” (Matt 7:1 Interlinear Bible). In other words, do not judge others in a way that leads one to put oneself under judgement. This is clearly borne out by the context which states,

2For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
3"Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye.
6"Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces. (Matthew 7:2-6)

Here the qualifications are evident. One is not to judge in a way that brings judgement on oneself. “For” (because) the standard one uses to judge others is the standard one’s own behaviour is measured by. Jesus goes on to illustrate, with a sarcastic example, precisely what he is talking about; a person who nit-picks or censures others minor faults (taking the speck out of their brothers eye) yet who ignores the serious, grave, moral faults in their own life (the log in one’s own eye). His point is that such faults actually blind the person’s ability to make competent moral judgements. This suggests that Jesus is focusing on a certain type of judging and not the making of judgements per se.

In fact, the conclusion that Jesus does not mean to condemn all judging of others is evident from the last two sentences in the above quote. Rather than engaging in the kind of judgement Jesus has condemned, a person should “first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye.” In other words one should try to rectify the serious moral flaws in one’s own life precisely so one can assist others with theirs. One needs to avoid hypocrisy in order to make constructive and effective moral judgements about others. This would make no sense if Jesus meant to condemn all judging by this passage.

This is borne out by the reference to “pigs and dogs” in the verse 6. Dogs and pigs, to Jews, were unclean animals and the term was frequently used to designate people considered to be of low moral character who were “unclean” before God. In this verse Jesus is simply repeating the Old Testament teaching found in Proverbs 9:8, which states, “Do not rebuke a mocker or he will hate you: rebuke a wise man and he will love you.” The reason why one is exhorted to not do this is because it fails to be constructive to do so. The implication again, is that one should try and make constructive judgements rather than simply provoking anger.

Just in case I have not belaboured the point enough, my interpretation is further reinforced by what follows after these passages,

15"Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. 16By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.
21"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' 23Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!' (Matthew 7:15-23)

Here Jesus actually instructs his disciples to make moral judgements about others. He tells his disciples to judge whether a person is a false prophet or not by their “fruit.” Anyone familiar with Old Testament prophetic literature (as Jesus’ hearers were) would know that fruit is a metaphor for character. Isaiah’s use of the metaphor is paradigmatic.

1 I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard: My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside.
2 He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well. Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit.
3 "Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and men of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard.
4 What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it? When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad?
5 Now I will tell you what I am going to do to my vineyard: I will take away its hedge, and it will be destroyed; I will break down its wall, and it will be trampled.
6 I will make it a wasteland, neither pruned nor cultivated, and briers and thorns will grow there. I will command the clouds not to rain on it."
7 The vineyard of the LORD Almighty is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are the garden of his delight. And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress. (Isaiah 5:1-7)

The fruit looked for is such things as right conduct, justice, etc. Paul uses the same metaphor when he states that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal 5:22-23a). Jesus makes it clear that he is utilising this metaphor. He goes on to stress that, in this context, the fruit of a prophet is whether he or she “does the will of my Father” and is not an “evil doer.” It is clear then that Jesus here is exhorting his disciples to make moral judgement about other people, to critically evaluate other people’s lives and actions and to make judgements about their spiritual authenticity based on these judgements. All this would be very odd if it was wrong to judge.

In sum then, Jesus never commanded people to “not judge others.” Incoherent and absurd platitudes about it being wrong to judge are the ramblings of the confused and ignorant or are uttered by people mistakenly thinking that being a script writer for a second rate television drama makes them a competent theologian or ethicist. Such platitudes are most certainly are not among the teachings of the New Testament.

Cultural Confusion and Ethical Relativism I
Cultural Confusion and Ethical Relativism II


  1. Note also Jesus' comment here to the Jews about judging

    Jesus answered them, "I did one work, and you all marvel at it. Moses gave you circumcision (not that it is from Moses, but from the fathers), and you circumcise a man on the Sabbath. If on the Sabbath a man receives circumcision, so that the law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with me because on the Sabbath I made a man’s whole body well? Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment." (John 7)

    Recent blog post: Untying the binding

  2. I was under the impression that "do not judge least you be judged" was a circular riddle: that if you use your logic to find truth you cannot. The logical mind will construct a cycle that cannot be broken by use of further logic. It may also suggest that you should be aware of your prejudices in a matter, be able to suspend them and to step outside of yourself, into relativity, but not to remain in a state of relativity, but to be able to understand a matter in it's entirity so it can be examined for truths before reacting. Afterall, it is clear that different people and cultures do not hold the same values and morals. They exist whether our values want them to or not. To ignore them helps nothing. To see them begins understanding. To understand you must first see clearly and you do that without judgement. But to act you must judge.


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