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Jesus and Judgment

“Do not judge, lest you be judged.”

So begins the final chapter of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7). And so goes what is fast becoming the best-loved Bible verse of our generation.

We hate the idea of judgment. We’d rather be left alone. And for good reason. Rarely, if ever, is judgment done well. In church contexts it is almost always destructive.

Jesus seems to recognize this.

As he goes on to illustrate the follies of judgment, he warns against trying to take the splinter out of another person’s eye while toting about a log in our own. To my mind, half the wonder of this fantastic image is the mental picture of someone knocking out the person he’s trying to “help.”

Your speck might be an irritation to you, but my log is a danger.

And yet, Jesus does not leave us with an absolute prohibition on judgment. Instead, he says to take care of the log and then go after the speck. The speck is still worthy of extrication.

Immediately after, he warns against throwing pearls to swine. Clearly this requires some measure of judgment.

"Sermon on the Mount" by Laura James
“Sermon on the Mount” by Laura James

Later in this chapter, Jesus will tell of wolves in sheep’s clothing. He will speak of trees and fruit. He is imploring his audience to judge–to judge wisely, to judge rightly, to know where to look.

The entire Sermon reaches its climax with a twofold scene of final judgment.

Entering the kingdom of heaven is limited. (That path is hard, the gate is narrow, that lead to life, remember.)

Calling Jesus Lord isn’t enough.

Prophesying isn’t enough.

Exorcising in Jesus’s name isn’t enough.

Jesus says that these aren’t the signals that someone will enter. Admittance depends on doing the will of the Father (Matt 7:21). And doing the will of the Father, it turns out, is a matter of hearing the words of Jesus and doing them (Matt 7:24).

Looming judgment, potentially catastrophic judgment, is endemic to the message of Jesus. And he invites us to judge wisely in anticipation of the judgment that awaits.

But what is Jesus’s end game? What kind of community does he hope to create through the Sermon, and this talk about judgment in particular? What kind of fruit should we be looking for as we keep our eyes out for the ravenous wolves?

I think that the answer is found in two sets of sayings that are sandwiched between all the talk about judgment.

The first is an invitation to throw ourselves on the lavish generosity of God: ask and it will be given, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened (Matt 7:7). Earthly parents give the needful bread and fish to their children, how much more will the Father in heaven (Matt 7:11)? (“Give us this day our daily bread…”)

But here’s the rub.

That passage is not just about trusting God. It is a depiction of what life is supposed to look like among the people of God. If children look like their parents, then children of this heavenly Father should embody this rich, lavish generosity with one another.

Jesus goes on, “Therefore…”

Therefore.

Because God gives good things to those who ask.

“Therefore, whatever you would wish that people do for y’all, this also y’all do for them. For this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 7:12).

This is the Christian categorical imperative.

Note that it does not say to avoid a negative (“If there’s anything you don’t want done to you, don’t do it to another”). It requires a positive.

It requires the positive posture of pursuing the good of our neighbor.

It demands of us that we generously guide those who are seeking, give to those who ask, and open to those who knock.

This is our measure. This is the standard for our judgment.

The kind of community that the Sermon seeks to form is a community of those who are perfect like our heavenly Father is perfect (Matt 5:48). In its immediate context this means bestowing life-giving blessing even to our enemies, just as God causes the rain to fall and the sun to shine on the just and the unjust alike.

This is our categorical imperative: to embody the lavish generosity of our heavenly Father.

Y’all are the light of the world, Jesus says. It’s a light that is the reflection of the glory light of God. This means that when our light shines before people, they will see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven (Matt 5:16).

This is the light whose presence or absence we are to judge. It is the light of the goodness of God reflected (or not) in and among those who claim to be the children of this particular Father.

It is a light that even the outsider should see as a reflection of God.


For more on Jesus and judgment, check out Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul?


Featured image courtesy of cooldesign at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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4 thoughts on “Jesus and Judgment

  1. The way I have learned to read it is that we are to judge-assess but not judge-condemn (as individuals). And the greatest punishment in the church is to be disfellowshipped. And there are civil courts for worse punishments.

  2. I like this translation:

    Instead of “Be ye perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”

    How about “Be ye compassionate as your heavenly Father is compassionate.”

  3. Nothing in the Lord’s teaching here precludes us from keeping an eye open for obvious swine and dogs … I have thought for a very long time that what is meant is assessing negatively another’s basic spiritual condition, which we are not authorised or equipped to do, sometimes not even in our own case. Developing a reasonable sense of human character and conduct cannot be intended.

    I’ve reposted my (very) old article on love for neighbour with some small corrections to the scan: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/your-neighbour-yourself-luke-1027-dr-priscilla-turner-1?trk=prof-post . It’s not irrelevant.

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