“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”
Matthew 7:1-5 (NRSV, with footnoted translations preferred)
In this passage, I have preferred the translation of “brother’s” to the NRSV’s “neighbor’s.” The reason for this is not because I have some reservation about gender-inclusive language in Bible translations. I’m all for it, actually.
But in this passage, I believe the term brother (adelphou) is being used the way Jesus uses it elsewhere – to restrict the teaching by ethnicity, not by gender. Your “brother” is your fellow Jew, in distinction from the Gentiles.
This reading makes a lot of sense in the context of the rest of the Sermon, where Jesus has warned about the coming judgement on the existing world powers and the need for Israel to be faithful above and beyond anything she’s dared, before, here in the hour of crisis. He has exhorted this community to unity and had sharp words for those leaders of Israel who have, more or less, “defected” to the side of the Gentiles, who are the oppressors.
If we broaden the reading, then it becomes a generic instruction to avoid ever making a judgement about anyone or possibly anything, and this has led into all kinds of bizarre speculations and mitigation as Christians have struggled to hold this teaching in unity with the many teachings about judgement and discernment used elsewhere in the Bible, even from Jesus’ own lips.
What Jesus has in view, here, are those in Israel who condemn other Israelites as being unfaithful in various things while, in the process, their own unfaithfulness is like a solar eclipse. It is very likely the epitome of the people Jesus is thinking about are the religious leaders of Israel.
Take, for instance, Jesus’ extended tirade against some of the scribes and Pharisees later in Matthew in chapter 23. In just one sample passage:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!”
Matthew 23:23-24 (NRSV)
In this chapter, repeatedly, Jesus refers to them as “blind” and “hypocrites” who are fastidious about tiny observations of the Law while at the same time ignoring the large core of virtues that define the kingdom of God.
Jesus’ teaching here, consonant with the rest of the Sermon, is for his hearers not to be like these people. Rather, they should take care that they, themselves, are being faithful Law-keepers as God defines it. Their righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees. They are to reject the dead shell of the religion that rots in the whitewashed Temple and instead embrace all the qualities of their God that they are to model in the world as a testimony that YHWH is the Lord and they are His people.
It is only that sort of person, who has rigorously sought the faithfulness of the kingdom of God (as instructed in the last passage) and filled themselves with justice, mercy, and faith who is in a position to help the others who are weaker and stumbling. This, in fact, is the very tack taken by Jesus himself among the lost sheep of Israel. A brother who stumbles is someone to help from a position of love, mercy, understanding, and restoration – not a person to be condemned, snubbed, and shunned so that your own “righteousness” might shine all the brighter by comparison.
It is that latter group of people – those who believe themselves to be righteous but have bypassed the core values of the kingdom – who will themselves be judged. It is those who cry in the street, “Thank you, God, that I am not a sinner like this man,” who will find themselves on the outside of the kingdom. It is those who call Jesus their Lord but who do not feed, clothe, or comfort their persecuted and needy brethren whom Jesus will not acknowledge. They will fall with the very Temple that has supported their hypocrisy this whole time.
And for us?
On our side of the story, all authority on heaven and earth has been given to Jesus. The Roman Empire fell to his banner and eventually faded into the distance. YHWH is no longer the God of the Jews only, but of the whole world. Jews and Gentiles alike come to faith in what God has done in Jesus and are both given the promised Spirit. We do not have a holy city that is about to fall or an Empire that is about to be overturned. But we continue in this world as faithful communities that testify that Jesus is King and his God is God of all and the project of new creation has not been abandoned, but continues forward in hope.
In such an environment, I would offer that it is a common malady of God’s people in the world today to use an external conformity to morality as a platform for thinking oneself righteous and declaring others to be excluded from the kingdom or unfaithful, while at the same time ignoring those things that God has always wanted His people to produce on Earth – justice, mercy, compassion, provision, restoration, healing, faithfulness.
I can’t speak definitively for other countries, but America is full of Christians just like this. The Christian life is defined by conformity to a moral code, much of which may actually be in the Bible somewhere. If you do not conform to this code, then you aren’t a faithful Christian in their eyes. Meanwhile, these same people will happily tell the homeless to get a job so as not to be a drain on society, turn away the immigrant, and tell the sinners with barely concealed glee and not at all concealed fury that they will surely find themselves on the wrong end of God’s judgement, unlike themselves.
Folks, that is a very, very, very dangerous place to be.
But if what you love is mercy. If what you love is justice. If what you love is healing. If what you love is reconciliation. If what you love is compassion. If you can look at someone wallowing in what you consider sinful behavior and say, “Come to my house, friend, and eat with me. Talk with me. I have a world for you that will make all these trinkets seem like dust.” Then you sound like somebody else I know. And maybe, just maybe, if you have sought with all your might to be a person who embodies those rich, kingdom values in the world – maybe you might be able to remove a speck from your brother’s eye, and you both can see.
- What is on your list of things that Christians “don’t do.” How do you view people who do those things? Is that how you imagine God views them? Is that what Jesus demonstrated?
- What do you envision the “Christian life” to look like? Is it a moral code? Is it the pursuit of justice and mercy? What are the values God has always asked for from His people in all historical ages? What does he want His community of followers to look like? What does He want them to be known for in the world?
- What does it mean for the Church to be a blessing to all nations?