American culture can fairly be described as a culture of condemnation and judging. Despite the pop-culture commitment to not judging others (“haters gonna hate,” “only God can judge me”), the culture we live in judges everything we wear, everything we say, and everything we do.

“Like it or not, you are being judged by how you look, how you dress, and how you carry yourself—and, if you’re lucky, how you do your job. As uncomfortable as it may be, we are under the microscope every day. Our employees, our colleagues, and our customers judge us by how we look, how we dress, our table manners, our grooming, and sometimes even how we do our job.” Ty Kiisel, Forbes OnLine, March 20, 2013.

These may be superficial judgements about fashion choices, but sometimes judgment runs deeper than the surface. Blondes are ditzy, fat guys are jolly, white girls like Pumpkin Spice lattes; tall people play basketball; people with glasses are smart, etc.

In this section of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells his disciples they should NOT judge. For those who hear this teaching out of context, they assume Jesus means we ought not to judge anything or anyone as wrong. Pop-culture turns this verse into the central teaching of Jesus, despite the fact there are plenty of people Jesus judges (Matthew 23, the condemnation of the Pharisees, for example).

As in English, the Greek verb “to judge” has a wide range of meaning. The word can refer to deciding between two options, such as a decision in a legal matter or in an argument between two people. It would be virtually impossible to not judge between two choices in life (I judge apple pie is better than chocolate cake, and opt to eat the pie every time.) Society has to have some system of justice, which implies someone will have to judge between right and wrong legally. Christians have long struggled to work out how to interpret and apply this commandment to “not judge.” “All these examples show how this commandment of the Sermon on the Mount was ‘domesticated’” (Luz, Matthew, 350).

There is nothing quite like this saying in Jewish, although a few parallels are often suggested. m. Abot 1:6 B “And give everybody the benefit of the doubt” and m. Abot 2.4 “And do not judge your fellow until you are in his place.”

Often, “judging others” is taken as condemnation on superficial issues. If I do not like the way a person dresses, I ought to refrain from condemning the person. Think of the church’s attitude toward long hair and bears on men in the 1960s. People with tattoos used to be scandalous, now it is no problem if the pastor has a tattoo. In fact, a tattoo might be a job qualification for doing youth ministry.

 

Rather than prohibiting any judgment of a behavior as good or bad, a follower of Jesus ought not to presume to be in the place of God and pronounce a person as condemned. The saying is less about “I think your clothes are ugly” than looking at a person’s lifestyle and judging them as condemned by God. Jesus’s followers should be more interested in reconciling people to God than condemning them as sinners in the hands of an angry God.

By way of application, “evangelists” who go to college campuses and hold up signs declaring homosexuals as damned to hell are not doing any good. Think of the typical rescue mission in movies like Guys and Dolls: you have to listen to the sermon condemning you for being a drunkard and gambler before you can get some soup and coffee. On the other hand, a ministry like Craig Gross’s XXX church reaches out as non-judgmentally as possible to people struggling with pornography and works with people in the porn industry (at their “Porn & Pancakes” events, for example).

The corollary of this is also true: judging someone by their lifestyle and assuming they are right with God. A person who appears to be a solid Christian may not have a relationship with God at all!

The difficult problem is balancing moral discernment and personal condemnation (McKnight, Sermon on the Mount, 227). It is easy enough to state the Bible condemns a particular sin (adultery, drunkenness, etc.) but quite another not to personally condemn the sinner. Pennington adds the word “unfairly” to his translation: “Do not judge unfairly.” (Pennington, Sermon on the Mount, 256). Since the English word “judge” is almost entirely negative (practically equally to “condemn”), Pennington adds the modifier to get at what Jesus meant.

If we judge, Jesus says the same standard will be used against us. This saying implies the person who presumes to stand in the place of God and judge whether a person is condemned or not does not live up to their own standards. There are plenty of examples of evangelists or politicians who condemn some sexual sin as loudly as possible and are later caught in the very sin then condemned.

The ultimate example of non-judgmental outreach to sinners for the purpose of their reconciliation with God is Jesus, a “friend to the sinner.” Jesus eats with tax collectors and other sinners (Matthew 9:9-13, for example). This is more complex than “love the sinner, hate the sin.” When we model our lives after Jesus we will treat everyone with respect regardless of our view of their lifestyle.

How does this work in the real world? Is it possible (for you) to reach across cultural, social and religious lines and “be the love of Christ” to someone who is radically different? How does a Christian make a moral stand on an issue while also treating a person who disagrees with that moral stand with love and respect?