Fourth Sunday after Trinity
The most quoted Bible verse by non-Christians is Luke 6:37, “Judge not, and you will not be judged.” Those who don’t know the first thing about Christ, know this verse. Unbelievers who have no regard for the Jesus or his words are quick to quote these words authoritatively whenever their behavior is questioned. People who have never opened a Bible, somehow have learned and memorized this verse, “Judge not, and you will not be judged.” I doubt that any other Bible verse has been more twisted and misinterpreted.
Before we can learn to understand what Jesus is saying, we need to know what he is not saying. Jesus is not condemning all forms of judgment. Obviously, parents need to judge and correct the behavior of their children or they won’t be good parents. God gave the civil government the authority to enforce laws and judge human behavior. If no one has the right to judge criminals, they’ll get away with their crimes, and the world will descend into utter chaos. And it’s not just the civil authorities that have the right to judge; every Christian has the right and duty to judge doctrine. Jesus said, “Beware of false teachers” (Mt 7:15). You can’t beware of false teachers unless you judge what you are taught. Pastors especially have the duty to judge doctrine and at warn those under their spiritual care of threats against the truth.
Jesus is not condemning all judgment. He is condemning false judgment and hypocrisy. Let us look at his words in context. “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven” (Lk 6:36–37). True judgment always begins with mercy. God does not want anyone to be condemned. He wants every person to turn from sin and receive forgiveness. This is his nature. On the other hand, the judgmental heart is the natural condition of sinful humanity. The sinful heart does not want to show mercy. It rejoices when those who wrong us get what they deserve. It takes delight in the misfortune of others, when they get what was coming to them. It knows no compassion or pity, only the need for vengeance.
This is the judgment that Jesus wants against. “Judge not, and you will not be judged.” In other words, treat others as you would like to be treated. Do you want to be shown forgiveness when you sin against others? Then extend that same forgiveness. Do you want to be punished to the full extent of the law for every infraction? Then be willing to show mercy to your neighbor. Do you want your spouse to bring up your past mistakes? Then don’t dig up old wounds to score a cheap point in an argument. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.
This is hard for us to do. Actually, it’s impossible for us without the aid of the Holy Spirit. When someone speeds past us on the highway, we rejoice to see them get pulled over. But Jesus warns, “The measure you use will be measured back to you” (Lk 6:38) Forgive, even as you have been forgiven. It is impossible to forgive, unless you have first been forgiven. You can’t give what you don’t have. And how much forgiveness have you been given? All of it. God has already forgiven you everything, and this means that you can forgive your neighbor.
The trouble we get into with judgment, is that we are not impartial judges. Instead, we are experts at condemning the behavior of others while excusing our own. A man who is having an affair may say to himself, “At least I don’t litter like those people, so I’m still a pretty good person.” A thief may find solace in the fact that he only steals from rich people, unlike other thieves who have no morals. We are often quick to condemn things that aren’t even actually sin in others—a perceived slight, the breaking of an unwritten rule—and yet willing to grant ourselves all sorts of indulgences and exceptions. “I know I lost my temper, but I was justified.” “Perhaps I was unkind, but she deserved it.” “Of course I’m not perfect, but at least I’m not like him.” This is false judgment. This is hypocrisy. It is based on a double standard, instead of on the perfect standard of God’s Law. Human judgment rewrites the rules to suit its own purposes. But God’s judgment is unchangeable. Human laws change from one day to the next. What was wrong for him yesterday is OK for me today. But God’s Law is the same yesterday, today, and forever. When our judgment is based on our own ideas of right and wrong, it is hypocritical and dangerous. But when our judgment is based on God’s eternal Word, then it is right and true.
So what does godly judgment look like? Where do we find the measure by which God deals with us and the rest of the fallen world? We find it at the cross. Here is the judgment of God. Christ, our Savior, given into death for the sin of the world. Unlike us, God had every right to punish and condemn. When we pass judgment, we are never completely innocent. But God is. He alone is without sin. He would have been justified to wipe all of us off the map. Instead he was merciful. The cross shows us both the judgment and the mercy of God. Sin is real and it must be paid for. Sins demands judgment, and it was carried out upon our Savior.
This is the judgment that God wants Christians to deliver to the world: we are to proclaim the message of Christ crucified in our place. To do this, of course, we must tell the truth about sin. Sin is not what we think it is. Sin is what God says it is. Without real sin there is no need for forgiveness. Without hearing of sin, people don’t recognize their desperate need for a Savior. But when we speak the truth that calls people to repentance, our words flow from our heavenly Father’s desire to be merciful to all. The Christian message about sin does not come from a desire to inflict punishment and revenge. Instead, it comes from a heart of mercy and compassion. Turn from your sin and be forgiven. There is no reason to suffer and die in sin because Jesus has already suffered and died in your place.
Be merciful even as your Father is merciful. Can you forgive those who have sinned against you? Yes, you can—not by an effort of willpower, but because the Holy Spirit enables you. You have been forgiven much, therefore Jesus says you will love much. God has judged you and declared you “not guilty” on account of Christ. Your father has shown abundant mercy to you, and this makes it possible to show mercy to others. Judge not, for you have not been judged. Condemn not, for you also have not been condemned. Forgive, just as you have been forgiven. Amen.