Judging in the Sermon on the Mount

The Sermon on the Mount Carl Bloch, 1890

In Sunday School, we recently read the New Testament account of Jesus giving his famous Sermon on the Mount. The content of this part of the Bible is so familiar to many people, and has infused so much of western civilization, that it can be easy to consume the words as a collection of  stand-alone aphorisms and soundbites. But there is a complexity and tension there that deserves more careful consideration.

A quick observation about one such complexity:

In chapter 7 of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus makes his well known declaration about Judging:

1 Judge not, that ye be not judged.

2 For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.

3 And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

4 Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?

5 Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.

These sayings are so familiar that they are often used as standalone trump cards against self-righteousness and judgment. Even people who don’t particularly believe in Jesus will readily cite “Judge not” or “Motes and Beams” to ward off criticism by Christians.

But immediately after this warning about self-righteous hypocrisy and judgement, in the very next verse, Jesus declares:

6 ¶ Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.

This introduces some unexpected tension and complexity. Before you can withhold that which is holy and your pearls from those who are “dogs” and “swine”, you have to be able to identify who these unworthy dogs and swine are. And that requires judging.

Jesus seemingly commands us not to judge and then immediately commands us not to cast our pearls before swine, which requires us to judge– and judging someone to be an unworthy “dog” or a “swine” is no mild judgement!

So the message of Jesus regarding judging can clearly not be a blanket prohibition on judgement. Judgement is required, but humility and integrity are also required. It is in the tension between these instructions that we must look for the teachings of Jesus regarding judgement.

The words of Jesus are so integrated with our cultural language that many of them have become cliché. It is easy to fall into a superficial, cultural reading instead of engaging with what the text actually says.

Carefully reading the words of Jesus in context, instead of as standalone slogans, and considering how the different parts interact with and modify each other to communicate a comprehensive, integrated message can help us avoid a superficial reading.

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