Living Out Jesus' Words on Judging

by Lois Tverberg

Last year in February, the En-Gedi director's article was called,"What did Jesus mean by, 'Do Not Judge'?". It was about the insights we can get on Jesus' teaching on judging by hearing his words within the context of rabbinic thought. As might be expected, when we hear Jesus' words with greater clarity, they have the power to transform our lives. A year later, we want to share more of what we have gained from Jesus' wonderful words.

Here is a brief summary of the article we sent out before:

Christians have a hard time understanding what Jesus says about judging, because when we hear it outside its context, it sounds as if Jesus is saying, "Have no discernment -- just ignore sin!". This doesn't seem right to us, so we put it aside, but if we knew what his words meant in his time, we would see their brilliance. It seems to be related to a well-known saying of Jesus' day, which was, "Judge every person in favorable terms" (Mishnah, Avot 1:6). That saying came from a rabbinic interpretation of Leviticus 19:15, "You shall do no injustice in judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor nor defer to the great, but you are to judge your neighbor fairly. " The rabbis said that if we want to be entirely fair in judging our neighbors, we should always give people the benefit of the doubt, or "judge favorably."

A parable was told about a man who works for a farmer for three years, and when he goes to him to ask for his pay, the farm owner says he has nothing to give him. The man refrains from anger, but leaves in sorrow. A few days later the farmer brings him everything he owes him plus three carts of extra gifts, and asks him what he was thinking when he said he couldn't pay him. The worker said that he had assumed that the farmer must have had a legitimate reason, and that he was acting honorably. The farmer exclaimed that this was just exactly the case! his son wouldn't study the scriptures, and he had rashly vowed all his possessions to God in his prayers for his son. He had been excused from the vow, and now that he could give him the money, he had hurried to pay him what he owed, plus much more. The farmer praised the hired hand, saying, "And as for you, just as you have judged me favorably, may the Lord judge you favorably!" (B. Talmud, Shabbat 127b). It is fascinating to see that this last line is very reminiscent of the words of Jesus - For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. (Matt 7:2, Luke 6:38)

In almost every situation, we have the choice to look for a good motivation or a bad motivation behind other people's behavior. The way we interpret others' motivations has a profound effect on our reactions toward others.  If we practice this habit of judging favorably, it can transform our personalities! We will become kinder and more patient, and our attitudes towards others become more loving as we assume the best, rather than the worst about them. Over this year, we have been reminding ourselves of this many, many times!

Interestingly, Jewish culture even up to the present time has tried to instill in its people the ethic to "judge favorably." There is a Jewish group that meets simply to practice finding ways to give the benefit of the doubt when it appears someone has done something unkind. They reflect on hurts in their lives and then propose ways to excuse the perpetrator. For example, when one of them didn't receive an invitation to a wedding, they would say, "Perhaps the person was under the impression that they had already sent an invitation," or, "Perhaps they couldn't afford to invite many people." (See The Book of Jewish Values, by Joseph Telushkin, p. 35.) One Jewish website called, "The Other Side of the Story" is filled with stories of situations where a person looked liked he was doing wrong, but then turned out to be innocent. The point is simply to teach others the importance of judging favorably. (Find other links on judging favorably in En-Gedi's article section on Jewish Ethics.)

Jesus' words, "Do Not Judge"

So, how do Jesus' words that say, "Do not judge" compare with the ethic of judging favorably? The idea behind judging favorably is to find ways to assume that other's intentions are good. But, given what we know about human nature, we expect that people will sin willfully and intentionally. So at some point when we have been offended, we need to realize that if we are sinners ourselves, and that we can't demand judgment on others. We need to put aside judgment and extend mercy instead. As Jesus said, "Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven... For with the measure you use, it will be measured out to you." (Luke 6:35-38)

Obviously, this not saying to avoid having discernment. We can discern whether an action or an outward attitude is wrong. According to Paul, the church is also obligated to discipline sinful practice among its members (1 Cor. 5:1-5). And if the the wrong is committed against us personally, Jesus tells us to show the person his sin in hopes of his being repentant so that we can forgive. (Matt 18:15-17) Also, in Leviticus 19:17-18 it says, "Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in his guilt. Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself."

While we can discern sin in practice, only God knows the whole motive of the heart, so we need to leave final judgment of the person up to him. To judge another is to presume to have both the knowledge and authority of God himself. So when we are in a situation where we are tempted to pass judgment, we need to step back and hand it up to the Lord, and remind ourselves that that is his job and not ours. As James says, "There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you who judge your neighbor?" (James 4:12) and Paul reminds us, "But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God." (Rom. 14:10)

Other Ways of Judging

If judging (or judging negatively) is defined as believing the worst about others, it encompasses many other types of behavior that we know are wrong. All insults are forms of judgment. If we like an assertive woman, we may describe her as "bold and self-assured", but if we don't, we will judge her negatively by calling her "arrogant and loud-mouthed". A man may simply be uninformed, but when we call him "stupid" we have judged him negatively. James says, "Do not speak against one another, brethren. He who speaks against a brother judges his brother." (James 4:11)

Gossip relies heavily on judgment. People who love to gossip usually have a habit of looking for wrongdoing in a person's life in order to share it with others. Criticism, cynicism, and complaining are all based on searching out the negative everywhere we can find it. Even people who struggle with chronic anger can often find the root of their problem in always looking for something wrong in other peoples' actions - by their own act of judging negatively.

Unfortunately, our culture is also filled to the brim with "judging". Politics seems not to be able function without it. Republicans accuse Democrats of ugly, self-interested reasons for every action, and Democrats say the same about Republicans. Editorials are filled with cynicism about the evil motives of the government, and inept handling of international affairs. Tabloids, comedians, and political talk shows delight in finding prominent peoples' faults and holding them up for ridicule. Unfortunately, we don't notice that participating in that kind of judgment slowly fills us with the same ugly attitude toward others, even poisoning our relationships with loved ones.

Applying this idea to our own lives

In our own area of ministry, we have experienced unique ways this has been a guide for us. En-Gedi deals with finding information about the Jewish background of Christianity, which gives insights that cast new light on the Bible and fill in many gaps. It is not uncommon when a person starts learning more to have an attitude of judgment on the rest of Christianity - to ask, "Why wasn't I told this ever before?" and even to assume that some malicious intent is behind the lack of knowledge of our background. People who formerly expressed their love for God in traditional Christian ways suddenly feel that those who observe Christian traditions are practicing paganism, and become angry and accusatory of others. We can have a neutral discussion about whether a tradition is sound using the Bible as guide, and may even change our own practice, which is exercising discernment. But that is different than to accuse people of worshipping idols when the true intent of their hearts is to lovingly worship God.

It seems that any time when some new, good insight enters the Christian world, it can become a source of division instead, because of our habit of judging negatively. Whether it is learning about our Jewish heritage, or using spiritual gifts, or adopting contemporary worship styles, Christians often reflect the pervasive habit of condemnation that is part of our world, one they hardly realize is wrong.

Christians would do well to focus more on the ethic to judge favorably. We emphasize sexual purity, and rightly so, but while promiscuity damages some marriages, probably no marriage has ever escaped terrible wounding from unfair accusations and judgments. In the same way, while a few children grow up scarred from physical abuse, many more grow up scarred from relentless criticism from parents who did not judge them favorably. Indeed, the worst "judges" are often those who never received mercy themselves, and never learned to extend it to others. We should realize this, and even refrain from condemning the most judgmental, because we don't know how much criticism they have endured themselves.

To hear Jesus one more time,

Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you." Luke 6:36-38


©2003 Lois A. Tverberg, Ph.D., All rights reserved. This article is copyrighted and may not be redistributed without the express written consent of the author. To request permission, contact