Living Out Jesus’ Words on Judging

by Lois Tverberg

This article is a follow-up to our article “What did Jesus mean by, ‘Do Not Judge‘?” Here is a brief summary of the article we sent out before:

Christians have a hard time understanding what Jesus says about judging, because 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 his words were building on some wise Jewish teaching of his day.

They relate to a well-known rabbinic saying, “Judge every person in favorable terms” (Mishnah, Avot 1:6). This comes from their 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 try to give people the benefit of the doubt. In almost every situation, we have the choice to look for a good motivation or a bad motivation behind other people’s behavior, and far too often we unfairly assume the worst.

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. Given what we know about human nature, however, we know that people will sin willfully and intentionally.

At some point when we have been offended, we need to realize that if we are sinners ourselves, then 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 is not saying to avoid having discernment. We can discern whether an action or an 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). Leviticus 19:17-18 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. 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.

Our culture is also filled to the brim with “judging.” Politics seems unable to 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 ministry, we have experienced unique ways this has been a guide for us. En-Gedi shares 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 and ask, “Why wasn’t I told this ever before?” Some people become quite angry about it. The same folks who once expressed their love for God in traditional Christian ways suddenly feel that those who observe the same traditions are practicing paganism!

It’s possible to have a neutral discussion about whether a tradition is sound using the Bible as guide, and we may even change our own practice. This is is exercising discernment. This is very different than accusing others of idolatry when the intent of their hearts is to lovingly worship God.

One thing we’ve realized is that any time a new, good insight enters the Christian world, it can become a source of division 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 toxic and destructive.

Christians would do well to focus more on the ethic to judge favorably. While some 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. Realizing this should cause us to 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 

~~~~~

To explore this topic more, see chapter 8, “Taking My Thumb off the Scale” in Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus, Zondervan, 2012, p 104-16.

Photos: Claire Anderson on Unsplash; Wesley Tingey on Unsplash

 

What Did Jesus Mean By “Do Not Judge?”

by Lois Tverberg 

Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. Matthew 7:1-2

What did Jesus mean by “do not judge?” This is one of those sayings of Jesus that can be unclear. It can sound like Jesus was telling us to look the other way when we see sin. From everything else that Jesus said, we know that he couldn’t be suggesting this. Yet, to not be guilty of “judging,” we often try to avoid calling sin for what it is.

To better understand what Jesus meant, it is helpful to study some of the discussion going on among Jesus’ contemporaries and see if they can shed light on his words. Interestingly, we find a great discussion and some very wise thinking related to the concept of “do not judge.” Jesus appears to be building on these Jewish ideas in his own words on judging.

Judging Others Favorably

ScaleA rabbi who lived more than a hundred years before Jesus said, “Judge everyone with the scales weighted in their favor” (Yehoshua ben Perechia, Avot 1:6). In a later source, the Babylonian Talmud, it says “He who judges his neighbor favorably will be judged favorably by God” (Shabbat 127a).

It is interesting to see how reminiscent these sayings are to Jesus’ words, “with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” To “judge in favorable terms” was considered as important as visiting the sick, devotion in prayer, or teaching the Scriptures to your children!

A story was told to illustrate the point:

A man went to work on a farm for three years. At the end of this time, he went to his employer and requested his wages so that he could go home and support his wife and children. The farm owner said to him, “I have no money to give you!”
So he said to him, “Well, give me some of the crops I’ve helped grow.”
The man replied, “I have none!”
“Well then, give me some of the goats or sheep, that I’ve helped to raise!”
And the farmer shrugged and said that he had nothing he could give him. So the farm hand gathered up his belongings and went home with a sorrowful heart.
A few days later his employer came to his house with all of his wages along with three carts full of food and drink. They had dinner together and afterward the farm owner said to him, “When I told you I had no money, what did you suspect me of?”
“I thought you had seen a good bargain and used all your cash to buy it.”
Then he said “What did you think when I said that I had no crops?”
“I thought perhaps they were all leased from others.”
He then said, “What did you think when I said I had no animals?”
“I thought that you may have dedicated them all to the Temple.”
The farmer answered him, “You are right! My son wouldn’t study the Scriptures, and I had rashly vowed all of my possessions to God in my prayers for my son. But, just a couple days ago, I was absolved of the vow so that now I can pay you. And as for you, just as you have judged me favorably, may the Lord judge you favorably!”1

This story is a great example of resisting condemnation. It also parallels, “For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” Could this enlighten us to the gist of what Jesus was saying? The idea in the story is that the hired hand always gave the employer the benefit of the doubt by imagining the best possible motivation for his suspicious actions. This is exactly what the rabbis meant by “judging a neighbor favorably.”

This seems like a nice thought, but hardly an earth-shaking interpretation of Jesus’ words. But, what if we applied it to our own lives? Just imagine these situations and the choices you might have in your reactions:

♦ On the way to church, a car passes you on the road and cuts you off. Why?

The driver is has no regard for speed laws!
<or>
Maybe the driver is late for something, or his kids are driving him crazy.

♦ In church, you are asked to greet the people around you, but the lady in front of you was obviously avoiding you. Why?

She is obviously a snob and you didn’t dress well enough today!
<or>
Maybe she’s new to the church or uncomfortable meeting people.

♦ A woman asks you afterward about the surgery that you had. Why?

She’s a busybody who just wants to put her nose in your business!
<or>
Maybe she genuinely worries about others and wants to share your burdens.

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. This idea of the rabbis to “judge favorably” certainly was wise, even if it isn’t exactly what Jesus said.

The Worship War

Imagine another scenario where a “worship war” has broken out in a congregation. The older members want to sing hymns and the young members want a rock band. The older people are saying things like, “They have no appreciation for the richness of hymns — they only want to be entertained!” The younger people respond with, “The old folks don’t care about reaching the lost — they just want to do things the same old way!”

What would happen if each group stopped assigning negative motivations to the other group? What if the “hymns only” group started saying, “Maybe the younger members of our church think that they can bring new meaning to the service by putting it in their own style…”

What if the “rock band” enthusiasts started saying, “Maybe the older members find more meaning in what’s familiar rather than in what sounds strange to them…”

How long would the conflict last in that church? How long would it be before both groups would try their best to accommodate each other?

To this day, Jewish culture has endeavored to instill in its people the ethic to “judge favorably.” One Jewish group 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.”2

One Jewish website, called “The Other Side of the Story,” is filled with stories where a person looked liked he was in the wrong, but then turned out to be innocent. The point is simply to teach others the importance of judging favorably.

Jesus’ Words, “Do Not Judge”

Even though the rabbis’ words are wise, they aren’t exactly what Jesus said. How does Jesus teaching about “do not judge” compare to others? Jesus began with what the other rabbis taught and then increased the challenge. His audience likely already knew about “judging favorably,” because it had been around for at least a hundred years.

The famous rabbi Hillel, who lived fifty years before Jesus, said, “Judge not your fellow man until you yourself come into his place” (Avot 2:5). His idea was that we shouldn’t judge because we don’t have full knowledge of another’s life experience. We can’t know if someone struggles with depression or a wound from their past. Hillel’s idea is a step closer to what Jesus said, and it shows that the discussion of “judging” was still going on in Jesus’ time.

However, Jesus’ reasoning was different from Hillel’s. Jesus began with a less optimistic perspective of humanity, knowing that often people sin willfully and intentionally. Even if you give them every benefit of the doubt, at some point it will be undeniable that the person’s intention was evil, and you shouldn’t pretend that it wasn’t.

In the midst of this realism, Jesus says that our response must be to remind ourselves of our own sinful hearts, the only hearts we really can know. Seeing our own sinful nature, we shouldn’t place judgment on others. If we want God to be merciful to us, we need to put aside condemnation 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).

Rather than saying, “Judge favorably,” perhaps Jesus would have said, “Judge mercifully! Do everything you can to extend mercy to others.”

But Have Discernment

Obviously, this is not to cast aside discernment. We should discern whether an action or an outward attitude is wrong. According to Paul, the church is not only to discern, but also obligated to discipline sinful practice among its members (1 Cor. 5:1-5). When a 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).

JudgeWhile we can discern sin in practice, only God knows the motive of the heart. We need to leave final judgment 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 condemn someone, we need to step back, hand the situation over to the Lord, and remind ourselves that it is his job to render judgement, not ours. As we read in James 4:12, “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?”

Both the teachings of the rabbis and the words of Jesus are extremely useful in every day life. Our attitude toward others becomes more loving when we assume the best rather than the worst. If we try to always “judge favorably,” we’ll be less likely to have a critical or cynical spirit towards others. Even when people are clearly in the wrong, we can give them the benefit of the doubt as much as possible.

Other Ways of Judging

If judging (or judging negatively) is defined as believing the worst about others, it includes many other types of hurtful behavior as well. Insults are a form of judgment, such as calling someone arrogant or loud-mouthed. Gossip relies heavily on judgment too. People who gossip usually look for wrongdoing in a person’s life in order to share it with others.

Criticism, cynicism, even complaining are all rooted in searching out the negative everywhere we can find it. James says, “Do not speak against one another, brethren. He who speaks against a brother judges his brother” (James 4:11).

Negative judgments are particularly toxic to marriage relationships. In his book Blink,3 Malcolm Gladwell describes a study of married couples which examined the rate of divorce compared to attitudes the couple showed toward each other beforehand. The interviewers looked at dozens of variables and found one factor that could almost surely predict divorce — an attitude of contempt. When one or both partners habitually spoke to the other with disdain or disgust, even in the most subtle ways, the marriage was often moving toward a break up. If you think about it, contempt comes from a history of judging unfavorably and without mercy. It is a way of saying, “I have reached my verdict, and there is nothing good in you.”

People who struggle with chronic anger can often find the root of their problem in looking for ugly motives in other peoples’ actions — their own act of judging negatively. If you think about it, anger always involves an accusation of sin. Next time you are angry, ask yourself what sin you might be accusing the other person of. Then remember that Jesus says that you are a sinner too. You can’t expect God’s mercy if you aren’t merciful to others (See Matthew 18:23-34).

Summary

All of us would do well to focus more on judging favorably and extending mercy. Both are ways of showing God’s grace. We’ll find that over time, it really has the potential to transform our personalities to be more like Christ. Listen to Jesus words 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 6:35-38)

~~~~

1 B. Talmud, Shabbat 127a

2 J. Telushkin, The Book of Jewish Values, (c) 2000, Bell Tower, New York, ISBN 0609603302, p. 35.

3 M. Gladwell, Blink (c) 2005, Little, Brown & Co, New York, ISBN 9780316172325, pp. 30-34.

To explore this topic more, see chapter 8, “Taking My Thumb off the Scale” in Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus, Zondervan, 2012, p 104-16.

Photos: John Salvino and Wesley Tingey on UnsplashLouis Smith on Unsplash; http://ferxtreme.hu/wp-content/uploads/birosag.jpg

Listening to the Language of the Bible

Listening to the Language of the BibleBy Lois Tverberg, with Bruce Okkema

© En-Gedi Resource Center, 2004
Softcover, 180 pages

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Listening to the Language of the Bible is a guide for discovering the richness of the Scriptures in their Hebraic setting.

The book contains more than 60 brief, illustrated devotional articles that unpack the meaning of biblical words and phrases for life today. By examining the Hebrew and Jewish cultural context of some of the Bible’s seemingly odd phrases, it shares insights that clarify reading and deepen Bible study.

Listening looks at many topics from the perspective of the ancient writers, including prayer, family and the promised Messiah. It also looks at the words of Jesus in light of first-century Jewish culture.

“This is an excellent guide for discovering the richness of the Scriptures in their Hebraic setting. It’s wonderful – balanced, simple to understand, yet packed with deep information.” Robin Sampson, President, Heart of Wisdom Publishing, Stafford, VA

The book can be read by itself for a brief overview, or with a Companion Bible Study (Lois Tverberg, 2005) as a guide to explore the Scriptures from a Hebraic perspective. Questions for each chapter point out other relevant passages and share applications for living. At the end of the book, Tverberg shares her own thoughts on many of the questions in the study guide.

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Learning to Read

Child reading

by Mary Okkema

Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. – Matthew 18:3

Child readingBecoming like children has a different meaning for each one of us. It can mean playing on the floor, being spontaneous with sounds, learning to see things with childlike eyes, and many other things.

For me, learning to read Hebrew feels a lot like becoming a little child again. Since this language is new to me, there are still so many words that are unfamiliar, but those I do recognize seem to jump off the page. I want to study them in great detail, much like a child wants to look at every bug and stone and leaf while taking a walk.

Taking a closer look at Genesis in Hebrew, brings questions to mind like, “Haven’t we heard this word somewhere else in scripture?” It helps us understand how the disciples would have heard and recognized when Jesus was quoting Old Testament scripture, as He so often did in His teachings.

Familiar words like “ruach” (wind/spirit), “ha-aretz” (earth/ground), and “ha-shamaim” (heavens/sky) from Genesis 1 enhance our appreciation of the creation story. Adam’s rib gets a second glance knowing that the word for “rib” can also mean “one side.” We see the word “basar” (flesh) used for the filling in of Adam’s side, is the same word used for the substance of beings used for sacrifices like a bull or ram (as in Deuteronomy 12:27).

The story of the first temptation in Genesis 3 can also be so familiar in our minds, yet when we read it again we see that the word “nahash” (snake, serpent) is repeated over and over as the one doing the talking, and “Satan” is not mentioned. Could other animals speak too at this point?

Sometimes the Hebrew language can be much stronger as in the case of Genesis 3:15:

“And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel.” (NASV)

In English a “bruise” is a minor injury but the Hebrew word here, “shuph,” has the action of pounding, which is much more violent.

So as we begin to see, it can be a wonderfully rich experience to go back to the beginning and look for the Lord like a little child again.


Photocred: GMR Akash