Brief Notes on the Sermon on the Mount: Don’t judge, repent

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August 31, 2012 by jmar198013

“Don’t judge others thinking that you won’t be judged yourself. You will, and your critiques of others will be the very charges your critics bring against you. You will be painted by the same broad strokes with which you’ve painted others. How can you stare at a grain of sawdust in your brother’s eye and never notice the plank sticking out of your own? Or how dare you say to your brother, ‘Get over here so that I can pull that sawdust out of your eye,’ while there’s still a plank in your eye? You phony do-gooder! You’ve got to get the plank out of your eye before you can be of any assistance whatsoever to anyone else.” (Matt. 7.1-5)

Matt. 7.1-5 is perhaps one of the most misunderstood and consequently misused passages in the New Testament. It is one that both the church and the world know to quote. Typically, it is blurted out when one party feels the heat of censure or disapproval from another. As if Jesus provided a loophole which makes it possible for anyone to escape criticism–no matter how justified–at any given time.

The words of Jesus are taken to mean, “Don’t mention my sins, shortcomings, and defects, I won’t mention yours.”

Jesus’ warning is about judging others while smugly assuming that you will not also fall under judgment. Around the time Jesus lived, there was a proverb among the Jewish people: “In the same kettle they intended to cook others, they themselves were cooked.”

Jesus has just finished telling his disciples to “seek first God’s reign and righteousness” (Matt. 6.33). The picture of smug judgment, which Jesus embodies with a sardonic illustration of attempting to take sawdust from someone’s eye while there is a beam in your own, is what happens when we substitute pursuing our own righteousness first. Self-righteousness is perhaps one of the most insidious forms of idolatry known to humanity.

But why is it that Jesus says you have a beam in your eye while your brother has only a speck of sawdust? Is he saying your sin is worse than his? I don’t believe this is necessarily the case. Rather, recall that the life of the Sermon on the Mount community is formed by the Lord’s Prayer. Two of the petitions of that prayer are that God would give us our daily bread, and that we would forgive our debtors as God forgives our debts (Matt. 6.11-12). In a previous post in this series, I suggested that you cannot separate those two petitions. A people who must rely on God for daily bread understands that we are ever debtors before him. To pray “give us this day our daily bread” is not only a petition, then–it is also a confession. When we hold the faults and shortcomings of another against them, in light of God’s forgiveness and care-taking of us, this is the beam in our eye. Our forgiveness of the debts of others is animated by our daily confession of our own indebtedness.

Removing the plank first from our own eye is what happens when we confess the limitations our own forms of indebtedness impose on us.

Stanley Hauerwas puts it this way:

The disciples are not to judge because any judgment that needs to be made has been made. For those who follow Jesus to act as if they can, on their own, determine what is good and what is evil is to betray the work of Christ. Therefore, the appropriate stance for the acknowledgement of evil is the confession of sin … [I]t is not possible to see what is in our eye because the eye cannot see itself. That is why we are able to see ourselves only through the vision made possible by Jesus–a vision made possible by our participation in a community of forgiveness that allows us to name our sins. (Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible [Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006], 85)

“For those who follow Jesus to act as if they can, on their own, determine what is good and what is evil is to betray the work of Christ.” Indeed. For as Jesus will inform us in the next teaching of the Sermon (Matt. 7.6-12), we don’t even know any better than to give what is holy to dogs or pearls to pigs. People who do not even know any better than that without guidance must be extremely delicate in their judgments.

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2 thoughts on “Brief Notes on the Sermon on the Mount: Don’t judge, repent

  1. I still take from this teaching (and Hauerwas’ comments) that this is an invitation to allow our own epistemology to shift towards Jesus’ “community of forgiveness” and a dire warning that we first view things from our perspectives. Things that piss us off about other people can be rooted in what we are really struggling with, many times unknowingly. I always tell my students to pay close attention to what other people do that annoys them, based from this passage.

  2. […] so means that we do not, on our own, know any better than to do that. As I noted at the end of my previous post in this series, this is the reason we are not qualified to judge others. People who do not know any […]

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