Having listened to Jesus speak of giving His life for the world (John 6:60), His disciples exclaimed, “This is a hard saying; who can hear it?” This would not be the last time one of Jesus’ followers would express such a sentiment. In fact, there are many sayings of Jesus that fit the description of a “hard saying.” One such saying is found in the Sermon on the Mount in Matt. 7:1, “Do not judge, so that you won’t be judged.”

Jesus’ mandate not to judge has worked its way into the everyday speech of believers and non-believers alike. It is not uncommon to hear characters in literature, film, television or in our own families who are caught in moral failure to defiantly proclaim, “Don’t judge me!” On the other hand, another character, in the interest of giving others their personal space might inquire, “Who am I to judge?”

Such popular usage of Jesus’ words begs the question, what did Jesus mean? Did Jesus intend to forbid making ethical judgments about right and wrong? Are followers of Jesus unable to form judgments and reach conclusions about other people based on their attitudes and actions? And if the answer is yes, then what are we to do with His instructions just a few verses later that His followers are to “Beware of false prophets . . . you will know them by their fruits” (Matt. 7:15-16)? That sounds like making a judgment.

The word used for “judge” in Matt. 7:1 can mean to analyze or discern, but it can also have the sense to condemn or to evaluate harshly. It is this latter practice that Jesus prohibited. Jesus’ call to evaluate others by their fruits and the instruction to point out sin to a fellow disciple as a necessary step on the road to repentance and restoration (Matt. 18:15-17) would be impossible without analysis or discernment.

What Jesus did prohibit was a judgmental attitude toward others that is motivated by a desire for self-promotion and arrogance rather than redemption. To live with a fault-finding mentality and treat others commensurate with our findings is to usurp the place of God, who alone is capable of judging rightly. Human beings are incapable of usurping God’s judgment because our own judgment is so clouded by our lack of objectivity, our tendency toward ignorance of our own sins and arrogance.  Thus, the translation “Do not condemn” captures in English Jesus’ meaning.

In Matt. 7:2, Jesus introduced the principle of reciprocity as a deterrent to condemning others. The image of measurement, “You will be measured by the same measure you use,” comes from ancient practice of measuring out grain in the market. The same instrument would be used by both buyer and seller to measure out the grain. Thus, the same standard of measurement would be applied to both parties.

Society rejects those who hold others to standards they are unwilling to live by. Even more alarming is the reality that God is the final and ultimate judge. How can we expect God to show us mercy if we have refused to show it to others?

In Matt. 7:3-5, Jesus moved from the grain market to the carpenter’s workshop in order to demonstrate the danger of hypocrisy in our condemnation of others. Using the farcical image of a person walking around with a roofing beam in his eye while attempting to remove a tiny speck from another is the height of self-deception.

There is no transgression in discerning and calling attention to sin in the lives of others, but to do so with no awareness of our own sin reveals a hypocrisy and a self-absorption that is not becoming of a disciple of Jesus. Only when we come to terms with our own sin are we in a position to lovingly and tenderly confront others with theirs.

In this hard saying in Matt. 7:1, Jesus did not expect His followers to suspend their faculty of judgment or to forsake holding our brothers and sisters accountable before God. Neither did Jesus intend to impose a heavy burden on us with this instruction; rather, He is setting us free to deal with our own sins and to trust the God who alone is capable of final judgment and condemnation.