Butchered Texts: Matthew 7:1-5
Whenever there is truth, you can rest assured that there will be counterfeits. Knockoffs and defilements. We see this no more clearly than with treatment of the perfect and unchanging words of God recorded for us in the Scriptures. It is common in every age for some of the most foundational and edifying verses of Scripture to be divorced from their contexts and infused with a new culturally appropriate meaning. Too often this goes unchecked with severe consequences.
This post (which may morph into a series) will look at a Biblical text I have seen "butchered" online, address the incorrect interpretation I have observed, and try to get to what the text really means. First some ground rules:
1) Context. No verse was intended to be read as an individual snippet devoid of a frame of reference. So we must ask ourselves first: "Where is this passage in the story of Scripture?" And more narrowly: "What is the immediate context?" Who is speaking, to whom is he speaking, and what is he speaking about? Are there any clues in the surrounding verses that might hint at defining the meaning in the text?
2) Interpret Scripture with Scripture. If you find a verse that you take to mean one thing, yet there are other verses that speak directly against your understanding--it is time to stop. And think carefully. All Scripture is God breathed, without contradiction, and unified in its message. Human nature’s tendency is to error, so it is important that we hold our initial understanding loosely until we have measured it with what other texts say about the issue. Paul urges Timothy to teach the full council of God in large part to avoid this very problem.
The often butchered text we will look at briefly in this post is Matthew 7:1-5. There is a chance you have heard it before:
"1Judge not, that you be not judged. 2 For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. 3 Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye."
Modern understanding: The often quoted verse is the post-modern's anthem: "Don't judge me." My truth is my truth and my life is my life, so you cannot make any moral judgments about me. Besides, your sin is equally grotesque before God--so take the log out before you examine my speck!1) Context:
In the immediate context Jesus has just finished talking about worry, and the importance of being anxious in nothing for we have a heavenly Father that loves us. In the passage that follows we hear Jesus warn about casting pearls before swine. And a few verses later he tells us that a tree is known by its fruit, if it has good fruit it is a good tree, but if it has bad fruit it is also a bad one.
In light of this context how are we to take the popular “judge not” passage that has become our culture's shield against the church's supposed hypocrisy? With the framework of Jesus’s recent extension of the law from external to also internal, this text already has incredible meaning. No one now can look at someone’s external breaking of the law and point the finger in elitist condescension, because they too are guilty of breaking the law. Everyone has broken it, even the most righteous religious pietists (Pharisees) in Jesus’s day. It is for this reason Jesus says, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” Examine yourself before you too take a fall. Stop fixating on the sins of others; evaluate your own heart first.
For Christians today this verse has very real applications. Too often we look at the sin of “those people” and discuss it in our clean and righteous circles. It is not uncommon for many Christians to point fingers at many external manifestations of sinful behavior abundant in the world while our own hearts are no better—and our sins remain secret and hidden. We may only lack the courage and integrity to bring it out into the open. Followers of Christ would do well to understand how much all sin matters (internal as well as external) and confess and clean our own house, before “helping” someone else’s.
But does this mean that the modern interpretation is correct? Are these verses the trump card to any form of moral judgments, because we are all equally sinful?
Notice, Jesus does not command that his followers ignore the speck in their brother’s eye. He does not say that because you have “log in your own eye” you are therefore permanently incapacitated to evaluate your poor brother’s speck. He says rather, take the log out of your own eye first—and then you can see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. Jesus is not saying all moral judgments are wrong. Nor is he saying that you can never advise someone in love to change their sinful ways, but that we must be evaluating our own hearts and keep our own house clean before we make likewise evaluations of others.2) Interpret Scripture with Scripture:
"15 Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. 16 By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them."
Later in the same passage, Jesus warns against false prophets and their deception. Jesus concludes saying “by their fruit you will know them” which implies that the external works will be a clue for us to recognize a prophet to be true or false. We are therefore to be “fruit observers” in a sense, people who can connect the dots between external fruit in others and their internal substance.
1 Corinthians 5:9-13
“9I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 13 God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”
In the church context Paul addresses the issue of "judging others" with precision. Those who do not know Jesus Christ, Paul asks, "why would we judge them?" They have not tasted of the gospel nor do they have the Holy Spirit indwelling them. To hold an unbeliever or an "outsider" as Paul calls them to a standard of holiness they are ignorant of and likely opposed to would be the height of absurdity. But, to those who do know Jesus Christ, those who are our brothers and sisters, Paul tells us to judge them, going as far as to tell us to not even eat with someone who bears the name of Christ while blatantly living in unrepentant sin. The bride of Christ must remain pure. Therefore, purge the evil among you.
- Matthew 14 records John the Baptist (whom Jesus speaks well of) “judging” unbeliever Herod the Tetrarch’s “unlawful marriage” and ultimately being jailed and beheaded for it.
- Matthew 28: The great commission. Jesus tells us to go into all the world making disciples and to “teach them everything I have commanded you.” This most certainly entails proclamations of what is right and what is wrong.
- John 8 contains the famous “woman caught in adultery” scene, where Jesus says to her accusers, “Let him without sin cast the first stone.” This verse however is followed by Jesus’s strong command to the woman: “Go now and sin no more.”
It is apparent that the most popular verse of today, “Judge not lest you be judged,” does indeed carry a lot of weight to the church of Jesus Christ today. There is none righteous, no not one. We must learn to detest gossip sessions about the sinful habits of others, or the self-righteous condescension to those lost in their trespasses and sins. However, Jesus’s refrain does not mean we can no longer testify as to what is truth or make moral judgments on the actions of others. Jesus tells us to observe the fruit on a tree, and while we should not expect righteous living from outsiders, Paul calls us to be very strict in our judgments of unrepentant sin in the church—sometimes being surprisingly harsh that their souls might be saved (1 Corinthians 5:5).