Summary: Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. Do not throw your pearls before swine. Ask, and it will be given you. Do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.
There’s a very real and practical aspect to Jesus words at the start of ch7. I guess we’ve all known people who are constantly critical of every little thing. But have you noticed how, so often, they’re the people that others watch to see when they’ll fail; who receive the harshest criticism when they do something wrong. In fact we take delight, don’t we, in seeing those judgmental types fail. There’s a sort of ironic justice in seeing the fall that follows from pride, in seeing someone who’s critical of others caught out in the same thing they’ve been critical of.
Of course Christians are often portrayed as judgmental, aren’t they? And usually in the same breath they’re called hypocrites. Why? Because they’re seen to be judging others for sins that they’re just as likely to fall into, if not more so. In fact, isn’t it true that the sins we’re most critical of in others are often the sins we find hardest to overcome in our own life?
But it isn’t just avoiding that sort of reaction from our contemporaries that Jesus is thinking about here. Rather he’s probably thinking back to the blessings he described in ch5. The reverse of what Jesus says here is there in the fifth of those blessings: "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy."
Faults are Thick when Mercy is Thin
What’s more, this saying is a repeat of what he said in his filling out of the commandments about anger, revenge and hate. Rather than seeking to destroy someone, or take revenge on them, you should treat them the way your heavenly father treats you. Rather than hating your enemy, show them love, the way God shows love to us who are his enemies.
In fact, if we want to see how closely this command fits with those others, then put it the other way around: "If you’re going to judge another, judge them with the judgement by which you’ve been judged by God." That would make a big difference wouldn’t it?
Now before we go any further I want you to quickly look down to the end of today’s passage, to v12. There we get something of a summary of what he’s saying here. It’s the same idea from the opposite direction. "Do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets." If you want them to judge you harshly, then go ahead, do your worst. But if you want to be treated gently, then be gentle with others. If you want mercy, then show it to others.
If you want to apply the law to others, first think about the reality behind the law. You see God’s law isn’t there primarily to allow offenders to be prosecuted. It’s there to show the appropriate way for God’s people to behave in response to his goodness towards us. Do I need to repeat that? God’s law shows us the appropriate way to behave in response to his goodness towards us. God’s law shows us how he expects us to live as his people, called out from the world to form a community of love and care, to show to the world something of his nature. And how is his nature shown? It’s shown by the love we have for one another. So the summary of the second part of the law is "Love your neighbour as you love yourself." Or, do to others as you’d have them do to you. So we need to be careful how we apply judgement to others.
We do need to be careful though when we talk about this question of judging others. He doesn’t mean we don’t need to show any discernment when it comes to moral questions. It doesn’t mean we have to accept any and every sort of behaviour from others. Jesus’ saying about throwing pearls before pigs makes that clear. Later in the passage he talks about watching out for false prophets, discerning their fruit so you’ll know whether they truly come from God. In ch18 he talks about a situation where one Christian sins against another and there the church is instructed to discipline the person who won’t listen to the church. But I take it the aim is to bring about reconciliation, not condemnation.
Here Jesus is saying we mustn’t take upon ourselves judgement that results in final condemnation. e.g. we can no longer apply the Old Testament remedy for sin of stoning someone to death. That may have been OK in the theocracy of Old Testament Israel, where communal ethical standards were critical to their identity as a nation, in fact to their survival as God’s people, but now Jesus has reshaped the covenant we have with God. We’re each responsible to God for our own obedience to the commands. So it’s not for us to take on ourselves the role of God when it comes to judgement. No-one knows the final verdict for another except God. In 1 Cor 4, Paul says he doesn’t even judge himself. So we need to be careful about the distinction between discerning false prophets and passing judgement on people’s spiritual destiny.