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December 8, 2012

PASTOR'S PEN: Don’t judge these Bible verses before knowing their context

“You have no right to judge me!” Ever heard that before?

The Bible says, “Judge not, lest ye be judged!” (Matthew 7:1). These words are all too often taken out of context and used like shields to guard off conviction.

If I were to tell you about a book titled, “I Robbed a Bank!” and you then quoted me as saying, “I robbed a bank,” would that be true or false? Both. You changed the meaning by taking it out of context to use it against me, but I did indeed say it. This is the way God’s word is distorted far too often. And people insisting that we not judge one another, is one of the most common examples of that.

Luke agrees with Matthew, “Do not judge or you will be judged; do not condemn or you will be condemned” (Luke 6:37a). But then someone grabs hold of that verse and billy-clubs us with it, “Seeeee! The Bible says you shouldn’t judge me!”

But if we look at both of these texts in context, this is not what the Bible means at all.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is coming close to ending his sermon on the mount. He wants his disciples to be careful not to make snap decisions about someone without looking into it first. For example, if you were to miss church, it would be wrong for me to judge you negatively without first discovering why you weren’t there. Perhaps you had pneumonia, or maybe you just were too tired from your first night working the late shift. This is the kind of judgment Jesus is warning about. He’s not telling Christians to avoid confronting others with God’s law. He’s just wanting them to be sure that they are approached in love and discernment. Luther called this, “First putting the best construction on their actions.”

In the case of Luke’s Gospel in Chapter 6, Jesus is warning his disciples not to return unkindness when they receive it themselves. Instead, try to show and give forgiveness. In just a few verses earlier, Jesus told his disciples to love their enemies.

In other words, don’t judge that a kick in the gut deserves a kick in the gut back. Rather, overcome evil with good. Judge with a merciful heart. Again, this does not mean to allow or promote sinful behavior as if God doesn’t care. It does not mean that if someone kicks you, you cannot tell them that God forbids their behavior. And it certainly doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t protect yourself.

He’s just saying be prepared to act like God the Father, who sits ready at all times to forgive others on account of Christ. To not do this is to misrepresent the loving nature of God. But of course, forgiveness always assumes true repentance is at hand, just as repentance always knows forgiveness is present.

If they’ve done something against God, then his judgment should be delivered not in retaliation, but with the motive to bring about repentance, for which his forgiveness is ready and waiting to be given.

Another section of Scripture taken out of context is in the fourth chapter of James where he says, “There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you — who are you to judge your neighbor?”

It’s easy to see how this one could be used like a sword to cut the tongue off of one who dares to call to attention someone’s sinful actions. But the Holy Spirit is using James to warn his audience and us to be careful not to judge unjustly.

James is talking about speaking evil of one another by judging them apart from God’s law. For to do this, puts oneself above God’s law and judges his very law as unreliable or less worthy than one’s own judgment.

What James is actually saying is that we should judge our neighbor, but not by our own standards, for God has supplied us with holy standards of his own. But to withhold God’s holy law and replace it with our own sense of right and wrong, is evil and hurtful to our neighbor.

Stay tuned for part 2 next Saturday!

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