I suppose that most who quote this verse could not tell you where it found. It is very popularly held that by these words Jesus intended to say, “No one is qualified to make moral judgments.” A closer reading of the verse, in its context, shows us that such an interpretation of Jesus’ words is highly unlikely. We can also come to a better understanding of what the verse means if we compare it with parallels in the Luke and Mark (the other synoptic gospels).
Do not judge, in order that you are not judged (Matt 7:1)
If there is any verse in Scripture that virtually everyone knows, even those who have never read the Bible, who have never been to Sunday School, it is Matthew 7:1. I suppose that most who quote this verse could not tell you where it found. It is very popularly held that by these words Jesus intended to say, “No one is qualified to make moral judgments.” A closer reading of the verse, in its context, shows us that such an interpretation of Jesus’ words is highly unlikely. We can also come to a better understanding of what the verse means if we compare it with parallels in the Luke and Mark (the other synoptic gospels).
Before we even consider the verse in context, however, we have a right to ask whether a proposed interpretation is even plausible. Is it plausible that Jesus should have advocated moral relativism? Even one who is not well read in Scripture might wonder about the plausibility of such a claim. Jesus was, after all, a preacher and a prophet. Are the prophets of Scripture known for their moral relativism? Even if one knows nothing about cars, if someone says that his car has the power to fly to the moon, one would be rightly skeptical about such a claim. After all, were Jesus saying, “Don’t make moral judgments” that would itself be a moral judgment. Such a reading makes Jesus’ teaching incoherent from the start.
This verse occurs in the Sermon on the Mount, which begins in Matthew 5:1, “Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him” (ESV). This is the discourse in which one finds the “Beatitudes,” i.e., the series of pronouncements of blessing upon believers in various states, e.g., “blessed are the pure in heart for the shall see God” (Matt 5:8). In the immediate context Jesus is speaking about not being anxious, about trusting the Lord for daily provision (Matt 6:25–34). v.34 says, ““Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (ESV). The connection is not immediately apparent but when we look at the text more closely one begins to appear. In the last clause in v. 34 the text says, “sufficient for the day is its evil (κακία).”
It is fair to render it generically as “trouble” but in light of the exhortation not to worry, “evil” makes more sense. If we take it as “evil,” then “sufficient for the day is its evil” is part of a general exhortation not to be anxious about tomorrow because today have enough evil. This context should inform our understanding of Matthew 7:1. “Judge not (Μὴ κρίνετε), in order (ἵνα) that you be not judged.” Just as we pay attention to today and leave, as it were, tomorrow to the Lord so we pay attention to ourselves, particularly to our own sins, and leave the sins of others, as it were, to them. The purpose of not judging is to avoid bringing judgment upon one’s self. Jesus does not say that making moral judgments is a bad thing but he does say that it is a dangerous thing.
This reading is supported by the verses (vv.3–5) that follow:
For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. 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? 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? 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.