Why did Jesus tell his disciples not to judge?


“Judge not, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven” (Luke 6:37). Is it possible to put this Gospel saying into practice? Do we not have to judge, if we do not want to give up trying to change what is not right? But this invitation of Jesus penetrated deep into people’s hearts. The apostles James and Paul, different in so many ways, echo it using almost the same words. James writes, “Who are you to judge your neighbour?” (James 4:12). And Paul: “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant?” (Romans 14:4).

Neither Jesus nor his apostles wished to abolish law courts. Their maxim concerns daily life. Although the followers of Christ have made the choice to love, they still keep on doing things that are wrong, and this has more or less serious consequences. The spontaneous reaction is then to judge those who, by their negligence, weaknesses or oversights, cause harm or setbacks. We can of course come up with many excellent reasons to judge our neighbours: it is for their own good, so that they may learn and make progress….

Jesus knows the human heart, and he is not taken in by the most hidden motivations. He said, “What are you looking at the straw in your brother’s eye for? And the beam in your own eye, do you not notice it?” (Luke 6:41). I can use the faults of others to reassure myself of my own worth. The reasons to judge my neighbour flatter my self-love (see Luke 18:9-14). But if I am on the lookout for my neighbour’s smallest mistake, is this not a way of keeping me from facing my own problems? The thousand and one faults that I find in him do not yet prove that I am worth more than him. The harshness of my judgment may only be hiding my own insecurity and fear of being judged.

On two occasions, Jesus spoke of an “unhealthy” or “evil” eye (Matthew 6:23 and 20:15). He was referring to looking at others with jealousy. An unhealthy eye admires, envies and judges one’s neighbour all at the same time. When I admire my neighbours for their good points but at the same time am jealous of them, my eye becomes evil. I no longer see reality as it is, and I may even judge someone for an imaginary wrong that he or she has never done.

A desire to dominate can also cause someone to judge. That is why, in the passage already quoted, Paul writes, “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant?” Whoever judges their neighbour makes themselves his or her master, and in so doing takes the place of God. We are called instead to “consider others superior to us” (Philippians 2:3). This does not mean putting oneself down, but serving others instead of judging them.

Does refusing to judge others lead to indifference and passivity?

In one and the same phrase, the apostle Paul uses the word judge with two different meanings: “We should stop judging one another; judge rather that you should not put anything before your brother or sister to make them stumble or fall” (Romans 14:13). Ceasing to judge one another does not lead to passivity; it is a precondition for acting and behaving justly.

Jesus does not advise us to shut our eyes and stop trying. Immediately after telling us not to judge, he continues, “Can a blind person be the guide of another blind person? Will not they both fall into a pit?” (Luke 6:39). Jesus wants blind people to be helped to find their way. But he criticizes incompetent guides. These guides, who are a bit ridiculous, are according to the context people who judge and condemn. Without refusing to judge, it is impossible to see clearly and to help others find the right road.

Here is an example drawn from the correspondence of Barsanuphius and John, two monks of Gaza in the sixth century. After having reprimanded a brother for his negligence, John was sorry to see how dejected he was. He is hurt again when, in his turn, he feels that his brothers are judging him. To remain serene, he then decides no longer to criticize anyone else, but simply to take care of the things for which he alone is responsible. But Barsanuphius makes him see that Christ’s peace does not mean withdrawing into oneself. He quotes some words of Saint Paul to him several times: “Correct, rebuke and encourage with tireless patience and the concern to instruct” (2 Timothy 4:2).

Leaving others alone can be yet another subtle way of judging them. If I only want to worry about myself, could it not be that I do not consider others worthy of my attention and my efforts? John of Gaza decides not to correct any of his brothers any longer, but Barsanuphius realizes that, in fact, he is still judging them in his heart. He writes to him, “Do not judge or condemn anyone, but admonish them like true brothers” (Letter 21). John will become able truly to be concerned with others when he stops judging them.

“Do not make any premature judgments; wait for the Lord to come” (1 Corinthians 4:5). Paul recommends great restraint in judging. At the same time, he appeals to those to whom he writes to take care of one another: “Admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, assist the weak; be patient with everybody” (1 Thessalonians 5:14). By experience, he knew that reprimanding without judging could be costly: “For three years, night and day, I did not cease admonishing each one of you” (Acts 20:31). Only charity can accomplish this kind of service.

Last updated: 17 October 2006