What Did Jesus Mean by “Do Not Judge”?

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Jesus' teaching on judging is one of his most frequently misunderstood sayings, sounding as if he is saying, "Have no discernment. Just ignore sin!" Often we struggle to find a way to sort out sin without actually calling it that so that we do not judge. While Jesus' ethical demands are high, we often give up trying to follow them if they do not make sense to us.

Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. (Luke 6:36-38; NIV)

Jesus’ teaching on judging is one of his most frequently misunderstood sayings, sounding as if he is saying, “Have no discernment. Just ignore sin!” Often we struggle to find a way to sort out sin without actually calling it that so that we do not judge. While Jesus’ ethical demands are high, we often give up trying to follow them if they do not make sense to us.

Understanding this saying of Jesus in the light of rabbinic teachings on judging yields both insight and wise application for life. Apparently, Jesus’ saying is related to a well-known rabbinic dictum: “Judge every person in favorable terms” (Mishnah, Avot 1:6). The rabbinic statement is an interpretation of Leviticus 19:15, “You shall do no injustice in judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor nor defer to the great, but you are to judge your neighbor fairly.” According to Israel’s ancient sages, if one wants to be entirely fair in judging one’s neighbors, one should give them the benefit of the doubt, that is, “judge them favorably.”

One of Jesus’ sayings regarding judging is nearly identical to other rabbinic sayings on the subject: “For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you” (Matt. 7:2; Luke 6:38). In the Talmud it is stated, “He who judges his neighbor favorably will be judged favorably by God” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 127a). The application of this idea is made elegantly clear in a story from that talmudic tractate:

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