“Judge not.” Those have to be the two most popular words that Jesus ever spoke. Or perhaps I should say that “Judge not” are certainly his two most popular words in our culture today.
“Judge not.” What could be better? “Judge not” means that I can do whatever I want to do. “Judge not” means there are no objective standards by which I can be judged. “Judge not” means whatever feels genuine and true for me, is genuine and true for me. “Judge not” means that you can’t tell me what I should or should not be doing. Instead, Jesus says that you are supposed to be non-judgmental.
Except the Jesus who said “Judge not” in our text also said in this Gospel, “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” So Jesus clearly thinks that we need to be ready to repent of our sins – that we need to be ready to accept God’s judgment against our sin. We must be willing to admit that there are thoughts, words and deeds that are wrong – that are sinful. We must admit that there are things are judged by God.
And Jesus is also the same one who said in this Gospel, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.” If you brother sins, rebuke him – now that sounds pretty “judgmental.” Our Lord’s statement means that there are things called sins, and it not only God who can recognize them. There is a standard that others can know – a standard against which they can evaluate our actions. And in fact, Jesus says that when we see our brother or sister in Christ sinning, we are to rebuke him or her. We are to do this to lead them to repentance, just as God himself leads us to repentance. We are to do this because we love them in Christ.
So after we do a little work in which we let Scripture interpret Scripture it becomes obvious that Jesus’ words in our text, “Judge not,” do not mean that we are never supposed to evaluate the behavior of others and confront sin. So what do these words mean, and what is this supposed to look like in our life?
The place to begin as we seek to understand our text is the first verse in which Jesus says, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” And then in the very next verse after Jesus’ statement about “Judge not” we hear, “forgive, and you will be forgiven.” Jesus tells us not to judge in the same setting in which he says that we are to be merciful as our Father is merciful. He does so as he tells us that we are to forgive others, so that we will be forgiven.
To understand fully what Jesus is saying here, we need to go back to the beginning of his discussion. This section begins with the words, “And he came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea and Jerusalem and the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon, who came to hear him and to be healed of their diseases.” This section of Luke’s Gospel is usually called the “sermon on the plain.” In content it is very similar to the “sermon on the mount” that we find in Matthew’s Gospel. No doubt, during the course of teaching for almost three years, Jesus shared the same basic content in many different settings.
The keys words for understanding our text are found at the very beginning of Jesus’ address. There he says, “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” Coming out of the Old Testament background, the poor are those who are dependent on God. Jesus does not speak simply about those who are financially poor. Rather his words refer to all share in the attitude of dependence and reliance on God. He includes all who recognize their own weakness and powerlessness, and turn to God in faith as the source of hope and strength.
That is you if you are honest with yourself. You know the struggle with sin in your own life – the ways you fail to fear, love and trust in God above all things. You know the weakness you feel in the face of the challenges in this fallen world.
Yet Jesus says this morning to you – to just such a poor person: “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” Jesus Christ says that you are blessed – this means that you have received God’s end time salvation. And he can say this because the “kingdom of God is yours.”
The kingdom of God is not place. Instead it is the reign of God that was present in Jesus Christ to free us from sin and death. When Jesus was accused of casting out demons because he was in league with Satan, he answered: “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” Our Lord declared that in is person and ministry the reign of God was present to overcome Satan, sin and death.
Jesus brought this reign to its consummation by dying on the cross for your sins and rising from the dead. Though without sin, the Son of God was numbered with the transgressors as he was nailed to a cross. In Jesus, the Father was being merciful to us. He gave his own Son as the sacrifice for our sins. He gave him up to death in order to win forgiveness. And then on the third day he raised him from the dead as he defeated death itself.
Through baptism and faith God has made us his own. He has made us a new creation in Christ. And so Jesus can say, “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” You have already received this saving reign. And so you are blessed now. You are sons and daughters of God.
Notice that Jesus says in our text, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” Why can God be described as your Father? It is because he has shown you mercy in the death and resurrection of his Son. This is what God has done for us in Christ. And so it now shapes the way we live through the work of God’s Spirit. It is the reason that Jesus says earlier in this chapter, “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”
God has made you good in Christ. He has given you forgiveness before God. He has created the new man in you who daily arises from baptism to walk in newness of life. And so Jesus can say in this chapter: "For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.”
Through his Spirit, Christ has made a you a good tree – a good tree that produces good fruit. And that brings us back to the words with which we began this sermon: “Judge not.” Our Lord says, “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned.” Jesus does not speak here of the Christian who confronts a fellow Christian to lead him or her to repentance. He does not speak of actions done out of mercy, just as our Father has been merciful to us.
Instead he describes the action of criticizing and finding fault for the purpose of tearing the other person down. This is criticism that seeks to make me feel better by making you seem worse. And of course the irony about such criticism it is that it ignores the faults that exist in me. Jesus says, “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? How can you say to your brother, 'Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,' when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother's eye.”
Jesus needs to say this because while we are a new man in Christ, we also still bear the old Adam within us. We are people who are capable of mercy, forgiveness and love because of Christ. We are also still people who are able to act in selfish, sinful ways.
As we live the Christian life, there is a judging that is necessary. But it is not a judging directed towards other people. Instead, it is judging directed towards ourselves. We must be willing to judge ourselves in honest repentance. We must confront the ways that sin continues to be present in us: the times we gladly see the speck in our neighbor’s eye; the times we are not merciful; the times we don’t give to others.
Yet this is not a judging that leads to despair. Instead it is a judging that leads to repentance. And repentance always leads us back to Christ. It leads us back to what Christ has done for us in his death and resurrection. And more specifically, it leads us back to those ways that Christ’s reign is present in our midst now giving forgiveness. It leads us back to his Means of Grace.
It leads us to his word through which the Spirit gives forgiveness and renewed strength for living as one who is in Christ. It leads us in faith back to our baptism, for there we have not only been born again, but we have the source by which the life giving Spirit continues to enable us to live as child of God. And we come to the Sacrament of the Altar. Here Jesus works the miracle of giving us his true body and blood, given and shed for you the forgiveness of sins. He gives us food for the new man – food that sustains us in the life of faith so that we can be merciful, even as our heavenly Father has been merciful to us in his Son, Jesus Christ.