How often these verses are used to insist that Jesus tells us to refrain from making any moral judgments at all. Of course, we usually only trot out the "Do not judge" shibboleth when the "sin" in question is sexual in nature. We normally do not hear these words of Jesus quoted when a CEO bankrupts a company leaving its employees without their pensions, or when a politician takes bribes. With certain sins, Jesus' words are quietly set aside.
"Judge not!" is usually uttered as an attempt to quiet those who are making judgments we disagree with. Yet, I must confess that the biggest users and abusers of Jesus' words in Matthew 7:1 are pretty judgmental when someone transgresses over their deeply held convictions.
The truth of the matter is that Jesus here is not telling his disciples to make no judgments; he is telling them to be careful in the judgments they make. Scot McKnight nuances this point well. He writes,
"...I suggest the best translation--in context-- is: "Do not condemn or you too will be condemned [by God at the judgment]. Without this nuanced difference between discernment and condemnation, we run the risk of (1) becoming mute on moral judgment or (2) missing the powerful warning about assuming we are God.The point is that Jesus is warning us against the latter in these opening verses of chapter 7, not the former. None of us stands in the position of God. Only God gets to make eternal judgments. Scot rightly notes that in Jesus' warning not to judge, he is speaking not of moral discernment but of personal condemnation. Jesus warns us that if we condemn others by our standard, which will always be flawed since we stand as sinners, then God will judge us by the same standard when we appear before him on the Day of Judgment. Do we want our own standard applied to us?
We must not condemn others personally, but we cannot avoid moral judgments. Indeed, in John 7:24 Jesus says, "Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment." Here and in Matthew Jesus is not commending moral ignorance, but rather insisting that judgment must be right and fair and grace-filled because judgment is indeed serious business.
Years ago, Bishop William Willimon spoke of our tendency toward ethical-knownothingism-- the practice of not judging the bad behavior of others so that in return they won't judge our bad behavior. Ethical-knownothingism, says the good bishop, is a recipe for mutual corruption. It becomes a context where no one is able to tell the truth. It was precisely the misuse of Matthew 7:1 that motivated Willimon's words.
In reality Jesus is saying, "When you personally condemn others remember that God will condemn you." This is not a prohibition against morally discerning what is right and wrong; it is a reminder that our judgments must be fair and just and filled with grace, because we will all be judged by God, and we want to be judged fairly and justly and with much grace. Therefore, when we make judgments about the behavior of others, we must make sure we are judging rightly. This saying of Jesus is not about refraining from judgment; it’s about making careful judgments.
Our judgments must be careful, just as we should be careful when interpreting the Scripture. Unfortunately both are subject to much abuse.