Many of you know I have a little, 6 pound maltese-poodle mix named Tucker. Tucker’s hair often grows so long that it covers his eyes. I’m honestly not sure how he can see at all sometimes! When I come toward him with scissors to do the very delicate task of trimming the hair around his eyes, I’ve learned that I have to be very careful in how I approach him. He needs to sense that I’m not angry at him, but that I’m trying to help him. If he thinks I’m mad, he will run away. Once he sees that I’m trying to help him, he usually cooperates pretty well. He still may not like what I’m doing, but he seems to understand it’s good for him.
In our passage this morning, Jesus tells us that we need to take a very similar approach with one another. When we are dealing with our sin, or the sin of others, it is important for us to be gentle, be calm, and be seeking to help, rather than to hurt. When we fail to do these things, we can get ourselves in a lot of trouble.
Do Not Judge
Jesus starts this section with these words,
“Do not judge others, and you will not be judged. 2 For you will be treated as you treat others. The standard you use in judging is the standard by which you will be judged. (Matthew 7:1-2, NLT)
This is probably one of the most well-known and most quoted verses in the Bible. Ironically, the people who quote it the most are often people who are not Christians at all! Our society has latched onto this notion that it is wrong to make any judgments about other people. There are few things that can be roundly condemned in our society, but the one thing seemingly everyone agrees is an unacceptable behavior is “intolerance”. I cannot tell you how many times people have complained that they feel “judged” by Christians, followed by quoting this verse as evidence that Christians are not supposed to judge.
Here’s the problem. That’s not what Jesus means by these words at all. One of the biggest traps people fall into when trying to understand the Bible is to ignore context. The right way to understand the Bible (or anything else, for that matter) is to pay attention to the context in which something is stated.
We live in a society where most everything is recorded now. Politicians are very much aware of the fact that everything they say is recorded. People with an agenda often take things politicians say out of context to make them look bad. It’s not uncommon for someone to say, “I said those things, but it’s not the whole story.” It is unfair to take something someone says out of context—and it misrepresents their message.
The same is true with the Bible. In this case, Jesus says not to judge, but we don’t have to read very far to see that Jesus is not saying we should never make any judgments about other people. Look at what Jesus says in verse 6,
6 “Don’t waste what is holy on people who are unholy. Don’t throw your pearls to pigs! They will trample the pearls, then turn and attack you. (Matthew 7:6, NLT)
The original language says something more like this: don’t give what is sacred to dogs, and don’t give pearls to pigs. In other words, Jesus is saying some people are dogs, and some people are pigs—you need to recognize them so you don’t waste good things on them! Obviously, this is a case where we are told to make judgments. The Bible (and the Sermon on the Mount) is filled with similar examples.
So, if Jesus isn’t saying we should never make judgments, what is He saying? I believe what He is saying is that we need to be careful in making judgments to ensure that we are being consistent. The danger is that we apply one standard to people we like, one standard to people we don’t, and still another standard to ourselves. Jesus says we must judge everyone by the same standard—including ourselves.
The question is, what standard are we supposed to use? Most Christians quickly agree that the standard we use should be the unchanging standard given to us in God’s Word. The problem tends to be in our application of this standard. We tend to put greater emphasis on the commands which we are good at or that we like, and to minimize the commands with which we struggle or that we don’t like. We tend to judge others far more harshly than we would judge ourselves. Jesus says that we must be careful not to do that, because He will hold us to the same standard to which we hold others.
Jesus is telling us that we are to fairly and consistently make judgments in line with God’s standard—and that while we should judge the actions of others to be sinful when they violate God’s law, we must also be consistent in judging our own actions by God’s law, without letting ourselves off easy.
Look at Yourself First
After his opening statement about judging fairly, Jesus goes on to give us some application of how we actually carry out this process of judging.
3 “And why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own? 4 How can you think of saying to your friend, ‘Let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,’ when you can’t see past the log in your own eye? 5 Hypocrite! First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye. (Matthew 7:3-5, NLT)
Jesus uses a word picture that is absurd to illustrate a very simple point—the way we treat other people is often absurdly unfair. He says that it is foolish to try to remove a speck of sawdust from someone else’s eye when you have a log sticking out of your own eye. Jesus touches on three important points with this illustration.
First, is that we tend to see other people’s sin far more readily than we see our own. Quite frankly, this is a big reason people often describe Christians as hypocrites—because many times we are! Jesus says that before we go and try to deal with the sin in someone else’s life, we need to see if there is something we need to deal with in our own life. The Life Application Commentary makes an interesting observation,
The traits that bother us in others are often the habits we dislike in ourselves. Our untamed bad habits and behaviors are the very ones that we most want to change in others.
Often, we are most sensitive to the things with which we struggle ourselves. Jesus says that we need to be careful to look at our own actions and motivations carefully before we start trying to fix other people.
The problem is that even though it may be obvious to everyone else, we often struggle to see the log in our own eye. So how do we do that? In the book of James, we are told that when we look intently into God’s law, it serves as a mirror for our lives. When we meditate on God’s law for ourselves, God begins to change us. Many times we read the Bible looking for ammunition—either proof for a theological position we hold, support for our current agenda, or even a way to refute someone else’s argument. We tend to see all the things God is telling other people to do, but miss the fact that God is speaking to us as well! When we read the Bible we need to read with an expectation that God is going to show us what we need to change in our lives. Jesus says that before we can take the log out of our eye, we have to first recognize it’s there. So we start by looking intently into the mirror of God’s Word and asking Him what He wants to change in us. We need to be on the lookout for the logs in our lives!
Second, is that we must deal with our sin. Jesus says that before we can even have a chance at removing the speck of sawdust in someone else’s eye, we first have to deal with the log in our own. It is not enough to simply recognize sin in our lives; we must actually be willing to deal with it.
There are a couple of reasons we need to deal with our own sin first. The first is that we cannot help anyone else until we have first tended to ourselves. Quite frankly, until we have sought and found a solution to our own problem, we have no business trying to tell other people how to fix theirs. We can really only be of help to another person after we have already faced the problem in our lives.
Second is that we have no credibility until we have dealt with the problem in our lives. Think about it, when an obese doctor comes in and begins lecturing you on the dangers of being overweight and waxes eloquently about the importance of maintaining a healthy weight, you kind of tune him or her out, right? Why do we tune the doctor out? Because, we figure, if it was really such a big deal, he’d take his own advice!
Just as it is true for a doctor, so it is for us. When people see us campaigning against the sins of others while refusing to deal with the sin in our lives, they conclude that we really don’t think sin is that big of a deal, we are simply being mean and judgmental. The sad thing is they may be right. If we were genuinely concerned with the effect sin could have on others, we would be equally (if not more) concerned about the effect our sin has on us.
The third point Jesus makes is that dealing with others’ sin requires gentleness and care. Jesus is not saying that we should never seek to confront sin in another person or try to help people combat sin in their lives. He is saying we first need to deal with our own sin, and then we need to gently and lovingly help others deal with theirs.
I find it interesting that Jesus uses the analogy of removing a speck from someone’s eye. Think about what would be required to actually do that. If you saw something stuck in your friend’s eye, you wouldn’t just grab a pair of tweezers and lunge at their eyeball—they’d fight you with every ounce of strength they have! You would need to convince them that you see a problem and that it needs attention. You would need to show them that you would be gentle with their eye and want to help them, not hurt them. You would need to demonstrate that you understand how delicate their eye is.
The same thing is true with trying to help another person deal with their sin. People are unwilling to listen to us when we simply lunge at them with Bible verses or pointed fingers. Understandably, their defenses immediately go up. If we want to be able to help people deal with their sin, we first have to deal with it in our own lives, and then earn the trust of those we want to help.
This means our motives have to be right. We cannot be seeking to make someone look bad, or to punish them. Our actions must be motivated by love. I have said it many times before, but it’s amazing what you can get away with saying to someone when they know it is said in love. When people know that you really do care for them, they are much more willing to listen to what you have to say. Before we try to help others, we must ensure our motives are pure, and we must take the time to make those we would help see that as well.
Pearls before Swine
We’ve already touched briefly on the last verse of this passage already, but let me remind you once more of what Jesus said,
6 “Don’t waste what is holy on people who are unholy. Don’t throw your pearls to pigs! They will trample the pearls, then turn and attack you. (Matthew 7:6, NLT)
It is easy to get bogged down in the idea that Jesus calls some people pigs and completely miss what He is saying. Jesus is saying that there are some people who will not respond to the things of God, no matter what we do. He is saying that there comes a point when trying to give them the treasures we have (the treasure of the gospel message, the treasure of our own experience, the treasure of our time and energy), will do no good. As a matter of fact, it may backfire on us.
This seems like a harsh teaching, but I can assure you it is true. I have had conversations with people from many different walks of life and have found that some people are receptive to the gospel message and genuinely want to understand what I am telling them, while others are completely closed off to the message of Jesus Christ. These people are not as interested in listening to me as they are in trying to make me look stupid. They aren’t interested in evaluating the claims of the gospel; they are looking for ammunition against it.
Jesus says there comes a point when we need to stop wasting our time and our breath on people who are not going to listen. His analogy is this—wasting your time on these people is like trying to dress a pig up with your finest pearls. The pig isn’t interested in getting dressed up. He will destroy your pearls, and probably hurt you in the process. You’ll go through all that effort and accomplish nothing.
I have often referred to the “great theologian” Kenny Rogers when I talk about this. He sang a song called “The Gambler” that I think fits. The chorus includes these words,
You’ve got to know when to hold ’em
Know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away
Know when to run
I think there is truth in this statement when it comes to talking to people about the things of God. We need to know when to hold ‘em. Sometimes we need to stay in a conversation; we need to do the hard work of trying to explain the gospel message and addressing the concerns a person has about Christianity. But we also need to know when to fold ‘em and walk away. There are times when sticking around is a waste of time—that no matter how much time or energy or how many slick arguments we present, they will all fall on deaf ears. In those situations, we need to walk away.
How do we know which situation is which? I don’t think there’s a clear-cut answer to that, but I believe we are able to discern these things with the Lord’s help. When it becomes clear that the other person isn’t listening, but merely arguing for argument’s sake, sometimes it’s best to walk away, and to invest that time into someone who might be receptive.
This is a difficult teaching, and some of you might argue that we should never give up on people. I agree. But listen to what William Barclay says,
“It is often impossible to talk to some people about Jesus Christ. Their insensitiveness, their moral blindness, their intellectual pride, and cynical mockery…may make them impervious to words about Christ. But it is always possible to show men Christ; and the weakness of the Church lies not in lack of Christian arguments, but in lack of Christian lives.”
Sometimes people are not responding to our arguments, they are responding to what they see in our lives. We need to be consistent in proclaiming the gospel message not only with words, but also with the consistent way we live.
Jesus says there are some people who are not interested in hearing our words, so we shouldn’t waste our time talking at them. We must live consistently, recognizing that God can use our lives to soften the hardest of hearts. But when we come across someone whose heart is soft and receptive to the gospel, we should seize the opportunity and share with them the treasure we have received through Christ.
This passage is one that is often misunderstood. Jesus is not telling us that we should never make judgments about other people, but He is telling us that we must be consistent in our judgments, and that we need to ensure that when we judge, we do so with the right heart.
The Christian should be a person whose attitude is characterized by love. Unfortunately, the Church has often become more known for what we are against than what we believe. We are generally not thought of as loving, but as hating. That is a tragedy, and it shows that we are failing at what Christ has told us to do. Jesus has not said that we are to compromise on what is sin and what is not, but we are also not to be militant in trying to point out sin in the lives of others.
Jesus says that we need two things. First, we need to focus on dealing with our own sin instead of constantly focusing on dealing with everyone else’s sin. When we begin to address the sin in our lives, we earn for ourselves a credibility with the world around us that is often lacking. Second is that we need to deal with people on the basis of love, not condemnation. When we do address sin in another person’s life, our goal should be one of loving correction, not one of condemnation. Until we have earned the trust and respect of our friends and neighbors, our attempts to help them will not be welcome.
It’s not the much different than trying to do a delicate procedure on a dog. Lunging at the dog with scissors won’t end well. And yelling at the dog won’t earn his trust. Similarly, until a person understands that you are really trying to help them and not just pushing a personal agenda, and that you are acting of love and not anger, they will run away from anything you try to do.
As Christians, we have experienced this kind of love for ourselves. Jesus showed us love when we were unloving, He built a relationship with us when there was none. He loves us too much to leave us as we are. And because of the love He showed us through Jesus Christ we can be changed. We’ve seen how love works to change people’s lives—it worked with us. So let’s use the same approach with those around us.
 Barton, Bruce B. Matthew. Life Application Bible Commentary. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1996.
 William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1958), vol. 1, 273.