Matthew 7:1. Judge not, that you be not judged.
2. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.
In the preceding chapter we heard the Lord Christ follow His instruction regarding truly good works with a long sermon of warning against greed as a great hindrance to the kingdom of God in both doctrine and life, and as a deadly threat to Christendom. Now He begins a further warning, directed against another great and dangerous vice, called “self-centered wisdom,” which judges and criticizes everyone. Where these two vices are in command, there the Gospel cannot remain. Greed produces either silence in the preachers or contempt and inattention for the Gospel in the hearers. But if you add self-centered wisdom to it, everyone will strive to be the best preacher and his own master, listening to no one and learning from no one. So it happens that sects and schisms arise to adulterate and corrupt the Word, to keep it from remaining pure, and thus once more to ruin the Gospel and its fruit. This is what He terms “judging” or passing judgment here. Whatever a person does himself, that he likes; but whatever other people do has to stink. A lovely and charming virtue indeed! It belongs to that wonderful man called Master Smart Aleck.1 Neither God nor the world likes him, and yet he is all over the place.
To keep this sermon from becoming a stumbling block and being misunderstood as if it forbade any judgment or criticism at all, it should be clear, on the basis of what has already been said so often, that here Christ is preaching only to His disciples. He is not talking at all about the judgment or punishment that takes place in the world. In the household, for example, the mother and father have to judge among the children and the servants, have to administer punishment, even corporal punishment, when they refuse to behave. If a prince or a judge wants to administer his office properly, he cannot avoid judging and punishing. This is all part of the secular realm, which is not our concern here and which we will therefore permit to act the way it should and must act. What we are discussing here is another kingdom, one which in no way weakens or annuls the other, namely, spiritual life and existence among Christians, where it is forbidden for one to judge and condemn another. The devil always mixes into such judging to do his work. He gives each individual a high estimate of himself and the opinion that his cause must be the best and must be the only one to prevail, while he criticizes and undermines whatever does not measure up to his standards.
Although such behavior is the highest kind of foolishness and wrong even in secular affairs, we can put up with it, since it is so obvious that it does not fool anyone. Thus some whore will imagine that she is prettier than anyone else, and what she sees in others will not please her. Or some young fool will fancy himself to be so handsome and clever that there is nobody like him. Among wise and learned people it is the usual thing for no one to concede that what another one knows or does amounts to anything; everyone will act as if he were the only one who can do everything better, and he will spare no one in his criticism. Everyone sees and understands this, and yet this Master Smart Aleck is all over the place. He is so smart that he knows how to bridle a horse by the tail, though the rest of the world has to bridle it by the mouth.
But real trouble and woe arise when this invades spiritual affairs and when the devil plants his seed in Christ’s kingdom, so that it takes root both in doctrine and in life. The result in the area of doctrine is this: Although a man may have the assignment and commission from God to preach the Gospel, others arise, even among his pupils, who claim to know it ten times as well as he does. Thus it is the plague and misfortune of the Gospel to have everyone judging it, becoming a doctor of it on his own, and presuming to be a master in doctrine. This is what happened to Moses, when Korah and his mob rebelled against him and said (Num. 16:3): “Why do you exalt yourselves above the people of God? Are they not all holy? Shall God speak only through Moses and Aaron?” And nowadays they say: “Do we not have as much right to have the Spirit and to understand Scripture as others do?” Right away a different doctrine is served up, and sects are started. Then the judging and the criticizing begin, and particularly the shameful slandering, one party venomously accusing and misrepresenting the other, as we are experiencing right now. This brings on the deadly damage of dividing Christendom and undermining pure doctrine everywhere.
Christ worried about this, and not only worried, but also predicted that it would happen. The world refuses to be changed, even if we preached ourselves to death. Wherever the Gospel arises, therefore, the factions and sects must follow, to spoil it and put it down. The reason is that the devil must sow his seed among the good seed (Matt. 13:25); and wherever God builds a church, he builds his chapel or tabernacle next to it.2 Satan always wants to be in the midst of the children of God, as Scripture says (Job 1:6). Christ intends this as a warning to His apostles and loyal preachers. They must maintain a diligent watch against this vice and be careful not to let it intrude itself and cause schisms and dissension, especially in doctrine. It is as if He were to say: “If you want to be My disciples, let your understanding and your ideas in doctrine all be the same. Let no one claim to be the master who knows something new or better, judging or condemning the others. Concentrate on what I command you to preach, not on who is to do the preaching. And preserve harmony among yourselves, so that one does not despise the other or start something new.”
You must understand this in such a way that it does not take away the right of the man in the public ministry of preaching to judge matters of doctrine as well as of life. Indeed, it is incumbent on him in his office to rebuke publicly whatever does not square with true doctrine, for the very purpose of preventing sects from coming in and taking hold. When he sees that life is wrong, he must likewise denounce it and resist it. He is put there to oversee this, and he will have to give account of it (Heb. 13:17). In fact, whenever any Christian sees his neighbor doing wrong, he has the duty of admonishing him and restraining him, which is impossible without judging and passing judgment. But this is all done on the basis of an office or a commission, which Christ, is not discussing here, as we have said often enough. What is forbidden is that everyone may go ahead on the basis of his own ideas and make a doctrine and spirit of his own, imagining that he is to be Master Smart Aleck, who is supposed to correct everybody and to criticize him, though he has no commission to do anything of the sort. These are the people that the Lord is denouncing here. He does not want anyone to undertake or to do anything on the basis of his own ideas and without a commission, especially not the task of judging other people.
Now, this is what I mean by judging in matters of doctrine. It is one of the most terrible, most abominable, and most dangerous vices on earth. It is the source of all the schismatic spirits. And the monks, the priests; and all the others in the papacy were stuck in it, everyone claiming that what he did was the best, and judging others; but there is no point in discussing that now. The other kind of judging or passing judgment deals with matters of life, when one person criticizes and condemns the life and works of someone else and is not pleased with what anyone else does. This vice is very widespread and common. Now, as in matters of doctrine we should be of one accord, with one mind and understanding and faith, so we have the command to be of one mind and heart in our external affairs. Of course, this cannot be uniform in the same way that faith is. Since there are many stations in society, their works must be dissimilar and varied. Then, too, in this varied life there are also various kinds of faults; for example, some people are odd or short-tempered or impatient. This is inevitable in Christendom, since our old Adam is not dead yet and the flesh continually strives against the Spirit (Gal. 5:17).
What is needed here is the virtue called tolerance and the forgiveness of sins, by which one person bears with another, pardons him, and forgives him, as St. Paul teaches in beautiful words (Rom. 15:1): “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves.” This is the same thing that Christ says here: “Judge not.” There are some in Christendom whose gifts are greater and better, and there must be, especially among the preachers. But such people should not put on a superior air or take the attitude that they are better than those people who do not have these gifts. In the spiritual sphere, therefore, no one should lord it over others. Outwardly there ought to be some difference. A prince should have a higher and a better position than a peasant, a preacher should be more learned than an ordinary manual laborer. A lord cannot be a servant, a lady cannot be a maid. Yet in all these distinctions of position the hearts should have the same attitude and pay no attention to the dissimilarity. This happens when I make allowances for my neighbor, even though he may occupy a lower station j and have fewer gifts than I. When he is a groom taking care of a horse, I am just as pleased with his work as with my own work when I preach or govern land or people, though my work is better and accomplishes more than his. I must not look at the outward masks we wear, but at the fact that he lives in the same faith and the same Christ as I, that he has grace, Baptism, and the Sacrament as much as I, though my work and my office are different and higher. For it is the same God (1 Cor. 12:6) accomplishing and giving all this. He is as pleased with the tiniest as with the very biggest.
What is prevalent in the world, however, is the exact opposite of that commendable and beautiful virtue about which St. Paul speaks (Rom. 15:1). Everyone is pleasing to himself. A man will come along in the name of the devil, unable to look at his own vices, but only at other people’s. This clings to all of us by nature, and even though we are baptized, we cannot get rid of it. We love to beautify and decorate ourselves and to see what is good in us, tickling ourselves with it as if it belonged to us. In order to maintain our exclusive claim to beauty, we ignore and leave out of sight the good there is in our neighbor. If we notice the least little pimple on him, we fill our eyes with it and so magnify it that on its account we see nothing good, though the man may have eyes like a hawk and a face like an angel. That would be like seeing someone in a garment all of gold except perhaps for a seam or a white thread drawn through it, and then acting shocked, as if it were worthless on that account. Meanwhile I would be precious in my own sight on account of the gold patch sewn on my shabby smock frock. So it is that we overlook our own vices, which are all over us, while we fail to see anything good about other people. Now, once this natural inclination appears among Christians, then the judging begins. Then I am ready to despise and condemn a man as soon as he stumbles a little or makes some other mistake. He treats me the same way, giving me the same measure I give him, as Christ says here. He searches out and he criticizes the worst things he can find about me. By such behavior love is suppressed, and all that remains is a biting and a devouring back and forth, until they have consumed each other and lost their Christianity.
The same thing happens if you look at someone else’s life but refuse to look at yourself. You soon find something about him to displease you, and he finds the same in you. Thus the heathen complain that in their circles no one sees what he is carrying on his own back, but that the one following him sees it very well;3 that is, no one sees his own inadequacies, but he quickly sees those of others. Now, if you proceed on the basis of what you see this way, the only consequence must be slander and judging back and forth. The devil cooks this up in Christendom, and he is so successful at it that finally nothing is left but continual judging in matters of life as well as in matters of doctrine. Though the kingdom of Christ is a united, harmonious, and peaceful kingdom both in doctrine and in life, this divides it and replaces it with sectarianism, arrogance, and contempt.
This warning, therefore, is highly necessary. Once we have discharged our office—be it public preaching and rebuking or brotherly admonishing, as Christ teaches it in Matthew 18:15–17—we can learn from this warning and get used to tolerating, concealing, and adorning our neighbor’s transgressions. If I see something in him that does not please me very much, I should pull back and take a look at myself. There I will find many things which do not please other people either and which I want them to pardon and tolerate. This will soon relieve the itch that tickles itself and enjoys someone else’s transgressions, and Master Smart Aleck will toddle along and stop passing judgment. Thus you will be happy to square things with the other person. First you will say: “Lord, forgive me my debt”; and then you will say to your neighbor: “If you have sinned against me, or if I have sinned against you, let us forgive each other.” But if you see that he is the kind of coarse person who will not stop unless you rebuke him, then go to him and tell him so by himself, as we have often pointed out on the basis of Matthew 18:15; this may cause him to improve and desist. This should not be called passing judgment on him and condemning him, but admonishing him in a brotherly way to improve. Such admonition should proceed in a fine and peaceable fashion, according to God’s commandment. Otherwise, if you are tickled and if you poke fun at your neighbor and ridicule him, you only make him bitter and stubborn against you. By withdrawing your love from him and finding enjoyment in his sin, you become much worse than he and twice as big a sinner. You also fall under the judgment of God by your condemnation of one whom God has not condemned. Thus you load an even heavier judgment on yourself, as Christ warns here, and you deserve even greater condemnation from God.
You see, the source of all this abominable evil, as St. Paul says, is the fact that we are pleasing to ourselves (Rom. 15:1). We play around and tickle ourselves with our gifts as though they belonged to us, but we see nothing about someone else except his frailties. Thus we become completely blind, and our eyes are not clear enough to see either our neighbor or ourselves. Though we should begin by looking at our own wickedness and seeing our own inadequacies,4 we do not do so. We look at ourselves through rose-colored glasses, and so we think we are beautiful when we see some gift in ourselves that our neighbor does not have. By this we ruin the gift itself. We also fail to see the good things about our neighbor, though we could always find just as many of those as we now see faults. We should also be pleased with these good things and put up with whatever failings he may have in addition, as we are pleased with ourselves and really know how to put up with a great deal.
In other words, it is the worst kind of vice and the most demonic kind of pride for us to commend ourselves and pat ourselves on the back if we see or feel some special gift in ourselves. We do not thank God for it, but we become so proud and contemptuous of others and so preoccupied with it that we do not pay attention to whatever else we are doing, and imagine that we are in fine shape. We steal and rob God of His glory this way, and we make ourselves an idol, without seeing the trouble we cause by all this. Even without that, we would have enough trouble on our minds from looking at what the Apocalypse says to a bishop who let himself think that he was more learned and better than others (Rev. 3:17): “You say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing; not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” If it is true that your gift is greater than somebody else’s, this is as it must be, because your office is different, higher, and greater. But when you go on to use your gift as a mirror in which you admire yourself, you spoil it completely and make this sublime ornament filthier than everybody else’s faults. The richer your gifts, the more abominable the perversion if you make them an idol. This is just like mixing poison with a fine malmsey. You have really accomplished something if after judging someone else on account of a small fault you then fall, with your conceit, into the grave sin of ingratitude to God. Thus you replace Him with yourself in your own heart, and you meddle into His jurisdiction, where just one sin is graver than the sins of all other men. You become arrogant toward your neighbor and so completely blind in everything that you can no longer know or see God or your neighbor or even yourself.
What do you accomplish with this judging except to call down the judgment of God upon yourself? You give Him the right to say to you: “I did not grant this gift to you so that you could despise your neighbor with it and serve yourself, but so that you could serve your neighbor in his poverty and weakness, and serve Me. Now you go ahead without even thanking Me for it, as if it had grown up in your own heart. You use My very gift to oppose Me and your neighbor and to make yourself a tyrant, a jailer, and a judge against your neighbor, whom your love should prompt you to tolerate, to help, and to lift up when he falls.” What answer can you give Him when He talks to you that way, as He has warned you here that He will, except that you deserve this judgment for making a great log out of the little speck that you see in your neighbor’s eye, as Christ says here (Matt. 7:3)?
I shall not discuss the fact that this miserable judging makes you damnable not only on account of the deed itself, but also because the person who does the judging is usually stuck deeper in sin and vices than other people. If he went back and read his own diary and account book, telling how he has lived since his youth, he would hear a story that would make him shudder and that he would like to suppress from other people. Now everyone would like to pretend that he is pious and to forget the whole past and to criticize and condemn some poor man for sinning just once. Such a person brings double trouble on himself. He ignores his previous life, he forgets what he used to be like, and he does not think how sad he would have felt if people had ridiculed and condemned him. That is one sin, that he is ungrateful and forgets the forgiveness of sins, grace, and all the kindness of God. The other is that he has lost his piety and is renewing the guilt of all his former sins by using his piety as a mirror in which he admires himself, thus becoming seven times as bad as he used to be (Luke 11:26).
You do not imagine, do you, that God is unable to spread out an account book before your very nose and to cite not only your transgressions and the sins of your youth (Ps. 25:7), but also your whole life, which you thought was very precious, as the monks think about their cloister life? How will you stand before Him then and answer for blaspheming and crucifying His Son daily with your Masses and other idolatry? This is what happens when we forget what we used to be like. Then it is easy to judge other people. But the command is: “Hans, take hold of your own nose, and reach into your own bosom. If you are looking for a villain on whom to pass judgment, you will find there the biggest villain on earth. You will just as soon forget about other people and gladly let them alone. You will never find as much sin in another person as you will in yourself. If you see a great deal of another person, you see one year or two. But when you look at yourself, you see your whole life, especially the serious blemishes that nobody else knows about. And then you must be ashamed of yourself.”
That, you see, would be a good cure for this shameful vice. You would stop pleasing yourself and pray God to forgive you and others. Secondly, though you see something bad in your neighbor, you should not despise and condemn him on account of it. Instead you should look at his good qualities and use your own good qualities to help him, by covering up for him, by making him look good, and by giving him your advice, knowing that even if you were the holiest and most pious man on earth, you would become the worst man by judging someone else. God did not give you your gifts for you to tickle yourself with them, but for you to help your neighbor with them when he needs it, and thus by your strength to bear his weakness, by your piety and honor to cover up his sin and to conceal his shame, as God through Christ has done for you and still does every day.5 If you refuse to do that, if you insist upon flattering yourself and despising others, you should know that while someone else may have a speck in his eye as far as you are concerned, by comparison you have a log in your eye as far as God is concerned (Matt. 7:3).
Thus you see why Christ is speaking out so harshly against this vice and pronouncing such a severe sentence: “Whoever judges will be judged.” This is as it should be. By meddling into God’s judgment and condemning one whom God has not condemned, you are giving Him just cause to do the same to you in turn. He will condemn you and all your works to hell, in spite of all your piety. He will elevate to a position of honor the neighbor whom you have judged and condemned, even making him a judge over you and having him find ten times as much in you that is damnable as you have found in him. So you have done very well indeed. You have angered and alienated both God and your neighbor. Thus you lose both the grace of God and the Christian life simultaneously, and you become worse than a heathen who knows nothing about God.
Luther, M. (1999, c1956). Vol. 21: Luther's works, vol. 21 : The Sermon on the Mount and the Magnificat (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works (21:210). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.