Many of the psalms and proverbs of ancient Israel are in the form of poetry. In ancient Jewish poetry, however, the rhyme is not in the sound; it is in the thought. Consider a couple of examples from the psalms and note how each couplet consists of a thought in the first line followed by the same idea stated in a slightly different way in the line that follows:
Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth take their stand
and the rulers gather together,
against the LORD
and against His Anointed One:
“Let us break their chains
and cast away their cords.”
The One enthroned in heaven laughs;
the Lord taunts them(Psalm 2:1-3).
Oh, give thanks to the LORD, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever!
Who can utter the mighty deeds of the LORD,
or declare all his praise?
Blessed are they who observe justice,
who do righteousness at all times! (Psalm 106:1-3)
Recognizing that the second part of each couplet fleshes out the concept presented in the first part, we learn several things from Psalm 106: the goodness of the Lord is manifested in His steadfast and enduring love, reciting the mighty deeds of the Lord is a way of praising Him even if insufficiently, and observing justice means always doing what is right.
If we apply this same insight in studying the Gospel for today’s Mass (Monday of the Second Week of Lent), we can better understand Jesus’ meaning:
Stop judging and you will not be judged.
Stop condemning and you will not be condemned (Luke 6:37).
Considering these verses as a pair helps us avoid a common misunderstanding. Many people today try to shame Christians who criticize or “judge” the behavior of public sinners. For example, if we state that fornication or homosexual acts are morally wrong, we often hear something like this: “You’re judging me! You’re not being a very good Christian because Jesus says not to judge.” This is a misinterpretation of Jesus’ message. Jesus does not forbid all judgments (that would be absurd); rather, he forbids the judgment of condemnation. We can see this in the couplet from Luke above: the second part fleshes out the first part. Jesus is warning us against the judgment of condemnation.
What does it mean to condemn? Most literally and etymologically, it means to consign someone to Hell (something that is not within our power to do). It comes from the Latin con (with) and damnare (to damn; harm; pronounce as unfit, reprehensible, or deserving of severest censure.) The Greek word καταδικάζω (katadikazo) used in this passage has a similar meaning. The prefix “kata” intensifies dikazo (judge) making that judgment severe.
Thus, the Lord is warning us against pronouncing unnecessarily severe punishment or condemnation. People need time to repent. Correction or rebuke, which are sometimes necessary, should be designed to assist a person in reflecting and repenting, not to crush or humiliate him.
Later in this same passage Jesus further warns, For the measure you measure to others will be measured back to you(Luke 6:38). If you are needlessly severe with others, God will use this standard to evaluate and punish you. Because we’re all going to need grace and mercy from God, we do well to show mercy to others. As James says, Judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy (James 2:13). (I have written more on this matter in a previous post: Can We Influence How God Will Judge Us?.)
Thus, the Lord does not forbid us to judge between good and bad behavior. We are expected to make such judgments and to distinguish between right and wrong. Further, He does not forbid us to correct one another. In fact, Scripture consistently counsels that we correct the sinner. (I have written in more detail on that in this post: Correcting the Sinner Is an Essential Work of Charity.)
Attempting to shame Christians into remaining silent rather than correcting others is a misunderstanding of Jesus’ message in these and similar passages. Taking a text out of context is a pretext of sorts. In this case the reason behind it is to attempt to silence criticism of immoral behavior. Also, notice that when someone rebukes you for correcting or “judging,” he is doing precisely the same thing to you! In calling you out, the person is violating his own rule. Recognize this hypocrisy and do not be fooled by this misinterpretation of Jesus’ words.