“Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matt 7:1) is perhaps the most misunderstood and ill-used sentence in the entire Bible. What did the Lord Jesus mean when he said it? Was he condemning all judgment? Our readings in the holy sacrifice of the Mass today are very much about that topic. Let’s explore what the Word of God says about it and examine it in light of the tradition of the Church.
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
27 February 2022
“A good tree does not bear rotten fruit, nor does a rotten tree bear good fruit. For every tree is known by its own fruit” (Luke 6:43).
Our readings from the Word of God, given to us by holy mother Church today, are very much about making judgments about good or evil behavior, about activities that are virtuous or wicked. Our Lord tells us: “A good person out of the store of goodness in his heart produces good, but an evil person out of a store of evil produces evil; for from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks.”
Jesus reminds us, as does the Bible all throughout, that there are evil people in the world who engage in evil activities in deed and word. These people are spiritually blinded to the true good. And, if we pay attention to the things they say, we soon realize they are enemies of God and his truth, even though they often present themselves as good, caring, and intelligent people who seem to “know what’s best for everyone.”
Who are these people? That’s a complex question. But let’s just run through a few of the main candidates. It is often the case that, within this group of people, we find supporters of intrinsic evils like abortion or homosexual sex acts. Among them are gender ideology dogmatists who have no problem with young children taking life-altering hormones or slightly older children undergoing irreversible castrations or double-mastectomies.
They are those who attack the Church, and those who wield their angst against freedom of religion. They are the people who insist on “trans-library days.” They’re the authoritarians who initiate “emergency powers” in the name of “safety,” and advocate for a surveillance state to reign in the ever-present “white supremacist” bogymen. They are people who steal credit card information and freeze bank accounts of ordinary citizens because they happened to attend a political opponent’s rally. They include people who attack mothers and break down the doors of their homes with battering rams for protesting the appalling state of education in public schools. They trample on human dignity by supporting euthanasia and embryonic stem cell testing, or the harvesting of cells from aborted children for experimentation in the pharmaceutical industry to produce vaccines. Need I go on? You get the point.
Many of these kinds of people have been installed—or installed themselves—in our government and its institutions, in the political realm, in the world of academia, in the mainstream media, and in public schools. There are some within the Church as well.
Of course, we must pray for the conversion of evildoers. That’s one thing we’re always called to do. However, the danger is that these people—given that they often hold positions of leadership—spread their errors to others who are perhaps innocent and easily conditioned, like children or young people. They also feed rotten fruit to those who are naive or those who unwisely and uncritically believe whatever they hear without carefully discerning it against the wisdom of God.
The bottom line is that the influence of the wicked is a danger to societies and the lives of individuals. Their ideologies often scandalize others and are instrumental in leading souls to hell. Jesus points this out with his rhetorical question: “Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit?”
The Judgment Against All Judgment
Even in the face of evil, however, it’s often the case that people think it’s always wrong to make judgments about the deeds and words of others. This situation is what the Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft called the “judgment against all judgment.”
To support the belief that we must never judge others, people often cite our Lord’s words in Matthew’s gospel, “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matt 7:1). These are perhaps the most misunderstood and misquoted words in Scripture. They are often taken out of context to mean that Christians must never make any judgments about a person’s behavior in any way. This idea leads to the false notion that because we must love the sinner, we must also love the sin he commits.
If we read a little further in Matthew’s gospel, we find that Jesus was teaching to judge justly, as opposed to rashly or hypocritically, as he said (Matt 7:3-5):
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? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.
Nevertheless, this idea that we must never judge, along with the false tolerance it promotes, also tends to allow evildoers to shame people into silence in the face of evil, which does nothing but breed greater evils. As it’s often said, all that’s needed for evil to thrive is the silence of good men. The fact is, in some situations, silence signals complicity, which allows evil to flourish unabated.
The question, then, is this: Does God prohibit all judgment? Or, on the other hand, does he call us to make certain kinds of judgments about the behavior of others? Does God command us to warn others of the dangers of their sin? Does Christ command us to rebuke a brother who sins against us?
Let’s Look to the Word of God for Some Answers
To begin, we heard these words from Sirach: “Praise no one before he speaks, for it is then that people are tested.” Sirach reminds us that one’s faults appear when he speaks. One’s speech discloses “the bent of one’s mind.” Although Sirach teaches that we cannot judge by appearances, he clearly points to the necessity of making judgements based on the merit or lack of it in a person’s words.
Let’s look at another Old Testament passage. In Ezekiel chapter 33, the LORD God said to Ezekiel:
So you, son of man, I have made a watchman for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, O wicked man, you shall surely die, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked to turn from his way, and he does not turn from his way; he shall die in his iniquity, but you will have saved your life.Ezek 33:7-9
To summarize, God commands us to love our neighbor by warning him of the eternal danger he is placing his soul in by committing grave and/or mortal sin. The process of warning our neighbor of the perils of sin is called “fraternal correction.” If we deliberately neglect this correction, God may hold us responsible.
On the topic of cooperation in evil and fraternal correction, Catechism (CCC 1868) teaches:
Sin is a personal act. Moreover, we have a responsibility for the sins committed by others when we cooperate in them:
- by participating directly and voluntarily in them;
- by ordering, advising, praising, or approving them;
- by not disclosing or not hindering them when we have an obligation to do so;
- by protecting evil-doers.
Turning to the New Testament, St. James says this of fraternal correction:
My brethren, if any one among you wanders from the truth and some one brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.James 5:19-20
St. Paul says this of fatherly admonition: “I do not write this to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children” (1 Cor 4:14).
Our Lord’s Words In The Gospels
“Temptations to sin are sure to come; but woe to him by whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung round his neck and he were cast into the sea, than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin. Take heed to yourselves; if your brother sins, rebuke him, …Luke 17:1-3
Here our Lord warns of the dangers of scandal. In this context, scandal is defined as leading someone into sin by our deeds or words, or by committing the sin of omission, such as remaining silent when we should speak or acting indifferently to grave sin, which can also lead others into sin.
Clearly our Lord Jesus is commanding us to engage in moral discernment and make just judgments. Not to judge rashly or jump to false conclusions, but to judge the behavior of others objectively and to rebuke others, if necessary, such as when they are engaged in the commission of serious sin. The purpose for fraternal correction is ultimately salvation. We engage in fraternal correction for the sake of the spiritual well-being of others and to promote the common good.
Jesus also teaches us that we must forgive others, as he said, “if your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him; and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”
However, forgiving others does not mean excusing injustices or simply “looking the other way.” It does not mean always withholding correction or even punishment, if it is required. That’s why we have criminal laws. That’s why a just society incarcerates its criminals. The purpose of their incarceration is to move them to repentance, and restore justice, order, and peace.
As Christians, we are not total passivists. Christ calls us to correct injustices according to the means and abilities we have at our disposal. Recall that he overturned the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple. In his zeal for God’s house, he corrected that injustice by driving the evildoers out of the Temple.
As Christians, it’s essential for us to understand the importance of making objective judgments about sinful behavior and engaging in fraternal correction. St. Augustine warns against the grave fault incurred by omitting fraternal correction with this statement: “You do worse by keeping silent than he does by sinning.”
What’s the Pattern for Fraternal Correction?
Finally, Jesus teaches us how to go about correcting others in Matthew’s gospel, chapter 18:
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.Matt 18:15-17
St Ambrose, a fourth century Church Father, gave this testimony on the practice of fraternal correction:
If you discover some defect in a friend, correct him privately …. For corrections do more good and are more profitable than friendship that keeps silent. If the friend is offended, correct him just the same, firmly and without fear, even though the correction tastes bitter to him.
The bottom line is that there are many, many places in Scripture where God clearly commands us to engage in fraternal correction for the good of our friends, neighbors, and society. The notion that Christians must never morally evaluate the deeds and words of others is false. Although we don’t engage in nitpicking or endless complaining, we also must never be indifferent in the face of serious sin.
We have a special duty to correct people in positions of leadership who hold evil ideologies or are engaged in wicked activities. In the political realm, we have a moral duty to do what we can, through the voting process, to prevent evildoers from gaining office.
Before attempting to correct anyone, we must first judge and correct ourselves, as our Lord said:
How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me remove that splinter in your eye,’ when you do not even notice the wooden beam in your own eye? You hypocrite! Remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter in your brother’s eye.Luke 6:42
Finally, we cannot judge the state of a person’s soul. We cannot know whether a person’s soul is spiritually dead in mortal sin. Only God, who sees the secret thoughts of men’s hearts, can make that judgment. However, we are called to make objective judgments about the moral nature of particular activities and to provide fraternal correction if these activities fall within the purview of our responsibility.
Ultimately, it’s all about charity in the name of the salvation of souls.
“But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. (Heb 3:13)
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel. For more, visit YouTube, iTunes and Google Play.