Jesus talked about judgment on several occasions. Many Christians tend to imagine Christ enthroned, judging each person based on a moral life of good works, with emphasis on a list of sins to avoid. Many Christians also act a bit smug, as they point at others, judging their actions based on the same list of sins. Jesus taught us, however, that we’re not really capable of living a sinless life. Rather, He taught us to give of ourselves to others as the basic rule of the Christian moral life, all other “rules” being just specific examples of how to do that. Additionally, He taught us about His mercy and how to obtain it. It seems if God gives us His mercy, then we need not fear His judgment.
1 And the LORD said to Moses, 2 "Say to all the congregation of the people of Israel, You shall be holy; for I the LORD your God am holy.” (Lev 19:1-2)
36 Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. 37 Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven. (Lk 6:36-37)
Yahweh told Israel to be holy, to be like Him, as God is holy. Jesus clarified that: he told his followers to be merciful, to be like God, as God is merciful. We can now understand the essence of holiness: it is mercy.
Let’s start with the above text from Leviticus. The book of Leviticus explains the laws pertaining to the Levite priests, plus general laws for the Israelites; there are many, many laws. The book is fairly subdivided into sections, each of which begins with the phrase, “And the LORD said to Moses, 'Say to…'” followed by the group to whom the section is addressed. Our text above is addressed to the whole people of Israel, God’s covenant people. The opening line is a commandment to be holy. Then follows many individual laws, most having the common trait of mercy and generosity. It speaks of leaving some portion of the harvest for the poor, of not oppressing others, of being fair and just in business, and many more axioms of kindness, justice and mercy. It includes that most revered law:
18 You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD. (Lv 19:18)
This Levitical text implies that among the examples of how to be holy like Yahweh is one directing Israel to love their neighbors. This directive to love is framed with a preface to not take vengence, to not hold a grudge. In other words, to forgive in at least a minimal way.
In Luke, Jesus adjusts His OT law to clarify (or augment) that it's about serious mercy, going beyond not holding grudges or enacting vengence. Let’s look at Jesus’ statement in the context of His whole discourse.
27 "But I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30 Give to every one who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again. 31 And as you wish that men would do to you, do so to them. (Lk 6:27-31)
Our Lord begins by commenting on Lev 19:18 – we must not only love our neighbor, but even love our enemies. He clarifies what He means by enemies: those who hurt us, who abuse us, who hate us. He also clarifies what it means to love: to give of ourselves. This is an essential understanding of Christianity, that loving means giving. This leads to v. 31, the famous Golden Rule: to treat others as we wish to be treated. Christian morality is neatly summed up by the idea of others. Love the others, be they God, our neighbors, or our enemies.
32 "If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35 But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. (Lk 6:32-35)
Here Jesus elaborates on the nature of love: It is pure giving and never, ever involves taking from others. We must even love our enemies in this way, those who hurt us, no matter how they hurt us; we must still give of ourselves to them without expectation of anything in return. Jesus explains that God gives even the ungrateful and the selfish His own kindness and love. Therefore, if we do the same, we are like God, we become His children. Here we see how morality contributes to our covenantal life.
36 Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. 37 "Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; 38 give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back." (Lk 6:36-38)
Here we have our primary text. Jesus had explained how we can be children of God, so now He explains in very simple language that as His children, we must be merciful like Him. He then explains mercy: Do not judge others. This is mercy. This is the heart of Christianity. This is the stinging declaration of Christ that crushes the egos of so many Christians. I’ve judged others, you’ve judged others; everyone does it. How do I not do it? There is a trick to it:
39 He also told them a parable: "Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit? 40 A disciple is not above his teacher, but every one when he is fully taught will be like his teacher. 41 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? 42 Or how can you say to your brother, 'Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,' when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother's eye. (Lk 6:39-42)
As a sinner, I have limited spiritual capabilities - I am still very much limited by my animal nature. I can only judge others based on what I see them do or what I hear them say; but I have no idea what led them to do or say something. I can objectively identify an act as immoral, but I can never judge the guilt of the person doing it; it’s impossible. It would require me to know every event and circumstance that has ever happened to a person, leading up to this one act, and no one but God could know something like that. Any attempt to judge someone’s guilt would be me setting myself up as a god, which was the original sin of Eden.
But Jesus explains that I lack such knowledge, because I am not God. That is, to have that kind of Divine judgement capability, that kind of Divine characteristic, I must not be a sinner, same as God. I would have to first end all of my own sins. Have I? No. Have you? No. Do you know anyone who has? No. It’s not really feasible. But Jesus provides us with a hint. The one person whom we can judge, with some degree of knowledge, is ourselves. I often know my own guilt. I understand what’s behind my own sins. I should be looking at the log in my own eye and judging myself. Then, I will really discover what mercy is, as I turn to my Father and beg Him to forgive me.
Were I to focus my efforts on my own sins, I would be too busy every day to find time to notice the sins of others. And, if I do find the time to notice the sins of others, I should know that I cannot see into their heart, I cannot understand why they do what they do, I cannot ascertain guilt. I’ve met many judgmental Christians who are so sure they know so-and-so did such-and-such out of an evil heart. How very mistaken they are. We humans are profoundly ignorant creatures (no matter how intelligent or educated we think we are) and terribly sinful (no matter how morally superior we think we are). God sees us as we really are: stupid and sinful, yet He forgives us. Take a moment and imagine, if you will, how God sees you as you really are, from His perspective as All-Knowing and as the Perfect Good. Does the Omniscient think you are wise or intelligent? Does the Most Holy Trinity see you as good? Kind? Merciful?
43 "For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; 44 for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. 45 The good man out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure produces evil; for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks. 46 "Why do you call me 'Lord, Lord,' and not do what I tell you? 47 Every one who comes to me and hears my words and does them, I will show you what he is like: 48 he is like a man building a house, who dug deep, and laid the foundation upon rock; and when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house, and could not shake it, because it had been well built. 49 But he who hears and does not do them is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation; against which the stream broke, and immediately it fell, and the ruin of that house was great." (Lk 6:43-49)
In the end, we will be judged by the only One who is capable of judgement, who knows the truth of our guilt. If I did as He just said and was merciful to all, then I will receive mercy. My house (me) will remain. But if I did not do as He said, if I did not show mercy to others, then I will be judged and my house will be destroyed, for who can survive the judgment of God?
If there is a conclusion to all this, it is this: Refrain from thinking yourself better than another. Consider yourself lower than another, every time, no matter who the other person is. Love that person, no matter who that person is. If you think that person is doing wrong, immediately look inward at your own wrongs, and ask the Father’s forgiveness for your own sins, as you forgive the other person’s wrongs.
12 And forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven our debtors… 14 For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Mt 6:12, 14-15)