One of the most beloved biblical proof-texts of contemporary Western culture is undoubtedly the famous words of Jesus: judge not, lest ye be judged. People with more sophisticated moral frameworks, and people educated more broadly in the scriptures, frequently and rightly point out that this text must not be taken to mean the contrary of what many other biblical texts enjoin upon us (even words of Jesus, e.g., “do not judge according to appearances, but judge with right judgment”). Yet, while I agree with this response, I’ve always felt a little incomplete in my understanding of this text, precisely because this response is often the end of commentary upon the text by those who are doing the responding (or else, some qualification is read into the text, but with little support from the context given as justification). Recently, I was reading Joel B. Green’s commentary on Luke again, and I finally found what I think is a very plausible, contextual, understanding of Jesus’ words which make them consistent with the standard response to acontextual quotations of this verse. Here are some of his comments:
37–38 The economy asserted in v 35 is now fleshed out with reference to three parties—two explicit, one implicit. Jesus’ followers are to behave in certain ways toward others, and God will behave in seemingly symmetrical ways toward Jesus’ followers. The symmetry is only apparent, since v 38b borrows imagery from the marketplace to show the extravagant generosity of God, now compared to a merchant who is neither stingy nor fair to himself but excessively fills the measuring vessel. The practices Jesus outlines follow immediately and grow out of the practices of God (vv 35d–36). Just as the merciful God does not predetermine who will or will not be the recipients of his kindness, so Jesus’ followers must refuse to “judge”—that is, to prejudge, to predetermine who might be the recipients of their graciousness. This is nothing but the command to love one’s enemies restated negatively. In an important sense, Jesus’ instructions are to refuse to act as those scribes and Pharisees had done in 5:27–32, as they calculated beforehand the status of those toll collectors and sinners and thereby excluded them from their circles of social interaction.
Green, J. B. (1997). The Gospel of Luke. The New International Commentary on the New Testament (275). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Thus, the explanation of the consistency between “judge not” and “judge with right judgment” becomes apparent: the former is talking about a true pre-judice, a judgment without acquaintance with the facts, a judgment based strictly on appearances. The latter is a judgment which has taken the time to carefully observe and investigate the facts.