Jesus’ warnings continue in Matthew chapter 7 – don’t judge, don’t throw valuable things to the pigs, avoid the wide road, and watch out for false prophets. Taken by itself, Matthew 7:1 appears to present a prohibition against judging. However, when we couple it with the illustration that follows something different emerges. The example ends with “first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye,” not “don’t look at the speck in your brother’s eye.” Jesus did not prohibit judging, but contemptible judging, the kind that disregards the common fallen condition of all mankind with its propensity for sin, including in us. This kind makes a determination on the value of the person judged and elevates the person judging in the process. Contemptible judging does not direct itself in any way toward the benefit of the one judged. Jesus says this kind of judging doesn’t belong in the kingdom.
What kind of judging does belong? Jesus’ example gives us a good start. First, it recognizes that the one passing judgment must guard against the infirmaries of his own flesh. He must begin with self-examination, removing the vision blocking element from his own eye before he attempts to assist his brother. Galatians 6:1-4 comes to mind. “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else.” This passage makes it clear that we judge for the purpose of restoration and we do it in a spirit of humility, understanding the well worn saying “there but for the grace of God go I.”
Within the body of Christ, we do not posses the made-up rights assumed in today’s world. However, outside the body, proper judging becomes impossible because we have lost a common standard. Each person retains the right to make their own rules, to live life the way they see fit. Imagine what that would look like in a criminal proceeding. The defendant (named Joe) enters the court and the judge reads the charges against him. When finished, Joe’s lawyer stands up with a fat book in hand and says “your honor, I have here the law according to Joe and the violations of law alleged by the state appear nowhere in Joe’s law. Therefore, you must release Joe immediately.” If Joe really does get to make up his own law, what choice would the court have? The judge must release Joe. In fact, we should call the court official something other than a judge for no judging could possible take place. Sadly, Joe becomes the loser in this story. He misses the opportunity to have his life formed closer to what God intended. Even if Joe does not respond to the prospect of an eternal relationship with Jesus, he would benefit from proper judging because it would encourage him to live his life based on the truth.
Commentators most commonly treat Jesus’ next warning as an instruction not to spend the gospel on those who have rejected it – not throwing the “pearls” of the gospel before the swine. If we view this verse from a few steps back, a fuller meaning emerges. We should not throw our pearls to swine not because they don’t deserver them, but because they have no use for them. Pigs primarily have a single goal: food. Pearls are no good for food. Let’s not force the pearls of the gospel on folks while they remain in a pigly state, one in which they have yet to understand the value of gospel pearls. Once they recognize the value, a transformation will occur. They become like the man who discovered a pearl of great price in a field and in his excitement, ran and purchased the field so he could possess the pearl.
I recently attended a graduation party for the daughter of some old friends. They live on a small road that connects to a much busier one and if I’ve missed the turn once, I’ve missed it twenty times. If I want to actually end up at my friends’ home, I have to work at it, paying attention to the where the turnoff is and make the turn. Jesus reminds us that like visiting my friends, we do not come to the kingdom by accident. Not at all. We must choose the path that leads to the kingdom and apply some effort. The path that misses the kingdom requires little effort. It has wide margins and will take any who come. The kingdom road, on the other hand, requires that we choose and act.
Finally, Jesus warns “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.” Alright, I’m watching. What should I look for? “By their fruit you will recognize them.” Grapes don’t come from thorn bushes and we don’t get figs from thistles. Only true prophets will bear kingdom fruit. And, what does kingdom fruit look like? It looks like what Jesus has described so far in the sermon. It runs deeper than the actions of a man. It comes from a heart which Jesus has transformed and it works itself out in action reflective of that transformation. Who should I listen to and who should I follow? Jesus has carefully laid out the pattern of a true prophet so we can discern his fruit. The rest is up to us.