Not too long ago, there was a meme going around about "how liberals read the Bible." Various versions were in circulation, but all of them showed an open Bible, which had been so heavily highlighted with a sharpie that the only words legible were "judge not."
It's a clever meme, and up to a certain point, it has a point. Obviously, Jesus said a whole lot of things besides "judge not." If you're going to follow Jesus, it's not enough to simply refrain from judging people. You also have to refrain from murder and name-calling and envy and sexual immorality, and if you manage to catch the guy who stole your coat, you have to offer him the shirt off your back.
But... you also have to "judge not."
You really, really, do.
The sharpie-highlighter meme seems to imply that the injunction to "judge not" only exists as a sort of blackout poetry, where the meaning is largely unrelated to the intentions of the original text.
But if you peel back the layers of sharpie, the context doesn't mitigate this command one jot or tiddle. It's part of a discourse on the importance of loving sinners, and "judge not" is pretty accurate summary phrase for the entire passage.
If you think that it's hard to reconcile this whole not-judging thing with the intense ethical demands laid out in Scripture, you're in good company. Jesus insisted that his teachings were a fulfillment of the law, and didn't water it down at all, but he never did manage to convince the top Torah scholars. I'm convinced that Jesus is right, but I have to admit that it can be really hard to see what he's getting at. Like the magic eye pictures that amazed us in junior high, sometimes it jumps out at me in breathtaking 3-D, and sometimes I'm stuck staring blankly at a hopelessly incoherent jumble.
But at the times when I can see it and the times when I can't, it's still there. All of it. Jesus calls us to walk the hard, narrow road of holiness, and he doesn't even allow us the sweet consolations of judgmental self-righteousness.
I get why the scribes and pharisees might not have been able to see what Jesus was saying, and even if they did see it, I get why they might have killed him for it anyway. Jesus' teachings are hard words. They're the words of eternal life, and I don't know who else to go to, but they are very hard words indeed. Everyone should count the cost before deciding to pick up a cross and follow.
Of course, theories abound about how Jesus' teachings are not really as hard as they seem. I've often heard it said that because Jesus follows the not-judging discourse with the illustration of the log and the speck, he didn't really mean that we aren't supposed to judge, but merely that we're supposed to deal with our own sin first.
The problem with this theory is that I've never had much success in removing splinters by yelling at them. I'm getting pretty good at dealing with splinters, mostly because I've had a lot of experience with them. Who knew that all those childhood cactus encounters would come in so handy? Still, it's a delicate task, requiring understanding and precision. When my kids come to me with splinters, I try to figure out how the splinter got there in the first place, so that I can guide the offending fragment out through the same path. Sometimes a salt paste will help the swollen flesh recede, and sometimes I put a dab of glue over the splinter, so I that I can peel it away when the glue dries. Every splinter is a little bit different, but for all of them, if you're harsh and impatient, you're apt to drive it in deeper. Worse, you might break off the visible portion, leaving the rest of it buried and inaccessible.
So while it's true that once you've removed the plank from your own eye, you're supposed to help other people with their splinters, you simply can't accomplish that by judging them. Condemnation is just as ineffective against splinters as it is against sin. We are not seeing clearly if we think that having been saved by grace we can go on to save others through our condemnation and judgment.
The lesson of the woman caught in adultery is not that good behavior will earn us the privilege of throwing stones, and the lesson of the log and the speck is not that we should start judging as soon as we become unaware of our own sin.
Thanks be to God, Jesus empathizes with all our temptations, and even though he's amply qualified to cast the first stone, instead he chooses to drive our accusers away so that we can go and sin no more.