Judge not, and you shall not be judged. These words of Jesus are among the most familiar in Scripture (Luke 6.37; Matthew 7.1). They are also some of the most misunderstood and misapplied.
We have all heard the response to criticism, "Judge not, let you be judged," and we have probably spoken the defense, ourselves. Tolstoy even went as far to explain that this instruction of Jesus forbade "the human institution of any law court." Is Jesus saying that we must avoid all criticism of others, to turn a blind eye to the sins of another? After all, one of the basic differences between humans and animals is the ability to discern and to make value-judgments. This is part of what makes us in the image of God. So, then, what is Jesus condemning?
Jesus is condemning the one who is hypercritical of others, the crusading fault-finder who is relentlessly seeking out the failings of others. It is the one who assumes he or she possesses the competence and authority to sit in judgments upon his fellow man. It is the one quick to assess, "You are going to hell!" To be judgmental in the sense Jesus condemns is to arrogantly usurp the prerogative of the divine judge, God, and pass judgment on another. It is, in fact, to play God.
What is the penalty for this self-righteous attitude? This self-righteous judgment has a boomerang effect. If we pose as judges, we cannot plead ignorance of the law we claim to administer. We will be shown the mercy we have shown to others. And this is the key: mercy. By condemning self-righteous judging, Jesus is calling on us to be merciful. Jesus is demanding that we treat our fellow man with respect and love.
When we are hypercritical of another, the motive is selfish. We seek to build ourselves up at the expense of another. We seek to promote ourselves as the wise, the correct, and the righteous. Through our denigration of others we place ourselves on a pedestal. The other person may be clearly int he wrong, but our self-righteous condemnation of them will only result in alienating them from ourselves. The pedestal is a lonely place.
When we place the importance on the other person, when we treat the other with respect and love, and when we are merciful, we humble ourselves. When we respect and love, we do not seek to condemn, but to compassionately correct and teach.