“Judge Not”: Niels Hemmingsen on Judgment and Mercy in Luke 6

Yesterday’s Gospel reading, according to the traditional Western lectionary, was Luke 6:36-42:

36 Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful.

37 Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven:

38 Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, shall men give into your bosom. For with the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again.

39 And he spake a parable unto them, Can the blind lead the blind? shall they not both fall into the ditch?

40 The disciple is not above his master: but every one that is perfect shall be as his master.

41 And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but perceivest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

42 Either how canst thou say to thy brother, Brother, let me pull out the mote that is in thine eye, when thou thyself beholdest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, cast out first the beam out of thine own eye, and then shalt thou see clearly to pull out the mote that is in thy brother’s eye.

Niels Hemmingsen divides his Postil sermon on this text into two topics: “the works of love or mercy that are here commended to us” and “the reasons for which Christ here exhorts us to show mercy (that is, the works of charity) to our neighbor.”

The first topic is then subdivided into a discussion of the four parts of the mercy Christ commands us to show. The first has to do with judgment. What does Christ mean when he says, “Judge not”? It is an injunction much misused in our day. This has always been the case, probably–but it is especially so in an environment as given over to sentimentalism (an oddly legalistic sentimentalism, to be sure) as ours is. Should we never say anyone is wrong? So we are often led to believe; to do otherwise is not nice, and there is no sin so heinous as not being nice.

But that, of course, is not what Christ means. To say that it does would be to undermine all hierarchy–for those already clutching their pearls, we can put it more nicely: every office–in civil society. Gone would be fathers, teachers, magistrates, and ministers. But this would expressly contradict many other commandments in Scripture, to say nothing of what natural reason knows.

Instead, Christ is speaking about the heart, and warning against a censorious spirit toward one’s neighbor: an office that has not been entrusted to you, or to me. Christ is not here rebuking every authoritative vocation, but a certain posture or attitude of the heart.

I translate the passage below. And lest anyone think he is guiltless of the vice Christ reproves, be sure to read the last sentence. Thus, as Luther tells us, the chief office of those who want to be Christians is repentance.

What It Means To Be “Merciful”

This mercy, which proceeds from love and is commended by Christ to his disciples in this Gospel reading, consists of four parts. The first of these is in the heart itself: a certain frankness and philanthropy, by means of which we both think frankly about our neighbor and always hope for better things concerning him. Christ marks this frankness by removing its contrary when he says, “Judge not.” Hence the Apostle says in 1 Corinthians 13, “Charity does not think ill.” And this is the meaning of the first part of mercy.

It is not the case, therefore, that anyone should, because of the statement “Judge not,” think that Christ takes away either judgment concerning the distinction between virtues and vices in men, or the duty of the head of the household, teacher, civil magistrate, or minister of the Word , or the debt of brotherly correction, by which one ought to recall one who is erring back into the right way in accordance with Christ’s commandment. All that is taken away is the lust of the mind due to which we take upon ourselves the duty of thinking ill of others contrary to the rule of charity.

For as far as judgment concerning the distinction between honorable and shameful things is concerned, the firm and immovable law of God is our rule. For whatever the law of God calls shameful or honorable we too ought to judge to be such. For what kind of insensibility would it be not to distinguish those things? We ought, therefore, to judge and distinguish between the tyranny of Nero and the clemency of Fabricius; and the same goes for other matters of this sort.

Heads of households have a commandment to instruct their children in the discipline and correction of the Lord. Likewise, Solomon wants parents to chastise their children. And Eli the priest was punished because, although he saw that his sons Hophni and Phinehas conducted themselves evilly, both in the matter of divine worship (for they stole the better parts of the sacrifices) and in the matter of their lives (for they stained themselves with lust), he did not chastise them with a father’s judgment. Hence it is clear that Christ’s statement does not remove the duty of heads of households, which they absolutely cannot exercise without the judgment and distinction of things done rightly and wrongly.

What, moreover, would teachers do without judgment? For some pupils must be compelled to do their duty by lashes; for others, admonition suffices. The laziness of the former is to be chastised, while the industry of the latter is to be praised. I ask you, ought not the godly pedagogue to be endowed with judgment?

Nor should one judge otherwise about the magistrate. He ought to punish the evil and protect the good. This absolutely cannot be done without judgment. And when God approves of the office of magistrate, he clearly approves of his judgment, since without judgment “magistrate” is only an empty title.

Ministers of the Word will receive some into the church, and they will exclude others–or is the power of judging not granted to them?

As far as brotherly chastisement is concerned, Christ’s instruction in Matthew 18 is clear: “If your brother sins and you know about it, go and rebuke him privately”– or is the duty of judging not here commanded to every Christian? It absolutely is.

Therefore, when Christ says, “Judge not,” he does not remove the necessary duties of superiors in this life, nor does he weaken church discipline, but rather only restrains the insolence of men who, having corrupted their judgment, think ill of their neighbors or who arrogate to themselves the right of monitoring others beyond the bounds of faith and charity–a vice that very many, while they rail at it in others, permit to themselves with impunity. Scarcely anyone can justly excuse himself.


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