But who are you to judge your neighbour?
James has already had quite a bit to say about the tongue and how we use it. It is clear that quarrels, rivalries and divisions have marred the life of the Diaspora Churches (4.1). James attributes their cause primarily to jealousy and selfish ambition (3.14,16). He now focuses on a specific issue involving the tongue: speaking evil against one another (i.e. slander). Jealousy and selfish ambition are surely principle drivers of this sinful behaviour too.
James’ prohibition is absolute; speaking evil against someone is never OK. Two factors justify such an absolute prohibition. The first is that what is said has evil intent – to cause harm. The second is that the evil is spoken against (i.e. about) the person rather than to him/her. It is done behind their back, denying them any opportunity to defend themselves or correct what is not true.
James equates such evil talk with judgment. When we speak evil against another person we are placing ourselves in the role of judge over them. This immediately jars with what he has just said in verse 10, “Humble yourself before the Lord”.
Not only does the slanderer place himself in judgment over the person he slanders, though, he places himself in judgment over the law. As elsewhere, when James speaks of “the law” he is referring to the Mosaic Law as interpreted, added to and fulfilled by Jesus, most notably in the Sermon on the Mount.
He has already quoted Lev 19.18 (2.8) which, with its reference to “neighbour”, is alluded to in v. 12 by James’ notable switch from “brother” (v.11) to “neighbour”. No doubt he also has in mind the prohibition on slander in Lev 19.16, and on hating a brother in the verse following (Lev 19.17) – which includes the instruction to go to a brother and reason with him. i.e. face to face, rather than slandering him behind his back.
Jesus expanded on these laws in the Sermon on the Mount with his teaching “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matt 7.1ff), adding both the charge of hypocrisy to those who judge others, and the warning that they themselves will be subject to God’s judgment (cf. 2.12f.). To defy such teaching is to elevate oneself over it, again effectively assuming the role of judge.
The arrogance of such an act is self-evident, but – lest there be any doubt – James points out that the slanderer puts himself in a role which is God’s alone. God gave the law; he alone is perfect and knows the truth about your neighbour; he alone is the Judge of all.
According to Matthew 7.2, how will God judge you?
Merciful Father, I thank you that you alone are my judge and your judgment is always righteous. Guard me against a judgmental spirit and the hypocrisy of presuming to judge others, that I may always be pure in speech and submitted to your perfect law; in Jesus name I pray. Amen.
Michael Hewat is currently serving as the Senior Minister at West Hamilton Community Church, New Zealand
Photo by Adi Goldstein on Unsplash