The Splinter And The Beam
by Father Chris Goodwin
“Stop judging, that you may not be judged….Remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:1, 5).
What does Jesus not mean by this? Is he saying that, as Christians who know the commandments and have learned the moral law, we are not able to see someone sinning and make an objective evaluation that what that person is doing is contrary to God’s law? No, that’s not what Jesus is saying.
When Jesus tells us to stop judging, he is telling us not to try to do what only God can do. Only God can weigh what is in a person’s heart, with all of the circumstances and other factors that are involved in that person’s actions. We can judge the objective morality of human actions, but we can’t judge the human heart in the way that God can.[i]
The point that Jesus is making is that we do more good by getting clear about what needs healing in our own lives than by being constantly preoccupied with what’s wrong in others’ lives.
When we see a person sinning, therefore, it is good to examine what is happening in our own hearts in reaction to their sin. Am I angry? If so, where is my anger directed – toward the injustice and evil of sin, or against the person? Are my feelings about that person’s sin in any way disproportionate? If so, then what does that lack of balance indicate about me and my attitude?
I’ll give an example. Sometimes, if we look deeply into our own hearts, we will discover that our anger over another person’s sin actually reveals that we are envious of their sin. We may not outwardly commit the sin that they are committing – or at least we may try not to – yet, if we are honest with ourselves, we might discover that we desire the pleasure that is involved in their sin. We avoid what they commit because we don’t want to go to hell and because we don’t want to suffer the other bad consequences; yet we still nurture a desire for the pleasure of the sin. And we are envious of the person who seems to be enjoying the sin and not feeling any guilt over it.
Now that sounds to me like a “wooden beam”. If that is my attitude towards a person and his sin, then clearly I am in need of a deeper purification of my own motives. I need to ask God for the grace to grow in love of Him, so that my avoidance of sin and pursuit of virtue is motivated by love more than fear.
There is, however, a different way of looking at a person who is caught up in some sin or disordered behavior. Instead of judging the person, I can feel compassion for the person because of the ill effects of sin in his life. That’s how Jesus looks at us. He sees us sinning, and because he loves us, he grieves for us and wants to do whatever he can to help us out of our sin into a life of freedom and joy. He has no desire to condemn us. Jesus has no “wooden beam” in his eye; there is nothing in him that makes our enjoyment of sin a threat to him. On the contrary, he sees our sin as threatening our own happiness, and out of love and mercy for us, he wants to help us leave sin behind and conform ourselves more closely to the Gospel.
In this Gospel passage, Jesus is not telling us to abdicate our responsibility to correct people when we are called to do so. He says that once we have removed the wooden beam in our own eye, we will see clearly to remove the splinter from our brother’s eye. In other words, once we have repented of our own sinful attitudes, our intervention on behalf of a fellow sinner will be an act of compassion instead of condemnation.
In this Eucharist, then, we can ask Jesus: Please give me the light and the grace to see the wooden beam in my own eye. By availing myself of your compassion, love, and mercy, and by becoming purified from my own sins and impure motives, may I see clearly enough to help someone else to grow in your love as well.
[i]See, for example, 1 Kings 8:39: “Render to each and all according to their ways, you who know every heart; for it is you alone who know the heart of every human being.” Also Jeremiah 17:9-10: “More tortuous than anything is the human heart, beyond remedy; who can understand it? I, the Lord, explore the mind and test the heart, giving to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their deeds.”