The difficult issue of how and when to correct a brother if they are in the wrong is brought up in today’s Gospel. As a priest, I often get asked the question about how to go about this delicate work. Saint Augustine gives some of the best advice which you will find below. St. Thomas Aquinas takes Augustine’s whole teaching on fraternal correction with essentially no modifications.
Jesus tells us to remove the plank from our own eye first as a reminder that if you are not coming from a painfully lower place of humility, you have no business even beginning the process of correcting others. Can we remove the plank? Yes, but in doing so we realize that the eye previously blinded by the presence of the plank has suffered permanent damage. When we remove the plank from our eye, we can indeed see more clearly – however, since our eye is damaged, we will never see well enough to be certain of what we see. Therefore, not only must we first humble ourselves, before correcting another, but we must then recognize that even the problems we think we see in others could be due to a permanent problem in our own perception. When your eye is bad, it isn’t a good idea to do surgery: if you can’t see well, you shouldn’t try yourself to remove a speck that you think you see. It is better left to someone who can see the speck clearly, or the person themselves.
The risk of falling into judgmental attitudes and out of charity is so terrible that Christ calls those who correct their brother without sufficient humility hypocrites. If your brother’s sin makes you angry, you probably still have a plank to remove. If your brother’s sin is an inconvenience to you, you still have a plank to remove. If your brother’s sin makes you weep because your own heart is guilty of the same thing, you may now remove the plank and invite your brother to do the same.
This carries the same intent as another passage, “Pass no judgment before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the thoughts of the heart; and then everyone will have his praise from God.” Some actions are indifferent, and, since we do not know with what intention they are performed, it would be rash for any to pass judgment on them and most rash to condemn them. The time for judging these actions will come later, when the Lord “will bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the thoughts of the heart.” And in another passage the same apostle also says, “Some sins are manifest even before the judgment, but some sins afterward.” When it is clear with what intention they are committed, he calls them manifest sins, and these sins precede judgment. This means that if judgment follows them at once, it will not be rash judgment. But concealed sins follow judgment, because not even these will remain hidden in their proper time. And this is to be understood about good works as well, for he thus continues: “In like manner also the good works are manifest, and whatever things are otherwise cannot be hidden.” On things that are manifest, therefore, let us pass judgment, but with regard to hidden things, let us leave the judgment to God. For whether the works themselves be bad or good, they cannot remain hidden when the time comes for them to be revealed.1
For the verdict that one’s brother needs a splinter taken from his eye does not come from concern but from contempt for humanity. Even while one is putting on a mask of love toward others, one is actually performing a deed of consummate evil by inflicting numerous criticisms and accusations on close companions, thereby usurping the rank of teacher when one is not even worthy to be a disciple. For this reason he called this one “hypocrite.”
So then, you who are so spiteful as to see even the little faulty details in others, how have you become so careless with your own affairs that you avoid your own major faults? “First remove the plank from your eye.” You see that Jesus does not forbid judging but commands that one first remove the plank from one’s own eye. One may then set right the issues relating to others. For each person knows his own affairs better than others know them. And each one sees major faults easier than smaller ones. And each one loves oneself more than one’s neighbor. So if you are really motivated by genuine concern, I urge you to show this concern for yourself first, because your own sin is both more certain and greater.2
The word hypocrite is aptly employed here, since the denouncing of evils is best viewed as a matter only for upright persons of goodwill. When the wicked engage in it, they are like impersonators, masqueraders, hiding their real selves behind a mask, while they portray another’s character through the mask. The word hypocrites in fact signifies pretenders. Hence we ought especially to avoid that meddlesome class of pretenders who under the pretense of seeking advice undertake the censure of all kinds of vices. They are often moved by hatred and malice.
Rather, whenever necessity compels one to reprove or rebuke another, we ought to proceed with godly discernment and caution. First of all, let us consider whether the other fault is such as we ourselves have never had or whether it is one that we have overcome. Then, if we have never had such a fault, let us remember that we are human and could have had it. But if we have had it and are rid of it now, let us remember our common frailty, in order that mercy, not hatred, may lead us to the giving of correction and admonition. In this way, whether the admonition occasions the amendment or the worsening of the one for whose sake we are offering it (for the result cannot be foreseen), we ourselves shall be made safe through singleness of eye. But if on reflection we find that we ourselves have the same fault as the one we are about to reprove, let us neither correct nor rebuke that one. Rather, let us bemoan the fault ourselves and induce that person to a similar concern, without asking him to submit to our correction.3
- SERMON ON THE MOUNT 2.18.60. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2001). Matthew 1–13 (p. 147). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW, HOMILY 23.2. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2001). Matthew 1–13 (p. 147). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- SERMON ON THE MOUNT 2.19.64. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2001). Matthew 1–13 (pp. 147–148). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.