In the Gospel for Monday of the 12th Week in Ordinary Time, there is a Scripture passage that is almost too well known. I say this because the world has wielded it like a club to swing at Christians. The text is quoted almost as if it represented the entirety of the Bible’s teaching; it is often used to shut down discussions of what is right vs. wrong, what is virtuous vs. sinful. Even many Christians misinterpret the passage as a mandate to be silent in the face of sin and evil. I say that it is too well known because it is remembered while everything else in the Scriptures that balances or clarifies it is forgotten. Here is the passage:
Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite! First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye (Matt 7:1-5).
Anytime the Church or an individual Christian labels a particular behavior as wrong or sinful, wagging fingers are raised. This is followed, in an indignant tone, with something like this: “You’re being judgmental! The Bible says, ‘Judge not.’ Who are you to judge your neighbor?” This is clearly an attempt to shut down discussion and to shame Christians, or the Church, into silence.
To a large degree this tactic has worked. Modern culture has succeeded in shaming many Christians from this essential work: correcting the sinner. Too many are terrified when they are said to be “judging” someone by calling attention to sin or wrongdoing. In a culture in which tolerance (a mistaken notion of tolerance at that) is one of the only virtues left, “judging” is deemed one of the worst offenses.
Pay careful attention to what this Gospel text is actually saying. The judgment spoken of does not refer to discerning between right and wrong. Rather, it refers to determining punishment or condemnation. The next sentence makes this clear when it speaks of the measure we use, the level of condemnation, harshness, or punishment. A parallel passage in Luke’s Gospel makes this clear:
Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven. … For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you (Luke 6:36-38).
The judgment here refers to unnecessarily harsh and punitive condemnation. To paraphrase the opening verses colloquially, “Be careful not to condemn, because if you lower the boom on others, you will have the boom lowered on you. If you throw the book at others, it will be thrown at you.”
Further, the parable that follows in the passage above from the Gospel of Matthew does not say that we should refrain from correcting sinners. Rather, it says that we should get right with God and understand our own sin in order that we will see clearly enough to be able to correct our brother. Far from forbidding the correction of the sinner, the passage actually emphasizes the importance of correction by underscoring the importance of doing it well and with humility and integrity.
One of the most forgotten obligations we have is that of correcting the sinner. It is listed among the Spiritual Works of Mercy. St. Thomas Aquinas lists it in the Summa Theologica as a work of Charity:
[F]raternal correction properly so called, is directed to the amendment of the sinner. Now to do away with anyone’s evil is the same as to procure his good: and to procure a person’s good is an act of charity, whereby we wish and do our friend well (Summa Thelogica II, IIae, 33.1).
Go be sure, there are some judgments that are forbidden us.
- We cannot assess that we are better or worse than someone else before God.
- We cannot always understand the ultimate culpability or inner intentions of another person as though we were God. Scripture says regarding judgments such as these, Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance but the LORD looks into the heart (1 Sam 16:7).
- We cannot make the judgment of condemnation. That is to say, we do not have the power or knowledge to condemn someone to Hell. God alone is judge in this sense.
- We must not be unnecessarily harsh or punitive. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven … For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you (Luke 6:36-38).
Scripture both commends and commands fraternal correction: I remarked above that the Gospel from today’s Mass is too well known because it has been embraced to the exclusion of everything else in the Bible on the subject of correcting sinners. Over and over again Scripture tells us to correct the sinner. Far from forbidding fraternal correction, the Scriptures command and commend it. I would like to share some of those texts here and add a little commentary of my own in red text.
- If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven (Matt 18:15-18). Jesus instructs us to speak to a sinning brother and summon him to repentance. If private rebuke does not work (assuming the matter is serious), others who are trustworthy should be summoned to the task. As a final resort, the Church should be informed. If he will not listen even to the Church, then he should be excommunicated (treated as a tax collector or Gentile). In serious matters, excommunication should be considered as a kind of medicine that will inform the sinner of just how serious the situation is. Sadly, this “medicine” is seldom used today, even though Jesus clearly prescribes it (at least in serious matters).
- It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. For though absent in body I am present in spirit, and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment in the name of the Lord Jesus on the man who has done such a thing. When you are assembled, and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened … I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with immoral men; not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But rather I wrote to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. Drive out the wicked person from among you (1 Cor 5:1-13). The Holy Spirit, speaking through Paul, commands that we “judge” the evildoer. In this case the matter is very serious (incest). Notice how the text says that he should be excommunicated (handed over to Satan). Here, too, the purpose is medicinal. It is hoped that Satan will beat him up enough that he will come to his senses and repent before the Day of Judgment. It is also medicinal in the sense that the community is protected from bad example, scandal, and the presence of evil. The text also requires us to be able to size people up. There are immoral and unrepentant people in the world and it is harmful for us to associate with them. We are instructed not to keep company with people who can mislead us or tempt us to sin. This requires a judgment on our part. Some judgements are actually required of us.
- Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any sin, you who are spiritual should recall him in a spirit of gentleness. Look to yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ (Gal 6:1-2). We are called to notice when a person has been overtaken in sin and to correct him. The text cautions us to do so in a spirit of gentleness, otherwise we risk sinning in the very process of correcting the sinner. We can be prideful or unnecessarily harsh in our words of correction; this is no way to correct. The instruction here is to be gentle and humble, yet clear. It also seems that patience is called for, because we must share in the burdens of one another’s sin. First, we accept the fact that others have imperfections and faults that trouble us; second, we bear the obligation of helping others to know their sin and of helping them to repent.
- My brethren, if any one among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins (James 5:19). The text is ambiguous as to whose soul is actually saved, but that is good, because it seems that both the corrected and the corrector are beneficiaries of well-executed fraternal correction.
- You shall not hate your brother in your heart: You shall in any case rebuke your neighbor, and not suffer sin upon him (Lev 19:17). This text teaches us that refusing to correct a sinning neighbor is a form of hatred. Instead we are instructed to love our neighbors by not wanting sin to overtake them.
- If anyone refuses to obey what we say in this letter, note that man, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not look on him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother (2 Thess 3:14). The medicine of rebuke, even to the point of refusing fellowship, is commanded here. Note, too, that even a sinner does not lose his dignity; he is still to be regarded as a brother, not as an enemy. A similar text says, We instruct you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to shun any brother who walks in a disorderly way and not according to the tradition they received from us (2 Thess 3:6).
- Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom (Col 3:16). To admonish means to warn. If the word of Christ is rich within us, we will warn when necessary. A similar text says, All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work (2 Tim 3:16). Reproof and correction are thus part of what is necessary to equip us for every good work.
- And we exhort you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all (1 Thess 5:14). Fraternal correction is described here as admonishing, encouraging, and helping. We are also exhorted to patience in these works.
There are more of these passages, but I’m sure you get the point by now. Fraternal correction, correcting the sinner, is prescribed and consistently commanded by Scripture. We must resist the shame that the world tries to inflict on us for “judging” people. Not all judgment is forbidden; in fact, some judgment is commanded. Correction of the sinner is both charitable and virtuous.
We have failed to correct – If we are to have any shame about fraternal correction, it should be that we have failed to correct when necessary. Because of our failure in this regard the world is a much more sinful, coarse, and undisciplined place. Too many people today are out of control, undisciplined, and incorrigible. Too many are locked in sin and have never been properly corrected. The world is less pleasant and charitable, less teachable. It is also more sinful and in greater bondage. To fail to correct is to fail in charity and mercy; it is to fail to be virtuous and to fail in calling others to virtue. We are all impoverished by our failure to correct the sinner. He who winks at a fault causes trouble; but he who frankly reproves promotes peace. … A path to life is his who heeds admonition; but he who disregards reproof goes go astray (Proverbs 10:10, 17).
The following video basically captures the problem that Christians face and explains fairly well some of the distinctions I make here: