I’ve never thought discernment and judgment to be in the same category; I’ve always associated the term “discernment” with finding your vocation. But recently I’ve come to realize that discernment should be an active reality for Catholics, not just a “vocab” word we put on the shelf until we need to make big decisions.

It can be comfortable to stay in your circle of friends that worship together. It’s easy to know that everyone is on the same page. Coming across groups of people who, on the opposite end, don’t know the Lord or have opinions different than yours can be uncomfortable.  

In Matthew 7, Jesus tells his disciples and the crowd gathered, “Stop judging, that you may not be judged. For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you. Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye?”

Some people take these first verses and conclude that Jesus wants us to focus on ourselves and not judge others. But actually, the key comes in the following verse: “You hypocrite, remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye.”

Yes, Jesus calls us to look on our own shortcomings, but it doesn’t stop there. We are removing the wooden beam from our eye to clearly remove the splinter from our brother’s eye. It’s a beautiful receive-then-give chain when applied as Jesus intended. But, when is it OK to tell someone about the splinter you see in your brother’s eye?

I think Jesus was intentional about using a wooden beam and splinter in His analogy, and I think understanding why will show us how to discern rather than judge.

Who has the beam?

When Jesus shares these words in His Sermon on the Mount, he’s speaking to a crowd of believers; they’re listening with ears wide open. Interestingly, with the analogy, he tells the believers that they are the ones with potential wooden beams. Their brothers have the splinter.

We can obviously spot a wooden beam quicker than a splinter. In the same way, those who follow Christ can spot sin quicker than those who are unfamiliar with Him.

I’ve worked in countless settings where the people around me, significantly the people I serve, have rarely had the opportunity to know the Lord and His promises for them. When seeing this, I’m left with the choice of judging them in their sin. Frankly, it’s easy to do that when I don’t know their situation. But Jesus doesn’t tell the crowd to analyze someone’s situation, He tells them to perceive the wooden beam in their own eye.

This can get uncomfortable sometimes, even if our core group knows Jesus! When everyone just “agrees” on following Jesus, there’s also a temptation to agree to not discuss the beams and splinters in the room. Being Christian, we’re called to be missionaries, especially where we reside. But we can’t help apply the Gospel to others without first applying it to ourselves, and we definitely can’t do it alone. If you are a part of a team that goes out to help remove splinters from your brother’s and sisters’ eyes, first discern that you are spiritually healthy as an individual and as a team to venture on that journey. Don’t push away the wooden beam temporarily, ask the Lord to help you get rid of it immediately.

Where is the splinter?

How big is a splinter? Yeah, not so big. Whenever I get a splinter in my foot or in my thumb, it takes me a while to narrow down where exactly it’s located. I have to get really close to the part that’s hurting in order to find it and pull it out.

In the same way, to find a splinter in our brother’s eye, we would need to get up close. This is permissible because it’s our brother, after all. Therefore, we should not attempt to point out the splinter in someone’s eye unless it is out of an established relationship and in accordance with the grace of God. I personally don’t favor someone random pointing out my flaws. In fact, it’s when those closest to me see my splinter (or my wooden beam) that I feel both exposed and loved. If someone I barely knew tried helping me attack a sin, for instance, I would think, “You don’t know me, so how could you help me? How can I trust you?”

There are times I’ve seen Catholics evangelizing left and right, just hoping people would attend Mass with little to no regard of the person’s heart (I say this because I used to do this exact thing). I wouldn’t seek friendship, I would seek salvation for lost sheep. But while the intention was great, it still missed Jesus’ ultimate call to love.

As Catholics, we are called to discern God’s voice moment-to-moment. We should be in constant conversation with Him to remove the wooden beams in our eyes and, in turn, help remove the splinters from our brother’s eye. We need Jesus to remind us of His words that the measure with which we measure will be measured out to us.

So, when we meet someone new in class, at work, or at church, let’s turn to God right then and ask Him what our role is in this person’s life (because maybe God doesn’t need us to intervene in this person’s life for anything specific). Before jumping to possibilities and ideas, we must seek the will of God. Listening to His voice will give us all more life than we could ever give out of our own strength.

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is timeless. Read it through on your journey to Ash Wednesday. I am more than sure He wants to share something with you that He shared with that crowd.