Planks and Sawdust

“He answered me:

‘Like someone with faulty vision, we can behold

Remote things well, for so much light does He

Who rules supreme still grant us; but we are foiled

When things draw near us, and our intelligence

Is useless when they are present.’” Dante, Inferno, Canto X:100-105

In Dante’s Inferno the damned in the sixth circle of hell are allowed to see far into the future, but in a remarkable detail in God’s plan they know nothing of the present nor can they see what is happening right in front of them. In life, consumed by ambition and the grasp for power, they ignored those closest to them, while they schemed and strategized against their enemies. In the chess game that was 13th century Florentine politics, these men planned out their deadly moves against their opponents, while they could not see clearly how their actions affected their own families. In Dante’s Hell the sinners are cursed to suffer the symbolic effects of the sins they committed in life. Because they did not see on Earth they will not see in Hell.

Luke 6 is about the relationship between our intentions, our character, and our actions, and how those actions reverberate throughout the circles of our relationships. In contrast to Matthew’s sermon given from the mountain, Luke’s version has Jesus coming down from the hills at daybreak and choosing twelve out of the crowd of disciples, (in Greek mathetas, ‘those who follow’) and designating them apostles. Then he stands at the foot of the hill, “on level ground,” and addresses the hundreds who have come from Jerusalem, and from as far away as Tyre and Sidon, to hear him and to be healed.

It’s a message that exactly reverses what we might expect. We’ve skimmed it so many times that we no longer see how radical it is, how the good news it proclaims is bad news for some, how confounding it must have been for those who thought Jesus was launching his Messiahship.

He begins with the punchline, the message that was most pointed, that like an arrow pointed to the largest group listening to him that day: “How blest are you who are poor; the kingdom of God is yours.” The words that follow are paradoxical: those who weep now will laugh, those who are hated will dance for joy. Then, with a hinge that shows Luke’s literary skill, the reversals are stated. The rich have had their fun; now they face hardship. The well-fed will be hungry, those who laugh will be weeping.

The clincher is that those who mourn now stand in a long line of people who have suffered unjustly, including the true prophets of old, and those who garner all the praise now should know that people spoke well of the false prophets back in the day, too.

Jesus then turns to such politically incorrect sayings as “Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you” and “turn the other cheek” and “treat others as you would like them to treat you.” His disciples must go beyond the reciprocal manners of doing good to those who do good to them; that is just standard social courtesy. What the kingdom expects has a much deeper meaning, one that transforms relationships and begins with self-awareness and humility.

Jesus’ social communication skills reveal a person who challenges us to exceed the minimum in social interaction. “Pass no judgement and you will not be judged,” he says, “do not condemn and you will not be condemned.” That’s the minimum. Just as “sinners” (those who flout the finer points of the law or whose professions place them outside the community) love those who love them, most people know they’ll get back what they dish out to others. There is a common ethic that most people subscribe to, an enlightened self-interest that expects some give-and-take and is willing to give some leeway to others until pushed to defend oneself. In that way we can claim to be as good as we are expected to be.

But to be disciples, those who follow Jesus, there is a higher standard that comes from love. Duty does the minimum, but love attempts the maximum. Duty follows the rules, but love seizes opportunities. Duty does what is required and no more, but love acts spontaneously. Duty wants a receipt; love says, “Don’t worry about it.” The “sons (and daughters) of the Most High” will be compassionate toward the ungrateful and the wicked, just as God is compassionate.

He offers them a parable about the blind leading the blind and both falling into a ditch, and then he follows up with a parable that speaks of the kind of self-awareness and humility that is foundational for discipleship.

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye, with never a thought for the great plank in your own? How can you say to your brother, ‘My dear brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you are blind to the plank in your own? You hypocrite! First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s” (Luke 6: 41,42).

As metaphors go this is vintage Jesus — heavy on the hyperbole, richly vivid in imagery, delivered with a twinkle in his eye. But he is serious. The disciples learned that no matter where they stood in the social register, they were to be leaders in ethics. They are followers of Jesus now; they will be teachers of others, and a teacher cannot teach what he has not learned. Character makes influence a live possibility, and influence, in turn, helps shape character. We’re known by what we produce, by what people around us can see of us in our behavior. “By their fruits you shall know them” is not just a biblical saying, it’s how we navigate our relationships and place our trust in others. As such, it’s the foundation of a society. Out of the abundance of character the fruit of the heart is grown.

Are disciples to be silent about evil and injustice then? “The ban on speck-hunting,” notes G. B. Caird wryly in his commentary, Saint Luke, “does not, of course, mean that Christians must condone evil or refrain from forming moral judgements. This is a parable about personal relationships.”

***

Most college and university teachers I know have at times suffered from “imposter syndrome,” that dread feeling that students will see right through you to the vast, empty, and echoing interior of your knowledge warehouse. If you teach ethics, as I did for many years, you feel the pressure even more. I wondered, at times, how I had the nerve to stand up in front of students who demanded at the very least that I always knew what I was talking about, and who expected, in varying degrees of interest, that I flawlessly practiced what I preached. But there is some comfort in the very realization of how much we lack; if we can see our condition we can, at least, do something about it.

In order to follow Jesus, we need to see where we’re going. It also helps to be aware of how much we don’t yet know nor do. Planks in the eye get in the way of that. What I have noticed is that if you pray for help to remove your plank God may send you someone with clearer vision than your own, someone with a speck of sawdust in her eye. Plank removal may begin when you see that person’s speck and then realize your own condition. This ordinance of humility can have the effect of deepening our self-reflection as we learn through observation. For all of us have something in our eyes that clouds our vision.

“If we are humble,” writes Thomas Merton, “and if we believe in the Providence of God, we will see that our mistakes are not merely a necessary evil...they enter into the very structure of our existence. It is by making mistakes that we gain experience, not only for ourselves but for others.”

Jesus once restored the sight of a blind man by putting saliva on his eyes and then touching him. “Can you see anything?” he asked. “I see people,” said the fellow, “but they look like trees, walking.” Jesus touched his eyes again, and the man looked intently, and this time he saw everything clearly. Some commentators note that Matthew and Luke did not use this story from Mark, perhaps because they were embarrassed that it took Jesus two tries to heal the man. But I think the story is meant for all of us for whom seeing clearly does not happen all at once.

Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, ethics, and communications for 37 years at universities in Maryland and Washington, DC. He is now retired and writing in Burtonsville, Maryland. More of the author’s writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods. Email him at darmokjilad@gmail.com.

Image: Alexandru Zdrobau / Unsplash.com

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/9439
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I gave a written exam for the final in one of my classes at Marquette University. Two students answered one question word for word. I. called them in and said this is very unusual to find exact wording. I don’t know who copied from Whom. §they said we Did not copy but we studied together the night before. I said O. k. But I will have to test you again. they agreed. I gave them a new test each one different.They gave back with high grades on both. I said that is just fine. You passed the course in great style. Thanks for working with me.

In Matthew’s account (chapter 5), Jesus also makes this point relative to ‘you have heard it said of old’, ‘but I say unto you’. His appeal is “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matt5:48.KJV), which is based on God’s ultimate Love, which we are to absorb into ourselves and reflect out to others. For true disciples, the minimum is not the goal, but rather the ultimate, maximum ‘image of God’ that we are capable of being.

In this regard, hypocrisy is often misunderstood and much maligned. While we have as our goal the ultimate expression of God’s design, in His image, we should also acknowledge that we fail on a regular basis to reach that goal. Being honest about this should make us very humble and reticent to judge others. They may have a weakness where we have a strength in the Lord, but we are just as likely to have a weakness somewhere they have a strength in the Lord.

Here then is what is often called hypocrisy - to make assertions of what is right that we ourselves are not achieving. Then, the typical response to the perceived hypocricy is to call for others to stop being hypocrites and to abandon their assertions of what is right. Stop advocating what is right and simply accept and be satisfied with normal and widespread failure.

God forbid. While we should never claim self-righteous, we should also not forsake the claiming of that which is right. Neither should we use those assertions of what is right as a weapon against others as though we have no failures of our own (while different from that of others). Acknowledging what is right yet our own failures to perfectly reflect God’s perfect righteousness, should both be done in humility of attitude and expression such as to confirm our joint struggle with others in an expression of empathy. Yet, we should also glorify Him together, “speaking the truth in love, [that we] may grow up into Him in all things, which is the head, even Christ.” (Eph4:15.KJV)

So, while others may proclaim us as a hypocrite, let our humble spirit proclaim we are ones who have a goal beyond our grasp but who are still in the grip of His Grace, both to forgive and to strength us.

–On the other hand–

I am always skeptical whenever a Yin / Yang comparison is made relating to God & evil (imperfection).

“In Chinese philosophy, yin and yang (lit. “dark-bright”, “negative-positive”) is a concept of dualism in ancient Chinese philosophy, describing how seemingly opposite or contrary forces may actually be complementary, interconnected, and interdependent in the natural world, and how they may give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another.” (Wikipedia on Yin and Yang)

In this life, evil exists alongside good, giving the impression that both are inevitable. The fact that we learn from our mistakes in no way posits an axiom that evil and good are both necessary for our benefit. A mentor can provide knowledge and advise that prevents most mistakes. A Perfect Mentor can do so perfectly. Likewise, the fact that God often is able to work where mistakes or tragedies occur and bring from them goodness or betterment to some party of those events (or others who observe) is no confirmation that He is reliant on mistakes and tragedies for such results nor that He creates such circumstances in order to produce positive outcomes for some at the expense of others.

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Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I appreciate what you said about hypocrisy. My understanding of Jesus’ words, “Be ye therefore perfect,” is not flawlessness but completeness, something that could take a lifetime. In the meantime, God’s grace enables us to continue to trust and try even though we make mistakes. Merton’s context for our mistakes being a “necessary evil” is that he believed we are bent toward constant mistakes without God’s sustaining grace. Merton’s views changed over time; where I differ from him is that I would see the mistakes that we do as inevitable, but not necessary. Inevitable is much different from necessary, a distinction that we must make, I believe. But it’s also the case that we can learn from our mistakes, although that is not the only way we learn. It’s not necessary for us to make mistakes in order to learn, but it’s generally inevitable that we will make mistakes–and we can learn from those. Having learned, we don’t repeat those mistakes. Like you, I don’t believe God sends tragedies to toughen us up nor do I think that God “creates such circumstances in order to produce positive outcomes for some at the expense of others,” as you so eloquently put it.

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i can tell your articles merely by title, and enjoy your thoughts. Thank you @bearcee

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Thank you! I’m glad you’re enjoying them.

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