by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“…remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter in your brother’s eye.”  Luke 6, 39-45


In today’s gospel-reading we hear of Jesus making a comparison that is so far-fetched that it is almost ludicrous. And, of course, that’s his point. It is so ridiculous that it forces us to scratch our heads and ask ourselves: “What exactly is he getting at?” Talk about the nonsense of someone with a roof-beam in his eye trying to get a speck of dust out of somebody else’s eye is rather like you or I wearing a blindfold while trying to use a pair of tweezers to extract a thorn from a friend’s foot. Moreover, if I happened to be blinded by a large foreign object lodged in my eye, I would not have the faintest idea whether anyone volunteering to guide me had 20-20 vision or was only partially sighted.

Underlying the first of the two parables in today’s gospel-reading is Jesus’ awareness that we all have our blind spots. We can be inclined to notice the blind spots in others and criticise them for being unaware of their blindness. We can even project onto others a lack of self-awareness and insight from which we seem to get some satisfaction. All too often, what we project onto those whom we like to criticise, are mirror-images of our own inadequacies, biases and prejudices.

As we ponder this parable, we would do well to remember that it follows hard upon Jesus’ directive to all of us who would be his disciples that forgiveness of our enemies must rank high on our list of priorities. What’s more, implicit in this parable is a warning that we ought to be slow to hold tightly to the opinions we have and the judgements we make of our neighbours, friends colleagues and associates. We ought give the same level of trust to our views and opinions of those around us as we would give to a blind guide. And that, of course, calls into question our own reliability when we proffer advice and guidance to others. Coming to accept that we don’t have a monopoly on truth and wisdom, that we don’t have all the answers is a major step towards true humility and an admission that we can be as blind as anybody else.

Today’s first reading from Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) indicates that its author, Ben Sira, had a similar understanding of human nature as Jesus demonstrates in the gospel-reading: that the criticisms we are inclined to direct at others are really no more than a reflection of our own inadequacies. Our words about others, the opinions we express are the windows through which others can see us as we really are. Ben Sira put it this way: “In a shaken sieve, the rubbish is left behind, so too the defects of a man (sic) appear in his talk”.   (Sirach 27, 4-5).

It’s important however that we don’t take away the wrong message from these readings. While we may well be as fragile as those whom we are inclined to criticise, Jesus is not advocating that we turn a blind eye to our own failings and weakness and those of others. We are all meant to reflect the compassion, tolerance, forgiveness and love of God in the way in which we speak and behave. The first step on the way to change our own behaviour and to encourage others to change theirs is to have the humility to recognise and acknowledge the splinters and beams in our own eyes, and then reflect on how and why we have allowed them in.

In our better moments, we can admit to ourselves that self-interest, fear of potential criticism, insensitivity to the plight of those in need and injustices perpetrated by the systems we tolerate in society can blind us and dull our ability to name injustice when we see it. In accord with that, today’s gospel-reading is a wake-up call to shake us out of complacency and self-satisfaction and to acknowledge that, despite our best efforts, we are all vulnerable to slipping into mediocrity.

I have to acknowledge that I also see Jesus reference to “blind guides” as a veiled criticism of the religious authorities of his day, who considered that they had a clear understanding of how God was inviting them and their people to live. They were unable to imagine that their sense of certainty about God’s ways may have been limited and inadequate, and may, indeed, have placed unjust burdens on those whom they were privileged to guide. Surely in that there is a reminder to all who have a part in Church, civil and legal leadership to take time to reflect on their responsibilities and to audit their personal vulnerability to invasive beams and splinters.

Finally, today’s gospel-reading serves as a summary of what Jesus proclaimed in the discourse he delivered when he came down from the mountain (Luke 6, 17-26). It is often said that good teachers do their teaching and then take the time to tell their audience what they have taught. Luke sums up the “Sermon on the Plain” with a simple statement: “Every tree is known by its own fruit”  (Luke 6, 44). The only authentic way of teaching the ways of God is through the way in which we live and act. Our words will be meaningless if God is not present in our hearts. Another way of saying that is that the best gospel insights we will ever experience will be found in the people we encounter. You and I, then, may be the only gospel some people will ever read.