As I prepared for my PEAK classes earlier this month, I was struck by how rich a fare the Sermon on the Mount offers in comparison with the homilies I have heard about it. One good example is the saying about the speck in a brother’s eye (Matt 7:3-5):
Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.
Every homily I have ever heard on this saying reduces it to one simple point: we tend to notice others’ faults and not our own, so we should pay attention to our own faults instead of the faults of others.
True to the point of truism. But the Lord’s words are denser than that. I can spot at least three amazing truths tucked away in this short saying that go beyond the standard homily.
- Our moral condition affects our ability to see moral issues.
Our Lord portrays moral failings as things that get in our eye and block our vision. We see our neighbor’s small moral failing, but Jesus points out that we have a huge moral failing lodged in our own eye. The image is absurd: if a log were really stuck in your eye, you would be dead. But the point behind the absurd image is entirely serious: a small moral failing is like a fleck in our moral vision, causing us to blink and miss a bit here and there, while a big moral failing can almost entirely obstruct our ability to see moral issues.
The implications are vast. Just to take one example, Jesus is implying that we do not entirely grasp virtue before we have attained it. As long as we are intemperate or unjust, our ability to understand temperance and justice is impaired. So those of us who strive after virtue are like people walking in a dense fog, seeing dark shapes or even outlines but not the sharp features of what we seek. The virtues we are after swim more clearly into view as we get closer to them.
To the imprudent, for example, prudence sounds like always taking the duller, safer path. To the intemperate, temperance sounds like denying oneself all the real fun. In general, the unvirtuous see virtue as a habit of following the rules. All of this is false! The true and energizing face of prudence and temperance and virtue in general only emerges for the seeker over time.
- We almost never see the worst in our neighbor.
These words from Jesus convey a paradox: the one hearing the parable always has the worse moral failing, no matter who he is. If I hear the parable, then I imagine myself as having a log in my eye while the person next to me has a mere speck in his. But if the person next to me hears the parable, he imagines himself as having a log in his eye while I have a mere speck in mine. How can I and my neighbor each have the worse moral failing at the same time?
But in fact, that is the way of life. Almost never do I see my neighbor’s worst fault. I get worked up about his habit of interrupting, and all the while he secretly struggles with a pornography addiction. I get angry about her tendency to gossip, while she lives under the oppression of a past abortion. Each of us has a dark secret we hope no one else ever discovers (even though part of its burden is that we are alone with it), and in fact almost no one else ever knows about it.
So if I look within myself, I see the log, the huge moral failing like a moral spear thrust into my head. But if I look at my neighbor, I see merely his specks, his lesser faults. Meanwhile, the same holds the other way around for my neighbor, who sees his own log but only my specks. What appears paradoxical at first proves true to life.
- Our efforts to improve ourselves are demanded by love of neighbor
The standard homily seems to discourage us from correcting others. Pay attention to your own faults, the message goes, rather than the faults of others. But Jesus ends his saying with a command: we are to remove the log from our own eye in order to remove the speck from our neighbor’s eye. He does not let us off the hook in regard to our neighbor’s eye.
Again, this fits with life. As a father, I cannot simply abdicate my responsibility for correcting my children, even if I don’t want to focus on their faults. Jesus would not say that I should avoid removing specks from my children’s eyes, but rather than I should work all the harder at removing my own log. As long as I have significant moral failings in my own life, I don’t have a clear view of my children’s moral needs.
The same goes for other relationships: you can’t just leave a friend in the lurch with his vices. So love for your friend demands that you work on yourself, because your friend needs you to have clear moral vision.
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I’m sure still more is packed into this brief saying, but I will make my own what St. Thomas Aquinas says as he begins to comment on the Sermon on the Mount:
Now, one should note that many things are set down here [in this commentary] about the beatitudes; but never could anyone speak so skillfully about the Lord’s words that he could attain to the Lord’s purpose.