Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:
1“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2 For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
3 “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? 4 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? 5 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.
6“Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.
You might remember that just a few days ago, one of our Reflections was based on a passage from First Corinthians, a passage in which the apostle Paul urged the church at Corinth to discipline a member who was engaged in scandalous sexual misconduct. (He was apparently sleeping with his stepmother.) And we said that both Jesus and Paul said that there are times when the church as a body needs to exercise discipline over its members and leaders to prevent its ministry being compromised by scandals. And to do that, of course, the church needs to exercise judgment over the actions of members who do scandalous things, to correct wrong-doing and restore the right kind of relationships in the church.
In today’s reading, Jesus tells us not to pass judgment individually on the sins of other people, but also reminds us of the need to be discerning about dealing with wrong-doing in the world.
It’s a passage in which Jesus uses a ridiculous figure of speech, of a person who has a plank sticking out of their eye but who is worried about the spec in another person’s eye. Bible scholars say this was a common form of humor in the ancient Near East – using an absurd image to make a point. And the point is pretty obvious: sometimes the little sins of other people can hold our attention more than our own substantial ones – ‘the planks in our own eyes.’
This always reminds me of something that one of the speakers talked about at the Global Leadership Summit a few years ago. He said that most of us have at least a half-dozen “blind spots” – things about our interactions with others that we need to improve on, but don’t recognize as deficiencies. In this passage from the Sermon on the Mount, it seems to me that Jesus is calling all of us who follow him to be attentive to our blind spots.
And probably to keep in mind that it’s a basic fact of human nature that we tend to turn a blind eye to our own faults, but to be acutely aware of the faults of others. Our own actions usually make sense to us, because we know what we’re thinking when we do things. We usually manage to come up with an explanation we can use to justify our actions to ourselves. So we tell ourselves we’re doing the right thing.
But we often don’t understand what’s going on the minds of others, even if we think we do. So we’re quick to ascribe selfish or foolish motives to others. And that makes it easy to criticize them.
I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed it, but in this passage, Jesus does not say that we’re always or even usually wrong about the sins of others. The problem is that even when we’re right about the sins of others, we can be blind to the much more substantial sins in our own lives.
Of course, that’s where followers of Jesus have an advantage. We can examine our lives through the lens of Jesus’ teaching. And when we do that honestly, we can see ourselves as God sees us. Then we can see the truth that’s been hidden by our blind spots. We can see the behaviors God wants us to get rid of. It can be uncomfortable to have our sins revealed to us, but it’s like medicine that tastes bad but makes us better.
I suspect that it’s really through recognizing and repenting of our own sins that we’re best able to help others get rid of theirs. When we judge and criticize others, they get defensive and don’t have much interest in changing their ways. But when they see followers of Jesus looking hard at our own sins and resolving to get rid of them, others may be inspired to do the same.
The last verse of today’s reading is the one that talks about giving dogs what is sacred, and throwing pearls before swine. It’s a verse that often has readers scratching their heads, and leading voices throughout the history of the church have argued about what it’s supposed to mean. But the Matthew scholars who make the most sense to me say that what Jesus is saying is meant to be a sort of balance to his teaching about the foolishness of judgment.
These scholars say that the part about giving dogs what is sacred was a principle among Hebrew priests that meat from sacrifices was not to be fed to dogs. But they say Jesus was using it as a metaphor, to say that there would be some circumstances where the community of believers would really need to exercise judgment in order to guard against extreme wrong-doing. Just excusing all forms of bad behavior would wind up damaging the church – “tearing [it] to pieces,” as he puts it.
So as individuals we’re commanded to focus on our own sins rather than the sins of others, but as a body of believers, we’re to recognize that forgiveness and forbearance are sacred things that can’t be given away carelessly.
If the Sermon on the Mount is really about painting a picture of what the community of Christ-followers is supposed to look like, then the picture being painted in this passage is of people who hold themselves to a higher moral and spiritual standard than we hold others to – the standard of Jesus himself. And when we are known to hold ourselves to that standard, others may adopt that standard for their own lives, as well.
Let’s pray. Lord, let your Spirit continue to dwell in us, to help us see when we fall short of your will for us, so that we can live more and more in imitation of Jesus, and become instruments of the building of your kingdom in our world. Move us always to be more aware of our own sins than of the sins of others. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Grace and Peace,
(The other readings for today are Psalms 7 and 12; II Chronicles 29:1-3 and 30:1-27; and I Corinthians 7:32-40.)