Recently, I watched a crime drama on my favorite streaming service. The story was about a man who was murdered near his abandoned automobile. The police investigators suspected that there had been a passenger in the car because the vanity mirror on the passenger’s sun visor was in its open position. Eventually, the missing passenger was found; her testimony helped to solve the crime. I thought of that vanity mirror when I read this Sunday’s Gospel.
You might recall that, in last Sunday’s Gospel reading, Jesus said, “The measure with which you measure will be measured back to you.” (Lk 6:38) He intended these words to inspire us to repent of our tendency to pass harsh judgment on others. To help us avoid misunderstanding the intent of his words, he included the warning, “Do not judge others, and you will not be judged.” (Lk 6:37) Rather than judging the way other people measure out mercy, each of us is obliged to be generous in measuring out mercy to others.
Today’s Gospel reading is a continuation of the Sermon on the Plain. Jesus’ instructions in today’s reading have a slightly different focus than those we heard last Sunday, but these words can be misunderstood, as well.
In today’s reading, Jesus embellished a metaphor used often in the Gospels to represent the capacity to have faith. Jesus performed several miracles that restored sight to blind people; in each case, the miracle was associated with a group of people who were spiritually blind, that is, unable to perceive Jesus’ identity. In today’s reading, he composed a parable based on the unlikely event of a sighted person with a wooden beam stuck in her or his eye. The exaggeration is intentional; exaggeration was often used in rabbinical teaching for the purpose of emphasis.
While the admonitions in last Sunday’s Gospel reading were meant to discourage us from judging others, the admonition to “take the plank out of our one’s eye” is meant to discourage us from focusing too intently on ourselves.
Due to the influence of the social sciences, it has become almost an automatic reaction to think of religion as being akin to self-help psychology. Hearing a warning to “take the plank out of one’s own eye” can be misunderstood as instruction to scrutinize one’s motivations and analyze one’s actions. Proper perspective can be maintained on the meaning of this saying by recognizing that the social sciences, that we take for granted, did not exist during Jesus’ lifetime. Jesus could not have been recommending self-help to us, as self-help (as we understand it) had not yet been invented.
Rather than a recommendation to engage in self-criticism, self-help, or introspective religion, this saying of Jesus is encouragement to repent of the things that make us blind to the needs of those around us. In our current social environment, the first item on the list of causes of spiritual blindness is the tendency to think first of ourselves, our needs, and our problems. If I had to compose a metaphor using the sense of sight, I would say that today’s teaching from Jesus instructs us to look away from the vanity mirror, to look away from self, and to try to see clearly those around us. If we are tempted to misunderstand, Jesus said, “A good person out of the store of goodness in her or his heart produces good, but an evil person out of a store of evil produces evil.” (Lk 6:45)
At its most basic level, Jesus was saying that a person is good when she or he does good things, and a person is evil when she or he does evil things. This might seem like a rather simplistic view of human nature, but it is a view from God’s perspective. God sees clearly our limitations and weaknesses; we do not have the same complete view of ourselves that God does. God’s vision of human nature takes into account our limitations as well as the limitations of the universe; again, this is something we cannot see clearly. From God’s point of view, good and evil in the hearts of human beings are not eternal conditions; there is nothing in our nature that does not change. Often, our disposition can change moment to moment.
Given our incomplete and imperfect nature, the human spirit is not capable of pure evil or pure goodness. We are, however, fully capable of choosing to do good and to avoid evil. For that reason, Jesus said, “Take the plank out of your own eye,” that is, look away from yourself and try to see the needs of those around you.
No one will have a perfect day today, but each of us can do something to make the world a better place. The beginning of a renewed world is a renewed consciousness that does not focus solely on oneself. If you want to change the world for the better, put down the mirror, stop worrying about yourself, and share God’s mercy with those around you.