With lights dimmed and screen illuminated in my optometrist’s examination room, he and I review my latest retinal scan, one eye at at time.
My eye appears as an orange globe networked with a map of red blood vessels.
The scan allows him to detect signs of early eye disease, tears in the retina and he says he can even flag blood vessel damage indicating heart disease well before my cholesterol score becomes worrisome to my primary care physician. Impressive.
He walks me through each speck the scans reveal, pleased that he sees nothing requiring further attention.
That eye examination came to mind a few days later as I read the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus asks his listeners a question that gave me pause, though I’ve read it a hundred times or more.
Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye’ while the log is in your own eye?
Can you imagine an optometrist scrutinizing a retinal scan while a log juts from his own face?
Christ is showing us just how blind and ineffective we can be when we’re in judgmental, speck-detecting mode. He has a word us when we behave this way: hypocrite.
The cure, he says, is to reverse the order of operations:
First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.
The examples of judgmentalism that first came to mind as I reflected on this passage didn’t involve me, no doubt because the log in my own eye is still obstructing my vision. Other speck surgeons I have known, however, leapt into memory.
I’ve lived among church-going people all my life (in fact, I’m still one of them). We are often scapegoated for our judgmental ways, and it’s easy to see why.
The example I offer isn’t about me, though it easily could be. It’s about my father’s mother, born at the turn of the 20th century and a preacher’s wife in a fundamentalist Protestant denomination that disapproved of alcohol, tobacco and jewelry.
Are you judging her already? There’s more.
One Sunday morning when I was visiting my grandparents’ church, a young woman entered wearing a pair of earrings with a small, simple cross on each. I’ll never forget my grandmother’s comment to her:
“We love the cross. We don’t wear it on our ears.”
Over the many decades since, I’ve often wondered what happened to that young woman. Did she abandon her earrings? Did she find another church? Did she walk away from Christ altogether, from the faith that had attracted her to come to church in the first place?
I’ll never know, but sometimes I say a prayer for her.
But here’s the thing. Now that you’ve seen the speck in my grandmother’s eye, could you disagree calmly with her theology and disapprove of her smug superiority without rolling your eyes and judging her entire person?
I include myself in the question.
First let me ask another question about my grandmother.
If you knew her family story, if you weighed the sum of her good deeds against your own, if you witnessed her ability to hold a crowd of children spellbound with a story, whip up tuna sandwiches and lemonade for the sweaty teenage boys who’d just plopped on her sofa after playing basketball with her husband, if you observed her comedic attempt to punt a football for a laugh or heard her tenderly whisper “Jesus” she when she didn’t know anyone was listening, could you view her in a kinder light?
Maybe that’s what Jesus was getting at.
We can’t possibly know everything about another person; we often don’t have a clue about the mitigating factors that formed those whose actions we so freely judge. St. Paul once said he wasn’t even capable of judging himself, let alone anybody else. He knew the apostles who were there when Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount. He was probably working at removing the log in his own eye.
Christ is clearly not asking me to judge my grandmother, my neighbor with the annoying political sign slapped on the street-facing side of his kids’ treehouse, or the teens who leave their beer cans at the lake just outside our small town.
He’s asking this question of me.
Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye but do not notice the log in your own eye?
Jesus is not supporting religious legalism, in-your-face political signs or underage drinking and littering; he’s suggesting that as long as I posture myself as a speck-removing surgeon for everybody else, I’m missing something critical to the health of my soul: the log in my own eye, the blindness I project, so utterly visible to everyone but myself.
He’s saying there’s only one way to see everyone else clearly: apply a scrutinizing look at myself without forgetting my sins, without justifying the damage I’ve done and without comparing myself to those around me.
Bishop Robert Barron, in And Now I See, a book he wrote while still a priest in Chicago, calls this kind of self-examination “the difficult but ultimately soul-enlarging task of self-criticism and metanoia (going beyond the mind that you have)” which has the power to liberate us from “the hopeless pattern of casting blame and inventing scapegoats.”
Our culture is trapped in blame-and-scapegoat pattern. I’m trapped in it.
Do we desire liberation?
Then rather than roll our eyes at our neighbors’ political preachiness, we could examine the ways we have diminished his arguments without listening. Maybe call to mind the positive ways he contributes to the community with his friendly smile, his willingness to change a stranger’s flat tire, his service as a volunteer firefighter.
More to the point, maybe we recall a few of our worst moments of political posturing.
Using our own judgmentalism as an occasion for self-examination makes the speck in our neighbor’s eye vanish. We’re too busy chipping away at the log jutting out of our own eye, and maybe even bringing what we find to confession.
Maybe putting Christ’s admonition into practice, we’ll be a little friendlier to the guy with the political sign we detest.
We’ll be more likely to quietly pick up the litter at the lakeshore and befriend the teens we suspect of leaving it.
We might even abandon (for a second, at least) our virtue signaling and dreamy desires to save the world (which nurtures the ego without helping a soul) and ask an elderly neighbor if we can pick up a few groceries for her next time we’re out.
Maybe we refuse to scapegoat anyone, no matter what we think of their politics or their personality.
Maybe they would know we are Christians by our love.
I’m not even talking about volunteering in a church or service organization, although every good-hearted place needs more help these days. I’m talking about making an effort to smile, to listen, to actually help somebody who rubs us the wrong way.
Maybe listen long enough to learn why the guy whose political sign we can’t stand is so angry. Maybe we even become his friend.
We can still distinguish right from wrong, but we’ll go about it mercifully, knowing the log hasn’t completely dropped from our own eyes.
We can still study the issues and defend what we think is right, but we’ll do it understanding that our opponents won’t hear us unless we listen to them first.
We’ll have seen the multitude of sins we’ve committed. We’ll remember that love covers a multitude of sins.
We’ll desire mercy rather than judgment.
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If you enjoyed this post, you might also like Flannery O’Connor Exposes Our Judgmental Hearts, Preparing Us for Grace.
“We hungered to imagine a world where people could just eat together without anyone trying to rescue the other, without anyone more powerful or anyone more shamed.” Read Shannon K. Evans’ short reflection on coming to the Catholic Worker movement in Ames, Iowa here.
Tod Worner’s I Got This: Our Judgment on Simone Biles hits home as well.