Why do you look at 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,' and behold, the log is 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.
(Matthew 7: 3-5 – NAS)
When we look at these verses in the Sermon on the Mount, we often treat them as a group in themselves, about the importance of self-examination before we engage with others. But we ought to remember that they come hard on the heels of what Jesus says about making judgments and how the standards we use to measure the actions of others are the ones that will be applied to us. After He warns us of that fact, He immediately turns to “taking a speck out of your brother’s eye.”
To me, this is a sign that Jesus knows full well that we have strong impulses to judge others, especially those close to us. What a mercy it is to realize that the Lord understands our nature and inclination to evaluate the behavior of others. However, He gives us important guidelines to follow before we indulge in our all-too-human impulse to judge and criticize others.
He begins by asking why it is that we look at the small things that are wrong, or are obscuring, in the way those close to us look at things.
It has always struck me as interesting that although many of the things Jesus talks about in the Sermon are about our actions, these verses are about our perception, how we look at the world and each other. So much of being a witness for Christ depends on our ability to see and understand how others see the world, so that we can “turn their eyes upon Jesus.” We want to change their perspective and bring them to look on the world the way that believers do. And in these verses, it is clear that Jesus knows that perspective and perception are important to the beginning of persuasion.
But instead of giving us instructions on how to change the perception of others, Jesus tells us to make sure that our own perception is clear and unobstructed.
Now, isn’t that a sudden red-light warning?
Not only does Jesus warn us about making sure that we are seeing clearly first, He flat out tells us that we are likely to have even bigger problems with our perception than the person we are trying to “help.” He says we try to clear away specks in other people’s eyes when we have logs in our own. (This was another thing that appealed to the teen-aged me way back when: Jesus could use humorous sarcasm to drive home His point! How wonderfully human! The sardonic love He uses to make His point had a strong appeal to me then – as it still does.)
What is truly interesting in these verses is that Jesus does not indicate that we are wrong to desire to correct and help others in improving their perception of the world. It is even implied that this is indeed something we should do. But more than that point is the implication that Jesus knew full well that He was asking all these things of very imperfect followers. It would seem that He takes it as a matter of course that we are messed up. He seems to understand that we do not always take time to do self-evaluation and self-judgment. He doesn’t even really condemn us for being in that state! Instead, He just reminds us that we are imperfect, with “logs in our eyes,” and he recommends that we take care of our own immediate problems with perception before we try correcting the outlook of others.
It is so very easy for us to fall into self-righteousness when we set out to “improve” or “correct” others. After all, we’re Followers of Christ, are we not? We are His beloveds, called to the kingdom of heaven, the children of God the Father.
Aren’t we so special?!
We’re going to use all the authority give to us as followers of Jesus and we’re going to correct the perceptions of the non-believers. We’re going to clear those specks out of their eyes!
But Jesus warns us that we have logs in our own eyes. Which raises the question of just how well it is that we even see those we think we are about to help? We’re about to tell them what is wrong with how they are looking at the world, but we’re going to do it with this large obstruction in our own field of vision. Not only that, because it is a log that is stuck in our own eye, that person we think we’re about to help can see it, and knows that we can’t even see him!
Do we ever think about what it is like to be on the receiving end of our well-intentioned “corrections”? Do we ever convey that we do indeed see the person we are talking with, whose perceptions we are trying to change? Sadly, I do not think that we do, which may be one reason we so often do not persuade our “brothers” to change their perceptions.
How then do we get the log out of our eyes? We look back to those things with which Jesus began the Sermon, the people He calls us to be: people who know we need God’s righteousness, people who are kind and gentle, who show mercy to others, who strive to build peace between those in contention with each other, people who strive for every quality indicated in the Beatitudes. Those words are the mirror we need to use to remove the log in our eyes. And this is necessary – for it is entirely possible that the speck we think we see in someone else’s eye is only the reflection of the log in our own.