These lines about curing
defective vision are composed with the terse descriptive strokes of a stage
director sketching a scene for the cast of a play. Jesus' words are so
graphic that they are easy to absorb and repeat. Anyone could memorize them
in minutes. But his intonation and attitude are harder to discern and
mimic. It takes a good actor a life-time of rehearsals to learn how to
interpret the way Jesus himself would have delivered these lines.
scene initially seems common enough: an urgent need to remove a foreign
object from a companion's eye. Who hasn't jumped to the aid of a relative
or friend whose vision has been momentarily impaired by an eyelash or a
piece of grit? In this instance, however, the eye is threatened with
permanent damage by some kind of wood chip: a speck of sawdust, a splinter
or even a twig. Its safe removal requires extra care. Otherwise the
brittle element might fragment into minute sharp bits that could penetrate
the cornea, causing the patient to lose all vision or even the eye itself.
The situation calls for the expert care of a skilled physician, not a rank
amateur whose well-intentioned hasty intervention could cause even greater
damage to the injured party. In short, the scene described in this saying
is much more serious than it sounds from a superficial reading.
In this performance Jesus has
cast you (or me) as the doctor. But even seasoned performers would have
trouble giving a sensitive interpretation to the bizarre twist in plot that
follows. With the stage set for an emergency room operation, you make your
entrance, all ready to perform a delicate operation, totally oblivious to
the massive piece of lumber---literally a log or house-rafter--protruding
from your eye socket. The image is grotesque and painful to visualize. But
this exaggerated inversion of roles has turned a melodrama into a farce.
Even the thought of someone blinded by a massive head wound attempting to
perform a delicate maneuver that demands complete clarity and dexterity is
so incongruous that anyone can recognize it as completely ridiculous.
The metaphors Jesus uses in
this saying are surprisingly the only circumstantial evidence supporting the
characterization of him as a carpenter in Mark 6:2. Both splinters and
timbers are common enough items in the everyday world of construction
workers. But a person does not have to be a craftsman to grant the general
truth of Jesus' scenario. It is always easier to spot a tiny flaw in
someone else than to admit one's own short-comings. Jesus
characteristically exaggerates the situation to dramatize the foolishness of
focusing on what's wrong with someone else without complete awareness of
their own disabilities. Anyone who dares to act out such a scene is bound
to become a public laughingstock. Because other people are sure to notice
your flaws even if you cannot.
There is one way, however, for the person who has been cast as the attending
physician in this situation to salvage the role and avoid being laughed off
the stage. Jesus spells it out with the dry matter-of-factness of a veteran
director's stage instruction. He tells you to perform a sight-saving
operation on yourself in full view of the audience that expects you to
bungle the task. Next, to the complete amazement of those who were ready to
ridicule you, you are to proceed calmly to perform the delicate procedure
that restores your friend's impaired vision.
Jesus' script has everyone
getting cured in the end. Like a master playwright, he runs us through the
gamut of drama in swift succession. It takes him just three brief strokes
to turn the plot from melodrama to farce and then from grand tragedy to
divine comedy. All that is needed is an actor with enough stage presence to
deliver a convincing performance.
This interpretation is bound to sound novel because it is based on the
relatively unfamiliar version of this saying found in the gospel of Thomas.
As Thomas tells it, Jesus merely describes a potential disaster and offers
his listener a helpful suggestion on how to avert it. He predicts a happy
ending to any who heed his advice. There is no hint of anger or sarcasm in
these lines, but merely the cool-headed logic of a creative solution to a
potentially tragic situation.
This is the voice of the same
Galilean sage who created vivid case parodies containing ostensibly bizarre
directions to turn the other cheek, surrender your clothes or volunteer to
travel an extra mile. In all these sayings the suggested resolution of a
crisis is unconventional behavior that is potentially embarrassing. It
takes unusual courage to lower your defenses and show people you are
vulnerable. But sometimes the tactic of admitting fallibility is the best
or even the only way to prevent social disaster.
In one key respect, however,
this saying differs from Jesus' advice to turn the other cheek: the
predicament caused by the splinter and timber involves close comrades rather
than opponents. The Greek word here is adelphos, implying a close
family relationship between the parties. Jesus was quite aware of the
reality of sibling rivalries, of course. His parable of the prodigal son
and the several gospel references to tensions between him and his own
brothers amply demonstrate that. But there is no reason to read such
inter-personal tensions into this saying. The person who rushes to remove a
foreign object from a sibling's eye is obviously trying to help rather than
hurt the victim.
Yet, good intentions do not always produce positive results. How many
accident victims have died from further injuries unintentionally inflicted
upon them by would-be good Samaritans? How many blundering parents have
destroyed their own children? Jesus' recommendation to apply first aid on
oneself first is designed to prevent such tragedies. Its modern
parallel is the standard safety instruction on airlines: in case of an
emergency put on your own oxygen mask before trying to help others. What
sane person would interpret this instruction as a personal criticism? Such
warnings are designed to save lives, not to insult anybody's intelligence.
Pragmatic tactics like this require frequent repetition, however, because it
is a sad fact that in the heat of an emergency people tend to panic and
automatically do just the reverse.
The gospels of Matthew and Luke present an expanded rendering of Jesus'
saying about eye problems that shows how easy it is to distort and misuse
such impartial wisdom during a crisis. These authors were apparently
unfamiliar with the terse impartial observation about splinters and timbers
preserved in the gospel of Thomas. Instead they reproduced the more
dramatic paraphrase from the sermon that introduced Jesus' teaching in the
synoptic sayings source that biblical scholars call "Q" (shorthand
for Quelle, the
German word for "source"). This sermon was clearly intended for followers of
Jesus experiencing severe social conflict. For it highlights advice to
rejoice when persecuted, love your enemies, avoid judging others, and
concludes with an ominous warning
that those who call Jesus "Master" but fail to follow his teaching are like
beach houses in a hurricane, facing imminent collapse.
The scribe who recorded this sermon apparently belonged to a wing of the
fledgling Jesus movement that was on the verge of dissolving into
factionalism. To prevent a further descent into chaos this person tried to
remind comrades of Jesus' principles of social interaction. He found Jesus'
ironic observation about splinters and timbers quite relevant to the
occasion. But the crisis that threatened to undermine the very foundations
of the Q community led this admirer of Jesus' wisdom to give a particularly
impassioned performance of this saying. Envisioning his group's demise, the
compiler of Q showed his impatience with those who worshipped Jesus but who
failed to follow his instructions, by adding flourishes that represented
Jesus' words as a critique of charlatans. Adlibs that the author of Q's
sermon probably introduced in rehearsing this Jesus saying are printed here
Why do you notice the
splinter in your brother's eye
but overlook the timber in your own?
How can you say to your brother:
'Brother, let me get the splinter out of your eye'
when you don't notice the timber in your own?
First take the timber out of your own eye,
then you'll see clearly how to remove the splinter in your brother's eye.
--- Gospel of Luke 6:41-42 (Matt 7:3-5 has minor variations)
Every orator knows that
emotional flourishes are a very effective way of getting an audience to pay
attention to a point. But this performance turns Jesus' matter-of fact
description of an inevitable paradox of human nature into a condescending
critique. The interpolated questions, "Why?" and "How can you?" infer that
those who spot others' flaws but not their own are aberrations rather than
the norm and sets them up for public ridicule as social deviants. The Greek
term which Scholars Version translates as "phony" (hypocrites)
designated stage actors and preachers alike: persons who recite eloquent
speeches but who, sad to say, are often just posing in public to impress
people. In this case, however, it is the speaker who exposes the audience
as mere pretenders.
It takes some time and reflection for
Christians (myself included) to see anything amiss in the performance of
this saying made popular by Matthew's sermon on the mount. For Christians
generally idolize Jesus and tend to think of him as perfect. It seems we
humans have an amazing tolerance for being lectured by those whom we regard
as our superiors. Childhood experience predisposes us to expect criticism
from parents and teachers. Then when we get to the point of playing these
roles, we inevitably do to others what we remember others doing to us.
Thus, those who regard Jesus as the ultimate teacher have little difficulty
imagining him lecturing and criticizing followers and opponents alike, or in
presuming to do this in his stead.
The ultimate irony of such
finger pointing and name calling, however, is that it acts out the very
scene that Jesus' comment about spotting splinters and timbers describes.
The performance of this saying transcribed for us by Matthew and Luke says
in effect: "Don't call people names, stupid!" The scribe who composed Q's
sermon was clearly on the side of the angels---or at least Jesus---and acted
with the most noble of intentions to restore social harmony among Jesus'
followers. But in rushing to lecture comrades on their faults this person
cannot see what he is himself doing. In ridiculing the performance of other
actors he shows he hasn't really digested the dramatic tension in Jesus'
line about splinters and timbers and winds up himself unwittingly playing
the clown that Jesus described.
The point of Jesus' saying is that it is always
easier for anyone to spot someone else's fault than one's own. It is
easier for me to see what's wrong with the performance of Jesus' saying in
the canonical gospels than it is for me to spot flaws in my own
interpretation. And you, the reader, are bound to notice the defects of
this essay more readily than you recognize logical inconsistencies in your
own position. The cycle of people seeing what's wrong with the world rather
than with themselves is inevitable and never-ending. This is part of the
What distinguishes Jesus' characterization of
the situation from the usual fatalistic description of the absurdity of
human existence is that it points a way out of the trap. After all, the
punch line of this saying does not point fingers at those with gross defects
in their own vision but, rather, offers a constructive insight for helping
everybody to see things more clearly. That advice is simply this: before
attempting to correct someone else, pause a moment to assess and emend your
own behavior. Instead of posing as the world's savior whose insights are
superior to everybody else's, expose your own ignorance. Before trying to
treat their problems let them see your own wounds. Long before Freud, Jesus
recognized that the only effective therapists are those who themselves have
been through therapy.
The internal logic of this Jewish carpenter's
ironic advice about how to help people with defective vision, however, rules
out the possibility that this saying was originally intended as a critique
of the behavior of others. Of course, we must allow for the possibility
that Jesus did not always follow his own advice. He might well have gotten
impatient and found fault with others on many occasions. But it is
practically inconceivable that he would have done so in the very process of
formulating or delivering these lines. If he did, he would himself be
playing the role of the physician who needed to take a massive dose of his
Rather, this appears to be a
saying that Jesus formulated primarily as advice to himself. Splinters and
timbers are potential hazards for people who work as carpenters, not for
those who dwell in finished houses. The reason why such images appear in
this particular saying and not others is that Jesus was focusing this sage
advice as a primary principle for his own social behavior. The voice that
says "you" is not this carpenter's external voice addressing others but,
rather, his super-ego reminding his self how to act whenever he saw
something wrong with somebody else. If he really wanted to help rather than
hurt, he would have to remain conscious of his own humanity and its
Moreover, Jesus must have rehearsed this saying
for himself quite often. For it helps explain why he was amazingly tolerant
of people that society generally shunned, and why he often refrained from
returning his critics' insults, and why he regularly made self-effacing
references to himself as just another child of Adam. Instead of posing as a
social superior Jesus is portrayed best as treating all humans as his
siblings, no matter what their defects. So, if Jesus repeatedly reminded
himself not to act superior to people who had obvious flaws, then anyone who
takes him as a role model or pretends to be on his side had better try
rehearsing the script of Thomas 26 to themselves before presuming to correct