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Mahlon H Smith,
Rutgers University

 

Jesus said:

You spot a splinter in your brother's eye
but you don't notice the timber in your own eye.
When you take the timber out of your own eye,
then you'll see well enough
to remove the splinter from your brother's eye.

       ---Gospel of Thomas 26:1-2

 

 

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.

The 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 "Q."  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.  Ad libs that the author of Q's sermon probably introduced in rehearsing this Jesus saying are printed here in italics.

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?
You phony!
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 is 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 human predicament.

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 own medicine.

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 inevitable defects. 

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 other people.

 

copyright by author 2017
all rights reserved

  • This article is one of the author's contributions to a multi-authored volume on probable authentic sayings of Jesus that never made it to press.  It is published here for the first time.

  • Hypertext links to this web page are welcome. But the contents of this paper may not be reproduced or posted elsewhere without the express written consent of the author.

- last revised 25 May 2017 -

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