Sunday, July 16, 2017

“Why Do You See the Speck?”

Matthew 7:1-6
Preached by Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, 
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
6th Sunday After Pentecost, July 16th, 2017,    (Series:  Questions Jesus Asked  #4)

If you’ve ever had an eye problem you will never forget it.

Once, I pick up a gravel with a lawn mower and it ricocheted off a tree and glazed my eye.  The pain was unbearable for days.  Fortunately the injury was only to one eye, but during the time that eye was healing, I couldn’t see out of either eye.

My wife has allergies that often gets into her eyes.  The first time it happened, we had no clue what was happening.   She had to go a whole week with both eyes patched.   When they finally discovered the cause of her deteriorated retina, they told her that to deal with the problem when it reoccurs, she should immediately keep her eyes closed overnight and it would heal itself.   Occasionally, it still happens, but now she knows how to deal with it.

Eye problems can be difficult to deal with.   In our text today, Jesus reminds us that it’s very easy for Kingdom people--that is Christian, who truly try to follow the way of Jesus, to also develop a kind of spiritual eye problems.  Because we are people who are trying to live rightly, we will have a tendency become ‘judgmental.’  But we’d better think twice about that Jesus says.  Before we try to ‘take the speck’ out of the eye of our brother or sister, we’d better ‘first remove the plank, the log or the beam, from our own eyes.

When Jesus says ‘Don’t judge’ he is specifically speaking to us, his followers.  He is not speaking to pagans, Gentiles or simple Jews, but to his own followers.  This is one of Jesus’ very few clear cut, absolute, direct commands and he aims it right at us.  Can you see how important this was to Jesus?

In the recent book, “Unchristian’, author David Kinnaman, who worked for the Barna Research Group, writes about what the ‘new generation really thinks about Christianity’.  Not only do young people think that the church of today is ‘hypocritical’, ‘antihomosexual’, sheltered, misguided, and way too political, they also think the church and church people are way ‘too judgmental’.  To be exact, 87% of youth outside the church, which means almost 9 out of 10 young people, think the church is way too judgmental (p. 182).  In one example, Kinnaman tells of a young woman who was visiting a women’s Bible study group.  As they were discussing prayer issues, she told of a girl she knew who was pregnant, whose boyfriend left her, and she felt all alone and was considering aborting her child.  When the young woman shared, there wasn’t one Christian who empathized with the young girl.   Each of them rushed to get on the judgment wagon.  This kind of so-called judgmental “Christian” attitude, shocked the young woman.  She just couldn’t believe how harsh these Christian women were.  The young woman was not advocating that the girl should have an abortion, she was just trying to help the others know how to feel and pray for her.   What the group didn’t know was that there new Bible study partner had an abortion many years ago.  She would never have wish an abortion for anyone, but what it did do was make her at least understand the feelings the young girl felt.  She left that meeting with the impression that Christians don’t have empathetic feelings.  She said she didn’t need a judgmental faith like that.  She would figure out this “Jesus-thing” on her on.  She became one of those who ‘likes Jesus’, but not the church.

Being judgmental goes back a long ways.  And for the record, it’s not simply a Christian, or a religious problem; it is a human problem.   Don’t you recall how once in the Old Testament, when King David got very excited about the return of the Ark to Jerusalem, that he ‘danced before the Lord with all his might’(2 Sam. 6:14) and evidently exposed some of his private parts.  Michal, the daughter of the former king Saul, saw her over-exposed King and husband, only to unload on him for ‘going around half-naked….,’  exposing himself to ‘servant girlsas any vulgar servant might (6:20).’ 
Perhaps she made a point, but did she hear what she sounded like.  Did it cross her mind that her sour disposition was even worse that David’s nakedness?  

This is the thing about being judgmental, isn’t it?  According to Jesus, it’s fairly easy to go around trying to find the fault-specks of other people, but it’s really hard to take an honest look at what everyone sees and knows about us, except us.  Pastor Dan Day rightly calls this the ‘pickiness problem’.   This pickiness problem of self-excusing and other-judging, goes all the way back to the Garden, when Adam tried to make God believe it was all Eve’s fault.  “It was THAT WOMAN you put here with me---she gave me some fruit from the tree and I ate it?” (Gen. 3:12). It was her, not me.  She did it!

We all have at some form of this ‘pickiness problem’ in each of us, don’t we?   And I don’t think we can or should blame Eve or Adam for it either.  I think the story of Adam and Eve is the about OUR human condition, not just THEIR condition.  The story of Adam and Eve is not about who caused us to be who we are, but it is the story of who we humans have always been, right from the very first ‘bite’. 

But here’s an even bigger story.  Just because we are now Christians, and just because we are now ‘new creatures in Christ’, this does not mean that we are able to shake off our human qualities and conditions.  We can try to change some of them.  We can try to kick some of our bad habits and behaviors, but the truth is, and Jesus knew this, that some things are liable to get worse, rather than better, now that we are following Jesus.  Case in point is what happened with James and John, nicknamed the ‘Sons of Thunder’.  Once, when the disciples encountered some Samaritans, who refused to allow Jesus and them to make a short cut through their town, they were ready to ‘call down fire from heaven’ against those folks  (Luke 9:52-54).   Evidently, James and John didn’t even flinch when Jesus said “Blessed are the Merciful”, or said “Love Your Enemy”.   Right before that, after arguing with the other disciples over ‘who is the greatest’, James and John  requested that only they were capable of ruling with Jesus in the coming kingdom (9:46).   In both cases, whether with a stranger or a friend, they were ready not to not only pass judgment, but to carry it out, even without a trial.  

This human tendency to judge others, rather than take an ‘honest look at ourselves’  is exactly why Jesus makes this command ‘not’ to judge straight toward us.  Exactly because we are still human, and as we are ‘being transformed by the renewing of our minds’ as Paul says, we are still ‘not yet what we will be’, as John also says.

How does this human tendency to judge, and pass judgment on others, come out in your life?  Well, in my life, one of the ways it shows up is when my wife makes toast.   As you know, my wife is a wonderful cook.  And she not only cooks well, she manages well, and she can cook fast and good.  But sometimes, especially when she is making breakfast in the morning, she will have a many things going at the same time, and I have to remind her about the toast.  Often times, it’s too late.   Well, the truth is, I should be helping with the toast.  The truth is, I have a tendency to leave things laying around the house.   The truth is, I’m supposed to make the bed every day, but sometimes I leave it unmade.   And the biggest truth is, when she burns the toast, I should keep my big mouth shut, but it’s a still a struggle.  The biggest struggle is not to scrape the black off the toast, or to make new toast, but the struggle is for me to keep my mouth shut, and to remember what mom said, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all!”

Of course, there are other more complicated issues, because we all have our own ‘pickiness’ stuff that we struggle with.   For all of us, inside the church and outside the church too, because we are human, we struggle with jumping conclusions and passing judgment too quickly.   Probably the biggest lesson came for me when I went to a Wedding years ago, and the officiating pastor performed the entire service from memory.   As a young pastor, I was not impressed, but was perhaps a little jealous that he had the mind to do that, and somewhat infuriated that he would try, because there were a few times he struggled.  When I realized that he was struggling to recall the words to the ceremony, I thought to myself, “How dare him try to be so impressive with his memory that he was somewhat spoiling this sacred moment?”   But as the service came to a conclusion, I suddenly had a rude-awakening.   This pastor was blind.  He had lost his eyesight and was doing the best he could.  And he was now doing a really great job.  It was me that was making the biggest blunder.  It was I who deserved to be judged, not him.
Moving from Jesus’ command “Do not judge!” we now come to Jesus’ big “Why?”  “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s (or sister’s eye) and pay no attention to the plank in your own?”  Then he adds, “How can you say, “Let me take the speck out of your eye, when all the time there is a plank hanging out of your own eye?  Why?  How dare you try to do something like this (7:3-4). 

Jesus paints an unforgettable, funny picture of a person trying to get a splinter or speck out of another person’s eye, when they have a log or plank hanging out of their own eye.  But Jesus is not joking.  This kind of ‘judging’ or ‘judgmentalism’  can destroy churches, communities, and families.   In fact, Jesus has already spoken of the seriousness of all this.  “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured (out) to you” (7:2).   Jesus takes ‘judging’ and ‘judgmentalism’ so seriously, that it even sounds like he is going back to ‘eye for eye and tooth for tooth’ (Matt. 5:38).  But he’s really not.  Let me explain my point with a reminder of Shakespeare’s play, “Measure for Measure”, which was based upon this text.  This play is called a Comedy, because everything turns out alright in the end, but most of the play is dark and disturbing.

The focus of the play is about Angelo, a noble but stern lord, who is left in temporary charge of Vienna while Vincentio, the Duke, goes away for a spell.  At least he pretends he goes away, but actually stays near in disguise.  For no sooner has Angelo taken charge, he reveals his strict, moralistic self, tightens up the laws, and condemns someone named Claudio to death, because Claudio has fathered a child out of wedlock.  Isabella, Claudio’s sister, who was about to become a nun, pleas for her brother’s life, warning Angelo, that if he handles her brother too harshly, God might also handle him harshly.  She questions in great Shakespearean prose: 
If He (God), which is at the top of judgment, should but judge you as you are? 
O, think on that and mercy then will breathe within your lips, like a man new made.”

Angelo refuses.  Claudio must die.  But at the same time, Claudio is smitten with passion and lust for Isabella herself, and offers to spare her brother, if she will allow him to have his way with her.  The plot twists and turns, but ends with Angelo’s own vices and crimes being exposed, with him finally pleading for a sentence of death against himself.  Instead, the Duke, who has been around the whole time, now reveals himself, pardons them all, making Angelo live with the truth about himself for the rest of his life  (Most of this comes from NT Wright, commentary on Matthew, p. 68, or from

The fate of Angelo is the fate, Jesus questions and warns us about.  “Why” would we try to judge the faults of others, without looking at our own faults first?   Why would we dare this, knowing we could get into worst trouble by judging or disobeying Jesus?  Without having to get into Freudian analysis, the answer could be right here, in Jesus own question:  Why do we look at the speck in THEM?  How could we avoid seeing a ‘plank’ or a ‘log’ in our own eye, and instead, stress ourselves and other out, by straining to see the speck in their eye?  Well, couldn’t it be the same reason some were ‘straining a gnat and swallow a camel’ (Matt. 23:24)?   By putting the focus on others, on other things, we get the focus off of ourselves.  We see what we want to see, no matter how small or big, and we don’t see what we don’t want to see, no matter how big that is either.

A good example of this is a family reunion.  Who wants to go to one?  Who wants to go and smell Aunt Sally’s bad perfume, listen to Uncle Jim’s bad jokes, or cringe when Cousin Jack gets all political and opinionated?   We all have relatives we can’t stand to be around for obvious reasons.  But the unobvious one, and perhaps the hardest reason these relatives are hard to be with, is because they are one of us.  As Pastor Dan Day says, “These are your family”, and when we are with them, we are forced to face the fact that they ‘we are all one, big, messed-up, dysfunctional family, whether our name is Smith or Ekweku, Zawahiri or Grunewald.  As Scripture says, ‘we are all of one blood’ (Acts 17:26, KJV), and ‘when I’m grumbling about how many jerk there are in the world,  I need to realize what arrogant and impossible turf is being defended’  by trying to exempt myself, which is only an attempt to avoid owning up to how the dysfunction runs right through me  (Day, J. Daniel. If Jesus Isn’t the Answer…: He Sure Asks the Right Questions! (Kindle Location 536). Smyth & Helwys Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Now, as we conclude, we must not misunderstand Jesus.  Jesus is not saying that the Christian or the church shouldn’t make serious judgment calls.  This is definitely not an excuse to live like the world, to condone the way the world lives, nor to overlook the need to correct each other in love.   There is still room in the church for rules, values, and standards.   In fact, Jesus says, “First take the plank out of your eye,’ then, he implies, you can work on ‘the speck’ in your brother or sister’s eye. 

No, this is not a question of making judgments, but its about becoming judgmental, that is taking upon ourselves a role that only belongs to God.   Why is Jesus so concerned about this?  The truth is Jesus is not simply trying to stop us from judging each other.  This is the small picture, but it’s not the big picture.   The big picture concerns the work and growth of the kingdom in us and in the world around us. While we, as Christians, cannot cause the Kingdom of God to come on our terms, we can seemingly slow it down, or at least, prevent the kingdom of God’s grace, from being present in our own church, in our own family, in our own community, in a way that God’s mercy and grace is denied becoming a reality in our own lives.    

We prevent this ‘blessedness’ from being real in us, when we live judgmentally, forgetting to examine ourselves first.   Though we may not have the same faults as others, and they may in fact have sins that outwardly seem much worse, what Jesus names here is the sin of a follower, or an outwardly religious person, which is a sin much worse than even being the worse sinner.  For you see, sinners can be forgiven, but a hypocrite cannot.  A hypocrite can’t be forgiven because they will not because their sin is too great, but because by the very nature of their sin, they will not admit to being just as big, or just as bad a sinner as everyone else.  Remember the Pharisee who prayed: “Thank God, I’m not like that man over there” verses the one who prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”  The second prayer results in salvation, but the first doesn’t result in salvation because, the person prays to put themselves in a category that implies they don’t need salvation.

But it doesn’t have to be or stay this way.   Recall that wonderful gospel song of the 70’s, ‘Put Your Hand in the Hand’, and its chorus that went: 
“Put your hand in the hand of the man who stilled the water.
Put your hand in the hand of the man who calmed the sea. 
Take a look at yourself and you can look at others differently.
Put your hand in the hand of the man from Galilee.’

This is what this question is all about.  It is not simply a lesson on how to be a good Christian, but it is an even more important lesson about how we all need Jesus, and we need each other too.  As a welcome saying goes, “We are not supposed to see through others, but to help to see others through.”  Amen.

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