This is a sermon I gave June 27, 2009, at the Olivet New Church in Toronto.
The Plank and the Splinter
A Sermon by Rev. Coleman S. Glenn
Matthew 7:1-5 (1) “Judge not, that you be not judged. (2) For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. (3) And why do you look at the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? (4) Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the splinter from your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye? (5) Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye.
Genesis 9:20-23 And Noah began to be a man of the ground, and he planted a vineyard. (21) Then he drank of the wine and was drunk, and became uncovered in his tent. (22) And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. (23) But Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and went backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness.
Arcana Coelestia 1079. [That Ham saw the nakedness of his father] signifies that he observed the errors and perversions, [which] is evident from the signification of “nakedness”, as being what is evil and perverted. Here, those who are in faith separated from charity are described by “Ham” in his “seeing the nakedness of his father” that is, his errors and perversions; for they who are of this character see nothing else in a person; whereas-very differently-those who are in the faith of charity observe what is good, and if they see anything evil and false, they excuse it, and if they can, try to amend it in him, as is here said of Shem and Japheth. Where there is no charity, there is the love of self, and therefore hatred against all who do not favor self. Consequently such persons see in the neighbor only what is evil, and if they see anything good, they either perceive it as nothing, or put a bad interpretation upon it. It is just the other way with those who are in charity. By this difference these two kinds of people are distinguished from one another, especially when they come into the other life; for then with those who are in no charity, the feeling of hatred shines forth from every single thing; they desire to examine everyone, and even to judge him; nor do they desire anything more than to find out what is evil, constantly cherishing the disposition to condemn, punish, and torment. But they who are in charity scarcely see the evil of another, but observe all his goods and truths, and put a good interpretation on what is evil and false. Such are all the angels, which they have from the Lord, who bends all evil into good.
“First cast out the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to cast out the splinter from the eye of your brother.” (Matthew 7:5)
Do not judge. This is a familiar teaching, but we can’t hear it too many times. After we’ve conquered other evils, the inclination to judge others often remains, and can even grow stronger. What can we do about it? What is the solution?
Today we read the familiar passage in which the Lord says, “Judge not, lest you be judged.” But in another place in the New Testament, the Lord said, “Judge righteous judgment.” So what did the Lord mean when He said, “Judge not”? What judgments does He want us to make and what judgments does he forbid us to make?
Immediately after saying, “Do not judge,” the Lord illustrates this command with an image. “Why do you look at the splinter that is in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank that is in your own eye?” Part of the message is clear: we shouldn’t judge other people for their faults, since we have faults of our own that we’re blind to.
But this is not the whole message. The Lord went on to say, “First cast out the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to cast out the splinter from your brother’s eye.” In the end, we are supposed to help our brother remove the splinter from his eye. In fact, that is the purpose of removing the plank from our own eye.
There are three parts to this illustration of judging. First, the Lord calls us to notice when we are looking at a splinter in our brother’s eye despite the plank in our own eye. Second, He tells us to cast that plank out of our own eye. And third, He encourages us to use our new clear sight to cast the splinter out of our brother’s eye.
The Lord says, “Why do you look at the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own?” This is the first part. We all have a tendency to focus on the faults of others. And sometimes we see the most faults in the people closest to us – we see the splinters in our brother’s eye. If we know someone very well, we come to see their shortcomings; and because we see these so closely and so often, we can make them out to be larger than they are. We pay inordinate attention to the minor faults – the splinters – in the way our friends and our neighbors see the world, the way they act. Maybe they have a tendency to gossip. Maybe they complain too much about other people. Maybe they don’t seem to take religion seriously. There are many, many different ways that people can have a splinter in their eye – that is, a fault in their understanding of the truth, or a minor evil in their lives.
But what if someone really does have a major evil in his or her life? What if it’s not just a splinter? This is certainly possible; there are people who are in extreme disorder. But the book Arcana Coelestia tells us that when angels see a person, they excuse his evils. This does not mean that they say that evil is not evil; but they assume that a person is good at heart and is doing evil from some mistaken idea or from ignorance. It seems that the angels may see all faults in another as nothing more than splinters in their eyes.
We have a tendency to focus on those splinters in our brothers’ eyes. But what about the plank in our own eye? Arcana Coelestia says, “’To behold a splinter in the eye of a brother’ means something erroneous in respect to the understanding of truth; and ‘the plank in one’s own eye’ denotes a huge evil of falsity” (n. 9051). When we are looking at others from a judgmental place, we are looking at a minor fault from a “huge evil of falsity” in ourselves. There are many kinds of evil intentions and false thoughts that go along with the attitude of judging another person. If we look at another person with contempt, we are in evil from falsity. We are in evil – in contempt, or hatred, or derision, or self-righteousness – from falsity. There are many different falsities that we might be in. Maybe it’s the falsity that we are better than that person, or that we are more worthy. Maybe we’re in the falsity that we are able to see what a person is really like inside. When we look at another person with contempt, we are looking at them with a plank in our own eye – we are looking them in evil from falsity.
So what are we supposed to do? From ourselves, we might think that the solution is to ignore the splinter in our brother’s eye – to leave it alone. In fact, we might think that this is the message of this story. We are not supposed to judge – therefore, we shouldn’t acknowledge that anyone else has a splinter in his or her eye. But that’s not what the Lord says. The Lord says, “First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye.” We are told that we should try to remove the splinter from our brother’s eye – but first we have to remove the plank from our own.
Remove the plank from your own eye. How do you do this? It’s easier said than done, and it can’t be done in an instant. It is a lifelong process. The Lord is talking about the process of self-examination and repentance. If you want to help others remove splinters from their eyes, you have to dig those planks out of your own eye.
The first step is to try to see what the plank is. Look for the falsities that are clouding your vision. I mentioned two of the biggest planks earlier. First, see if you are acting under the falsity that you can see what another person is truly like in his or her heart. Even if we acknowledge with our lips that we can’t know what a person’s intentions are, we often think that we can. But the Lord says time and again that only he knows the hearts of men. We cannot judge another’s spiritual state. This is the first plank we need to remove from our eyes.
And second, see if you are acting under the falsity that you are better than the other person. How do we remove this falsity? First, by acknowledging that we have evils and faults of our own. And second, by acknowledging that all good and truth is from the Lord; that we did not earn any of the goodness or kindness in ourselves, but we received it as a gift from the Lord. We need to humble ourselves. And we need to fight against the tendency to view others with contempt. We need to pray to the Lord to remove those feelings, that love of self above others. To remove that plank from our own eye involves coming to a point where we acknowledge that we are no better than the person we are trying to help.
There is one more plank that we need to remove before we can help remove the splinter from our brother’s eye. The book Divine Providence says, “The hardest of all combats is with the love of ruling from the love of self. He who subdues this easily subdues all other evil loves, for this is their head.” If we are going to help cast out that splinter, we need to first get rid of the love of ruling, of the desire to control another person. We need to cast that plank from our eye – by praying to the Lord for the strength to resist the desire to control others, and by fighting with all our hearts against the inclination to do so.
Only then can we remove the splinter from our brother’s eye. And we should seek to remove that splinter. Remember, the Lord said, “Judge righteous judgment.” We need to acknowledge that certain things really are harmful – both to society and to the person himself who is doing those harmful things. This is why we lock up criminals: not because we want revenge on them or believe that they are going to hell, but to keep them from harming society, and so they do not hurt their spiritual lives by continuing to act in evil. And if your brother has a splinter in his eye, that splinter is hurting him. If you have shunned the evil of arrogance and contempt, you can see clearly to help him remove that splinter.
The story we read from the Old Testament gives a beautiful example of how to help others through their problems without judging them. In the story, Noah became drunk and fell asleep naked in his tent. In that culture, nakedness was shameful. Noah’s middle son, Ham, told his brothers about it and expected them to join in with him laughing at their father. But Shem and Japheth took a blanket, walked backwards so they wouldn’t see their father’s nakedness, and placed the blanket over him. The Writings tell us that this is a picture of how angels respond to the faults in others. They do everything they can to put a good interpretation on anything evil they see in another. They assume that the person’s motivations are good even though they might be doing something wrong. That’s like Shem and Japheth walking backwards to avoid seeing their father’s nakedness. But this does not mean that they do nothing to help him change – they still lay a blanket over him. Just as Shem and Japeth covered their father with a blanket to amend his nakedness, angels try to help that person overcome his faults – even as they are looking for the good in a person and putting a good interpretation on what is bad. The passage we read this morning from Arcana Coelestia puts it this way: “If they see anything evil and false [in a person], they excuse it, and if they can, try to amend it in him.”
This is what it means to remove the splinter from our brothers’ eyes: to give assistance, if they can accept it, in changing their lives. What does it look like to remove the splinter from our brother’s eye? It might look like gently encouraging a friend in a struggle she is having. It might look like telling a loved one about something from the Word that helps him overcome a bad habit. A passage from Arcana Coelestia says that in the Ancient Church, everyone taught his brother, and that this was one of their chief acts of charity – but if his brother did not acknowledge the teaching, he did not become indignant. If we are continually reminding ourselves that only the Lord can change people’s lives, and that we have no power of our own, we can help our brothers and sisters overcome their struggles without a sense of condemnation and without trying to control them. We judge an action, or an attitude, to be harmful, rather than judging a person. We act out of a love for protecting another from harm, rather than a love to dominate or control.
Removing the plank from our own eye is not a one-time thing – and we don’t have to wait until we’re perfect to help other people. But every time we want to help someone, we need to acknowledge our enormous tendency to put ourselves above others, and to realize that this evil (the love of self) is more harmful than whatever we are trying to help in the other. We need to rid ourselves of the desire to control others, and instead replace it with a sincere desire to serve. If we continue to cast out that beam, we are able to help others see the splinters in their eye and remove them – not from a place of condemnation, but from love. The Lord said, “First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye.”