Today’s Gospel passage continues Jesus’ instructions to his disciples that we began two Sundays ago, the so-called “Sermon on the Plain.” Today’s excerpt is made up of several loosely connected proverbs. The first part highlights proper behavior for Christians in the efforts at guiding, teaching and correcting one another. The second part concentrates on the visibility of good deeds.
None of these proverbs are original to Jesus. Each of them can be found in various written works by ancient Greek and Roman writers, the earliest of which wrote at least one hundred years before Jesus’ birth. The fact that Jesus uses these proverbs should not surprise us. They really are common sense aphorisms that are repeated in our own literature hundreds of years later.
To understand how the disciples would have heard Jesus’ counsel, it is necessary for us to understand how the Middle Eastern mind understands the human person. These people divided the human body into three distinct yet interpenetrating symbolic zones: eyes-heart (the eyes for gathering the information that the heart needs for making judgments); mouth-ears (the organs that collect and share self-expressive speech); and hands-feet (the body parts that act upon or implement what one has learned or knows).
The first zone (eyes-heart) is reflected in the first statement of today’s Gospel. Jesus spoke of teachers and guides with flawed vision. He warns his disciples to be careful about judging others actions before looking at their own. They are to remove the beam from their own eyes before criticizing others for a speck in their eyes. He goes on to note the heart's potential for producing both good and evil. He urged that teachers strive to develop proper vision and insight and a good heart.
The second zone (mouth-ears) comes into play toward the end of today’s passage. For Jesus, it is clearly imperative that a person cultivate a good heart that will produce good fruit, “for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks” (Lk 6:45), words that others will hear, remember, and act upon.
The third zone (hands-feet) is perhaps the most telling because speaking the truth is not enough. It is imperative to act upon what one knows, to live according to what one has learned. If we speak one way and act another, we are hypocrites.
This is how the human person acts consistently, with all the symbolic body parts in sync: heart-eyes, mouth-ears, hands-feet. In other words, it is important that one’s emotion-fused thoughts (heart-eyes), self-expressive speech (mouth-ears), and purposeful activity (hands-feet) be perfectly coordinated. Anything else is stage-acting, which is the original meaning of the Greek word “hypocrite.”
These vivid images in today’s Gospel are also found in the reflections of Jesus ben Sira, the author of the Book from which our first reading is taken. The Book of Sirach was written to urge his fellow Israelites to live out their covenant relationship with God. Both he and Jesus speak of the dangers of ignoring our own areas of blindness – those aspects that are yet unredeemed and in need of God’s illumination. Worse still is when one who is unaware of their own need for redemption tries to lead or correct others. I am sure that I don’t have to cite you examples of the presence of blind leadership in the Church today as we continue to grapple with the scandal that has plagued the Church in recent years.
These proverbs are offered to us as we prepare to enter the season of Lent in just a few days. As we enter this holy season once again, let us pray and offer our penances asking God to help us overcome our own blindness while at the same time praying for and offering our sacrifices for those who lead us.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M.