A Commentary by John Stott
Matthew 7:1-12. A Christian’s relationships: to his brother and father.
b. The Christian is not to be a hypocrite (3,4).
Jesus now tells his famous little parable about ‘foreign bodies’ in people’s eyes, specks of dust on the one hand and logs or beams on the other. James Moffatt referred to them as the ‘splinter’ and the ‘plank’. Earlier Jesus exposed our hypocrisy in relation to God, namely practising our piety before men to be seen by them; now he exposes our hypocrisy in relation to others, namely meddling with their peccadilloes, while failing to deal with our own more serious faults. Here is another reason why we are unfit to be judges: not only because we are fallible humans (and not God), but also because we are fallen humans. The fall has made all of us sinners. So we are in no position to stand in judgment on our fellow sinners; we are disqualified from the bench.
The picture of somebody struggling with the delicate operation of removing a speck of dirt from a friend’s eye, while a vast plank in his own eye entirely obscures his vision, is ludicrous in the extreme. Yet when the caricature is transferred to ourselves and our ridiculous fault-finding, we do not always appreciate the joke. We have a fatal tendency to exaggerate the faults of others and minimize the gravity of our own. We seem to find it impossible, when comparing ourselves with others, to be strictly objective and impartial. On the contrary, we have a rosy view of ourselves and a jaundiced view of others. Indeed, what we are often doing is seeing our own faults in others and judging them vicariously. That way, we experience the pleasure of self-righteousness without the pain of penitence. So *you hypocrite* (5) is a key expression here. Moreover this kind of hypocrisy is the more unpleasant because of an apparent act of kindness (taking a speck of dirt from somebody’s eye) is made the means of inflating our own ego. Censoriousness, writes A.B.Bruce, is a ‘Pharisaic vice, that of exalting ourselves by disparaging others, a very cheap way of attaining moral superiority’. The parable of the Pharisee and the publican was our Lord’s own commentary on this perversity. He told it ‘to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others’ (Lk.18:9). The Pharisee made an odious and inaccurate comparison, magnifying both his own virtue and the publican’s vice.
What, instead, we should do is to apply to ourselves at least as strict and critical a standard as we apply to others. ‘if we judged ourselves truly’, wrote Paul, ‘we should not be judged’ (1 Cor.11:31). We would not only escape the judgement of God; we would also be in a position humbly and gently to help an erring brother. Having first removed the log from our own eye, we would see clearly to take the speck from his.
c. The Christian is rather to be a brother (5).
Some people suppose that in the parable of the foreign bodies Jesus was forbidding us to act as moral or spiritual oculists and meddle with other people’s eyes, and telling us instead to mind our own business. This is not so. The fact that censoriousness and hypocrisy are forbidden us does not relieve us of brotherly responsibility towards one another. On the contrary, Jesus was later to teach that if our brother sins against us, our first duty (though usually neglected) is ‘go and tell him his fault between you and him alone’ (Mt.18:15). The same obligation is laid upon us here. To be sure, in certain circumstances we are forbidden to interfere, namely when there is an even bigger foreign body in our own eye which we have not removed. But in other circumstances Jesus actually commands us to reprove and correct our brother. Once we have dealt with our own eye trouble, then we shall see clearly to deal with his. A bit of dirt in his eye is, after all, rightly called a ‘foreign’ body. It doesn’t belong there. It is always alien, usually painful and sometimes dangerous. To leave it there, and make no attempt to remove it, would hardy be consistent with brotherly love.
Our Christian duty, then, is not to *see the speck* in our brother’s eye while at the same time we *do not notice the log* in our own (3); still less to *say* to our brother *Let me take the speck out of your eye* while we have not yet taken the log from our own (4); but rather this, *first* to *take the log* out of our own eye, so that then with the resulting clarity of vision we shall be able to *take the speck* out of our brother’s eye (5). Again, it is evident that Jesus is not condemning criticism as such, but rather the criticism of others when we exercise no comparable self-criticism; nor correction as such, but rather the correction of others when we have not first corrected ourselves.
The standard of Jesus for relationships in the Christian counter-culture is high and healthy. In all our attitudes and behaviour towards others we are to play neither the judge (becoming harsh, censorious and condemning), nor the hypocrite (blaming others while excusing ourselves), but the brother, caring for others so much that we first blame and correct ourselves and then seek to be constructive in the help we give them. ‘Correct him,’ said Chrysostom, alluding to someone who has sinned, ‘but not as a foe, nor as an adversary exacting a penalty, but as a physician providing medicines, yes, and – even more – as a loving brother anxious to rescue and to restore. We need to be as critical of ourselves as we often are of others, and as generous to others as we always are to ourselves. Then we shall anticipate the Golden Rule to which Jesus brings us in verse 12 and act towards others as we would like them to act towards us.
Tomorrow: Our attitude to ‘dogs’ and ‘pigs’ (6).
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.