Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin with the Old Testament of Sirach (apologies, but this is a book that Catholics accept while Jews and Protestants don’t). Here the writer advises his listeners against praising someone until that persons speaks as that person’s “words betrays what he feels.” In Luke’s Gospel Jesus cautions his disciples with this: “Can one blind man guide another? Surely both will fall into a pit? The disciple is not superior to his teacher.”
For me the beauty of reading Scripture over the course of my life rests on this: Sometimes I’ll read something for the hundreth time and see something I’ve never seen before. We’ve all heard and used the phrase “the blind leading the blind” and I confess I used it recently at work when I was with a new employee and was asked to do something I hadn’t done before. It went well but rested more on luck than on sight.
What struck me this time in reading this Gospel was that if you’re blind you don’t necessarily know that your guide is also blind and that falling into a pit will likely surprise both of you. I imagine both of them (not) looking at each other and asking: “Didn’t you see the pit?”
When we read Scripture we read a great deal of the relationship between teachers and students (or masters and disciples) and we assume that the roles are well understood. And in fairness we see that all the time: in school we’re students who pay to learn from the teacher. When we’re new employees we recognize that we learn from older employees. When we’re children we know that we learn from our parents.
But these relationships don’t fully define us or our roles. Sometimes we can learn important lessons from our peers, and even from our students. I still cackle about this, but when I was in high school in the 1970s my English teacher ranted about how the “poor children in Communist China” were forced to memorize songs about victories in battle and how much better we Americans were. Forgoing wisdom and good sense I raised my hand and reminded her the the American National Anthem (the Star Spangled Banner) was itself a song about victory in battle. In fairness to her, she admitted I was right. And I like to think she never talked about that again.
I think that’s the point of today’s Gospel. We are all in need of healing and sometimes others recognize this when we don’t. I think Jesus used the image of our eyes for a good reason. We talk about our eyes being “the windows into our soul.” When we say “look me in the eye” we’re asking the other person to be honest.
And while we’ve probably all had “something in our eye” we recognize that we use that phrase to mean that we can’t see what’s in front of us. It’s medically not true: having a foreign object normally doesn’t impair our ability to see, it’s just an irritant that needs to be removed.
But, like much of Scripture and our journeys of faith, it gives us a higher truth. Of all of our senses we see sight as critically important. We see blindness as an disability in a different way than we see deafness or the inability to smell, taste, and touch. As a child I admired Helen Keller and Louis Braille for their ability to move beyond blindness and make strides in human history.
I don’t think Jesus believed that anyone could have a plank in his eye and not know it. There’s no standard size for a plank but can all agree that it’s not something that can fit into an eye. As he often does, Jesus uses hyperbole to make his point.
We all live with our shadows, those things that prevent us from being fully who God calls us to be. And we sometimes have a complicated relationship with those shadows: we are often better at seeing those shadows in others than we’re willing to admit to those same shadows in ourselves. Health professionals call this “projection,” that we see clearly in others those things we won’t admit in ourselves.
When that happens, and it happens more than we’re willing to admit, we are called to humility in ourselves but we’re also called to prophecy in our relationship with others. I think most of us recognize that sometimes we’re called to listen to hard truths from others, even when we don’t want to, and even when it comes from someone we don’t think has the ability or insight to call us out.
And taking nothing from that truth, I also think we are called to claim the courage to point out the splinter (or plank) in another’s eye. I’m currently reading a book about the years before the American Civil War. It’s called The War Before the War by Andrew Delbanco and I strongly recommend it. It speaks of the years before the Civil War when the issue of slavery divided our country nearly to the point of dissolution. Much of the debate centered on the question of who should have a voice. Should abolitionists and escaped slaves be heard at the expense of slave owners or should slave owners be heard over their opponents?
Both sides claimed that each other suffered the blindness that comes from having a plank and neither accepted seeing through a splinter. Their blindness nearly destroyed the United States. Both sides nearly fell into the same pit.
In the end, the United States remained united and we abolished slavery. I say this with humility but the next 150 years didn’t erase racism but it gave us the vocabulary to recognize the sin of racism. It allowed us to dispute the false belief that people of color were intellectually inferior or in need of leadership by others.
And I think this points to our Gospel: many of the voices of those who spoke this truth were people who weren’t supposed to have a voice: Dred Scott. Sojourner Truth. Booker T. Washington. W.E.B. DuBois. Emmett Till. Martin Luther King.
When we think of splinters and planks we are called not only to see but also to speak about what we see. We all live with impediments to our sight but that doesn’t allow others to shame us into not speaking because we don’t see perfectly. We are called to heal our own planks but we are also called to call out the planks in others.