Saturday, 13 September 2014

Motes, Beams, and Humility

Notes from a homily not delivered to the Sisters of the Love of God on Friday morning, owing to a diary cock-up.

Luke 6:39-42

"He also told them a parable: ‘Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit? A disciple is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully qualified will be like the teacher. Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbour, “Friend, let me take out the speck in your eye”, when you yourself do not see the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye."

Our New Testament lecturers, many years ago, used to engage in the entertaining game of trying to identify the "authentic" sayings of Jesus. All I can remember now is that the answer was usually "anything embarrassing, and nothing from John's Gospel". However, I think this morning's Gospel reading qualifies on two grounds - it is marked by humour, and it coheres with a deep theme in other teachings of Jesus.

Because religion is controlled and extolled chiefly by po-faced people, we tend not to see much comedy in the Bible, and yet it's definitely there. It's unthinkable that Jesus can have achieved the following he did without making people laugh, and you don't get the reputation of "a wine-bibber and a glutton" without being able to tell a good story. Even Mahatma Gandhi, with his solemn and steely charisma, had bursts of humour. The one I remember reading was his answer to the question "what do you think of Western Civilization?" "I think it would be a very good idea".

And here we have Jesus illustrating his point with a ludicrous image - someone clattering about with a log over his face, telling everyone else how to do things, and "the trouble with you". When I was doing A-levels and applying to Oxford long ago, I met my Great-Uncle Peter at my Nan's flat one afternoon, and dismissing my academic prowess, he said "what you need, son, is savvy". "I haven't read that in the university prospectus, Uncle Peter, they tend to prefer A-grades", I coldly and sniffily replied. In retrospect, Uncle Peter was wrong about Oxford, but probably right about life, and a bit more savvy might have protected me from a litany of foolish errors of judgement and put me in a better place now. On the other hand, it is highly questionable that Uncle Peter was much blessed in this respect himself. When he grew old and even more eccentric, answering the door to the postman in the nude and so on, no one really thought he was much different from how he'd always been, just more so.

So, besides the humour which speaks of authenticity, there is in this passage a coherence with so many other teachings which are levellers - not, I hope, levelling down, although Jesus does call us hypocrites if we've no powers of self-examination and continue to sit in judgement - but levelling up. He sets us impossible standards of behaviour - equating desire with adultery, and anger with murder - which are surely intended to humble us from our thrones of judgement on one another, knowing that none of us can attain the perfect standard.

If the consequence of such an awareness is a gentle kindness towards our fellow human beings, knowing them to be no more frail than we are, and perhaps in humility, learning to help one another with our specks and logs, that must make the world a better place, and be Good News indeed.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
September 2014

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