This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 6:39–45:
Jesus told his disciples a parable,
“Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit? No disciple is superior to the teacher; but when fully trained, every disciple will be like his teacher. Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me remove that splinter in your eye,’ when you do not even notice the wooden beam in your own eye? You hypocrite! Remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter in your brother’s eye. A good tree does not bear rotten fruit, nor does a rotten tree bear good fruit. For every tree is known by its own fruit. For people do not pick figs from thornbushes, nor do they gather grapes from brambles.
“A good person out of the store of goodness in his heart produces good, but an evil person out of a store of evil produces evil; for from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks.”
Better to remain silent and be thought a fool, instructs one of my favorite adages, then to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt. For when one does start to speak — or heck, write — it reveals much about the speaker/writer. Who they are, what they value, and how diligently they have considered their positions all become apparent rather quickly.
There is some humor in that adage too, a kind of ironic twist that helps make that lesson memorable. So too did Jesus put humor in today’s parable, which first speaks to hypocrisy but then expands to a deeper issue, clearly aimed in some part at the Pharisees of that time and later the pharisees of our own. It’s not easy to see humor too often in Gospels as presented to us, as there is no explicit mention of laughter from Jesus in His mission. This parable, in which Jesus imagines a log in someone’s eye while trying to find a splinter in another, is clearly intended to amuse His audience, at least.
The use of humor in the Gospels has been a subject of study for quite a long time. In Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton argues that while Jesus gave full vent to His human nature in expressions of joy, sadness (“Jesus wept”), and anger, He may have hidden His mirth for a purpose:
Joy, which was the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian. And as I close this chaotic volume I open again the strange small book from which all Christianity came; and I am again haunted by a kind of confirmation. The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.
On the other hand, as Stephen Beale pointed out in response, we do see mirth and laughter in Old Testament passages that clearly reference Jesus to Christians, such as in Proverbs 8 or in Song of Songs. Fr. James Martin argues in his book Between Heaven and Mirth that we can actually find many such examples of Jesus’ use of humor in the Gospels and its indispensable use as a tool for Jesus in His own time.
That brings us back to today’s Gospel reading, in which the humorous part of the proverb — its reductio ad absurdum of hypocrisy — serves another purpose. While Jesus’ audience may have laughed at the vision of a log in someone else’s eye, Jesus gets to the heart of his point. Hypocrisy is only one part of this; what Jesus is telling His audience is to discern who is instructing them, how, and why.
Today’s first reading from Sirach makes this teaching more clear, even without the gentle humor Jesus uses:
When a sieve is shaken, the husks appear; so do one’s faults when one speaks. As the test of what the potter molds is in the furnace, so in tribulation is the test of the just. The fruit of a tree shows the care it has had; so too does one’s speech disclose the bent of one’s mind. Praise no one before he speaks, for it is then that people are tested.
This is a lesson about authority, and discerning between false and true prophets. That is also Jesus’ lesson today in his warning that “from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks.” The man with the log in his eye is just a humorous example of the warning from Sirach about the sieve and the husks. All of this, including the beam in the eye, is meant to warn Jesus’ audience that they are being led astray by the leadership that they trust. They need to discern the nature of those who teach by the nature of what they teach, whether those leaders be Pharisees, or Zealots, or Sadducees, or the secular leadership of Rome or Herod Antipas.
In fact, one might consider just how important this lesson is by the fact that Jesus used humor to make it so memorable. There are other memorable parables, of course, but the most memorable engage human nature at its emotional core. The parable of the prodigal son evokes our sorrow and wistful thirst for redemption, for instance. The parable of the Good Samaritan engages our desire for both justice and mercy, as does the parable of the unforgiving servant. The parable of the speck and the log engages us with humor, and a sort of amusing recognition of our common failing to correct others without correcting ourselves.
In a way, Jesus uses humor here to shake the sieve himself, separating us from the husks of our own petty hypocrisies to open us to His Word in a new way. As we laugh, we also shake off false prophets and faddish indulgences to open our eyes to His true teachings. And while we might not have any written confirmation of Jesus’ laughter, we can all be assured of His joy in seeing us grasp both the humor and the lesson — and especially if we learn to apply it as He intended.
Note: Lent begins this week. I still have not decided on my sacrifice yet; have you?
The front-page image is a detail from “The Parable of the Mote and the Beam” by Domenico Fetti, c.1619. On display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Via Wikimedia Commons.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.