“Eye Surgery” on Matthew 7:1-5 by Joe Ellis – March 5, 2023
Imagine you see your Christian brother or sister doing something that is clearly wrong — let’s call it a sin — it seems quite destructive and it's on your heart to say something. Imagine that although you’re not one of those people who love confrontation, you love your friend, so you gather up your courage and say, “Jeff, I love you. I really want the best for you, and I’ll always be there for you — but I’d like to talk with you about what’s been going on. It's just not right.” Then, faster than you can think ‘Jeff’s being defensive,’ he whips out this passage saying, “Hey man, Jesus said, ‘Judge not lest ye be judged.'” Bam, you’ve just been incapacitated by the Christian version of the Vulcan Nerve Punch. This passage has certainly been used as a sort of specialized move to put anyone not minding their own business back in their place. So, what do you say to Jeff? Do you shrug your shoulders, saying, “I don’t want to be the one to cast the first stone.” You probably know that Bible reference. The story of when the Scribes and Pharisees sniffed out a woman they knew was committing adultery. They threw her before Jesus and the crowd saying, “The law commands us to stone such a woman. What do you say?” It’s in John 8:7-11 where Jesus said, “You without sin, cast the first stone. One by one they drop their stones and walk away. When they’d all left, Jesus asks this nameless woman, “Where are they? Did no one condemn you?” She replied, “No one, sir”, and Jesus said, “I do not condemn you either. Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.”
This is a really helpful story to consider alongside the “Judge not” passage we read in Matthew 7:1-5, because it's the same Greek word behind Jesus’ question, “Did no one condemn you?” It’s the same word when he said, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.” The word has a big range of meanings, but everything I’ve read on the “Judge Not" passage, says that Jesus is talking about the judgment of condemnation. Like, they wanted to throw rocks at her in order to end her life. It's that sort of final, definitive, categorical act of condemnation. The judgment where one stands in the place of God and pronounces upon a person their condemnation. Now, we can pat ourselves on the back and compare ourselves to those ancient people and their stones, and say we would never do that. But, we’ve found ways of getting around the fact that stoning people is illegal. The children’s saying that goes — “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” is a lie! Words are devastating. So are dirty looks. So is the experience of being shunned. These, among others, are the tools of condemnation that Christians use instead of stones. Here, Jesus is saying rid yourself of these tools which we use to attempt to exile a person to condemnation. There is no condemnation.
But he is not saying that we cannot render moral or spiritual judgment about another person’s behaviour. Jesus is not muzzling us about speaking out when we see a neighbour leading themselves to destruction. As Christians, we are called to call each other back. We are called to put our nose in each other’s business and encourage one another into behaviour that better reflects life in the Kingdom of God.
So, how do we do that? Jesus says, “You’ll be judged, you see, by the judgment you use to judge others! You’ll be measured by the measuring rod you use to measure others.” Different instruments are built and calibrated to engage their subjects in different ways. A thermometer is designed to detect temperature. A speedometer interacts with speed. A ruler touches spacial dimension. A clock regulates time. A heart calibrated for condemnation seeks people to condemn. As Christians, we are never to hold the “condemn-o-meter” up to another person to measure how condemned they are. Someone might ask, if we can’t use the “condemn-o-meter,” what can we do? What if we calibrated our hearts differently? What if we calibrated our hearts around the fruit of the Spirit — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control. Measuring someone with love, not condemnation; Seeking out others with joy and gentleness, and peace. Looking at others through the lens of kindness and self-control.
Imagine, hypothetically, that you are or I am a person who’s got a plank in their eye — some area of sin in our life — behaviour that is destructive towards the in-breaking Kingdom of God. Imagine encountering that person who has calibrated their heart to the fruit of the Spirit. They come to you or me, they see your sin or my sin, and they measure you out of their love for you, not their condemnation. They come to you with faithfulness, not discarding you because you have fallen so terribly short. They consider the situation with generosity, giving the most charitable explanation to the behaviour. They speak to you with tenderness and kindness. They respond to a confession not with shock, outrage, or Schadenfreude (that’s pleasure derived from another person’s misfortune), but with self-control. What a grace to be in such a person’s presence. This certainly was the contrast between the men who came at that adulterous woman with stones, and the tenderness of Jesus when he said, “Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more.” We’ll be measured by the measuring rod we use to measure others.
How do we develop that character ourselves? Here is a start: Jesus says: “Why do you stare at the splinter in your neighbour’s eye but ignore the plank in your own?” This last summer as I was memorizing this passage I’d often get the order mixed up. I’d often have Jesus say, “Why do you stare at the plank in your neighbour’s eye but ignore the splinter in your own?” I think that gives you a glimpse into the twisted nature of my subconscious — and gets at why Jesus said what he did. For me it's very, very easy to describe my neighbour’s problems in the most dramatic of terms. Sometimes I have thoughts that are very close to the language of condemnation we talked about earlier. I’ve had some neighbours where saying to them that they have a plank in their eye doesn’t begin to describe their issues. It's not a plank in their eye, it's a telephone pole — that’s even too small. They’ve got the entire Houston Fishing Pole stuck in their eye and the weight of that crazy thing has pinned their head to the ground so they can’t think straight. Then, in my self-justified frenzy, Jesus kindly taps me on the shoulder and says, “Joe, you’ve got the order wrong. It's your neighbour who has the speck, you need to first pay attention to the Houston Fishing Pole that's stuck in your own eye.” Oh, that is a painful switch to make. I protest, “But my neighbour did this, that, and the other thing!” And Jesus says kindly, “Yes, but it's the Houston Fishing Pole in your own eye that we’re talking about.” And how I wish that he never said that. How I wish I could to go through life acting like my eyes are in perfect in order and the most I need is the occasional eye drop to wash out some minor dust. But Jesus doesn’t leave fools like me alone, and won’t let me ignore my planks. He shows me not to be afraid of them. Once you face these planks in your own eye, the Holy Spirit begins the work of removing them. The first step is to stop worry about our neighbour’s eye, and then we confess our own sin. We can confess to a brother or sister who’s had practice at removing their own boatload of planks, and in the process they have been shaped by love, gentleness, and kindness.
And that’s the difficult path that eventually leads us back to our neighbour, perhaps even helping them with whatever is troubling their eye. Jesus says, “First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you’ll see clearly enough to take the splinter out of your neighbour’s eye.” There is something greatly instructive about facing our own sin, our own failures, the planks that cloud our vision. I hate doing it. I’d much rather ignore my sin, pretend to be holy and whole all the time - but the only one I’m fooling is myself. As we go through the purifying fire of confronting those planks in our own eye, we will emerge holy, whole, and clean — we’ll see clearly. We may even be able to say to our neighbour, “I noticed that you have that thing in your eye. Can I help you with that? I had something similar a while ago.”