by John Gustav-Wrathall
Last week, I was doing a Sunday School homework assignment. (I guess I’m outing myself here as a total Church geek.) We were supposed to go home, pray for light and understanding, then read 3 Nephi 14, and then conclude by praying for continued light and understanding. I dutifully performed the assignment.
So, after praying for “light and understanding,” I began with the text. Verses 1-2. Jesus teaching the Nephites: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged; and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.”
OK, I thought. We’ve read that so many times, we take it for granted. But in the meditative, focused spirit that had been induced by my prayer, I felt more open, more attentive, even a little excited. This teaching about non-judgment is profound. My mind and spirit were hungry for deeper insight.
The following verses (3-5) present the parable of the beam and the mote. Again, how many of us haven’t heard this parable a million times? “Thou hypocrite, first cast the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast the mote out of thy brother’s eye.”
I had always taken the meaning of this parable essentially to be: Focus on your own damn faults. You have no business messing with others or telling them how to fix their own faults. You have a beam. Your brother has a mote. You’d better focus on the beam. That’s always how I’d read this. Not a bad reading of this text.
But, I realized, there was a part of this saying of Jesus that had always troubled me, given my traditional interpretation of this text. It’s the part about how, once you’ve cast the beam out of your eye, then you can help cast the mote out of your brother’s eye. Is Jesus actually saying that I could become perfect enough some day to in fact be in a position to help fix others’ faults? That bugged me. It seemed like a dangerous teaching. Because I know I’ll never be perfect. I’ll always have beams or motes or imperfections of other sorts. And if I take what Jesus says here literally, wouldn’t there be a risk of me thinking I’m perfect when I’m not? And in my delusional self-image of perfection, go about judging and trying to perfect others? Doesn’t this actually teach away from what Jesus is saying here? Doesn’t that open up the prospect of all kinds of judgmental and pharisaical attitudes on the part of individuals who feel like they’ve taken care of their beam, so now they’re all ready to start working on the motes of their less fortunate brothers and sisters?
But on this reading, there was a particular phrase that caught my attention, that helped bring me to a deeper understanding of this text: “Then shalt thou see clearly.” I remembered the first verse of this chapter: “Judge not.” The parable on beams and motes was an extension of that teaching, an illumination or illustration of it. Jesus is using the parable to teach the art of non-judgment.
It was then I realized that I had always misunderstood what Jesus meant by the symbolism of the beam. I had always assumed that the “beam” represented my flaws, my failings, my faults, which were always bigger and worse than the flaws, failings and faults of others… Their “motes.” What I now realized is that the beam represents a very specific type of failing. It represents my inclination to judge.
The central metaphor here, I realized, is not the beam or mote. It is the eye. Immediately, another saying of Jesus came to mind, from the preceding chapter (3 Nephi 13/Matthew 6). “The light of the body is the eye; if, therefore, thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.”
Jesus wants us to “see clearly.” Beams and motes in this parable are an impediment to clear sight. In teaching about the “beam,” what Jesus is telling us is that our inclination to judge one another is our number one impediment to seeing the way God wants us to see.
See, we are in a very real sense our brother’s keeper. We are supposed to be there for each other and help each other with flaws and faults. But it is impossible for us to do this effectively when we judge one another. Huh?
OK, let me expand on the parable a bit here. Has anyone ever actually extracted a mote from someone else’s eye? I’m here to tell you, I never have. I’ve occasionally had a mote (spec of dirt) in my eye, and I’ve occasionally been around someone who’s gotten a mote in their eye. But the eye is a sensitive organ. Do I want somebody poking around in my eye with their dirty fingers and trying to pull out my mote? Does somebody else want me doing the same? Heck no!
When I’ve had a mote in my eye, the usual response of a friend or a loved one who happened to be nearby during such a misfortune is for them to put their arm around me, perhaps help guide me to a near-by sink, and then comfort me while I rinse my eye under running water, gently washing the mote away and restoring my sight. I think this is really the only practical way I or anybody else casts a mote out of a brother’s or sister’s eye.
My most important responsibility in relation to any brother or sister is not ever to correct them, but to see them. To cast away any impediments, any judgmentalism, that hinders me from understanding and empathizing with them. Only when I can see them non-judgmentally, only when I can see them as they see themselves, is it possible for me to be in the type of solidarity and love with them that enables us each to work on our individual flaws and live into the potential that Jesus Christ has called us all to live into.
I often hear LGBT people cite Jesus’ teaching of “judge not, that ye be not judged,” as a way of insisting, “Don’t judge me!” But Christ intended the teaching universally. It applies to us LGBT folks as judges of others, as much as it applies to us as the victims of unkind judgment. We need not to judge even those who judge us. I came away from this scripture with a hunger to “see clearly” and to have a “whole body full of light,” and a profounder realization of the depth of alienation and loss of vision that is caused whenever I judge, no matter whom I judge.
I pray for continued light and understanding. And, as God is my witness brothers and sisters, I’m asking you both to see me, and to help me keep my vision clear.