Have you ever said something and then regretted it, been embarrassed even ashamed? I have. As the founding father Benjamin Franklin once said, ‘From the slip of the foot you may soon recover, but a slip of the tongue you may never get over.’
On the other hand has someone ever said something to you which so moved you, uplifted you and encouraged you because it was so sensitive and caring? I have experienced that as well. We reveal so much about ourselves and others reveal so much about themselves by not only what we do or not do, but by what we say and do not say. Sirach in our first reading states it clearly: ‘Praise no one before he speaks, for it is then that people are tested.’ Jesus in Luke’s Gospel continues this theme of how clearly we reveal ourselves by what we say and how we say it.
“Can a blind person guide a blind man? Will not both fall into a pit?’ Blindness includes lack of insight morally. Jesus continues, ‘No disciple is superior to the teacher, but when fully trained, every disciple will be like his teacher.’ Jesus is the greatest of teachers and none of has been fully trained to be like him. School remains open for us all as we continue in our formation as disciples of Christ, to be more like him.
Each of us is both teacher and student throughout our lives. We are teachers when people seek our advice. If we respond out of experience we can be helpful. If we respond out of our ignorance, jealousy or malice we will only lead them astray, perhaps even to sin. As a lawyer and a priest I might be able to offer some insights based on my formation in the two professions. But you should take advice from the gifted musicians in the choir loft if you wish to learn about sacred music. And so it is in all areas.
We are students when we seek the advice and example of others. We should be careful who we allow to be our teachers. Are they competent or blind.
Jesus asked ‘Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own? . . . Remove the wooden beam from your own eye first, then you will see clearly to remove the splinter in your brother’s eye.’ What are the wooden beams in our eyes based on prejudice, jealousy or gossip.
A professor in a theology class announced that his next lecture would be about sin and deceit. In preparation he asked his students to read the17th chapter of the Gospel of Mark. At the next class he asked who had completed the assignment, most hands went up. ‘Thank you’ said the professor, ‘It is to those like you that today’s lecture on sin and deceit is especially addressed. There is no 17th chapter of Mark.’ A wooden beam was revealed.
The lesson for us is we not only have no right to criticize others unless we ourselves are free from similar faults and that we need to acknowledge that we cannot fully see the faults of others because our sight is marred by our own. Someone said, ‘there is so much bad in the best of us and so much good in the worst of us that it ill becomes any of us to find fault with the rest of us.’
One thing I have learned often the hard way is how much we do not know about each other nor do others understand all there is about us. The wooden beam in our own eyes blinds us to ourselves. Most of us can remember times when others have misinterpreted our words and actions. When I worked as the legal counsel to a governor of Wisconsin I once missed a deadline for a legal filing as result of my incompetence which was interpreted by some who loudly proclaimed that I did that on purpose. Righteous indignity toward them did not soothe my conscience. We cannot control what conclusions others draw; we just need to be honest about our own sins and failings, our wooden beams.
Jesus reminds us that we will ultimately be judged by both what we do and say, how well we treat others as we would like to be treated. There is an old adage – ‘don’t do what I do, do as I say.’ Unfortunately this is the choice of so many in all walks of life, family life, political life and in the church especially by priests and bishops as the sad scandal of our day which seems far from justice and accountability after so many years which most of us bishops are committed to address. Destructive words and actions can never take the place of good deeds and kind words for those who seek to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
‘A good person out of the store of goodness in his heart produces good . . . from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks.’ Jesus reminds us. Nothing reveals what is in our heart thank the words we speak about and to others.
This is especially so when we speak out of emotions or feelings – in anger or in unhealthy passion. Little things can be instructive. For instance, how good a patient are you? I know someone who had been very sick was described by one of his nurses as a ‘typical Irishmen.’ It don’t think that was a compliment. In contrast I recently was ministered to by a couple to whom I sought to minister while one was suffering from a rare form of cancer. Their depth of faith and deep relationship with Christ sustained them and taught me to deepen my own faith. They witnessed what Saint Paul proclaimed in the 2nd reading: ‘Be firm, steadfast, always devoted to the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.’
At ordinations, the bishop places the Book of Gospels in the hands of each person being ordained as he proclaims this charge: ‘believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.’ That challenge is for us all. When we believe what we read we are students, when we teach what we believe we ourselves are teachers, and when we practice what we teach, we are disciples of Christ. When we practice what Jesus teaches especially by what we say, we will speak with a full heart. Sirach is right when this inspired word of God challenges us: ‘when we speak we are tested.’
As we begin Lent this week we might reflect on our wooden beams and humbly ask our Teacher to free us from them.