“Why is it that you see the speck in the eye of your brother, but the log that is in your eye, you do not notice? How can you say to your brother, ‘Permit me, and I will remove the speck from your eye’, when the log is in your eye?’ Hypocrite, remove first the log from your eye, and afterward, you will surely see to remove the speck from the eye of your brother.” (Matt.7:3-5, Delitzsch Hebrew Gospels, Vine of David)
In the previous installment of this post, we explored the Jewishness of this teaching of the Master, and observed how evil speech (specifically, speech against your brother) is more damaging than nearly any sin we can engage in; it is enough to negate our good works; it has the potential to disqualify us from the World To Come (according to Jewish sources).
However, this teaching also creates some inherent contradictions, if one is paying attention, and this gives us the opportunity to address (as a sideline) a common problem with biblical interpretation: When we are overly literal in our understanding of the text, we box ourselves in to an impossible to defend dogma. In the case of this teaching of Jesus, how can this happen? It is common for a believer (or nonbeliever) to wag their finger at us if we have anything critical to say about anyone or anything, based on what they perceive to be Jesus’ “log in your own eye” teaching that all criticism is off limits. But this view contradicts scripture. Consider the following examples:
“You men who are stiffnecked and uncircumicised in heart and ears are always resisting the holy spirit; you are doing just as your fathers did.” (Acts 7:51)
“One of themselves, a prophet of their own, said, ‘Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.’ This testimony is true. For this reason reprove them severely so that they may be sound in the faith…” (Titus 1:12-13)
“For I, on my part, though absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged him who has so committed this, as though I were present.” (1 Cor.5:3)
In the first passage, St.Stephen is passing judgment upon his audience. This violates what Jesus told us (seemingly) when he proclaimed, “Do not judge.”(Lk.6:37) In the second, Paul violates several commands by proclaiming an evil report, repeating gossip, and passing judgment on others. In the third, Paul has the audacity to pass judgment, though not present and not part of the situation personally. How many times have you and I been rebuked for speaking into a situation that we are not present for? Yet, these examples are part of holy scripture. So what are we to think of these discrepancies? It seems that the disciples of Jesus did not follow their Master’s commands very well. Or are we missing some important context?
First, let’s remember that the Chofetz Chaim denounces evil speech, not judgment. As we saw in the first installment, Jesus is not prohibiting judgment in this passage, he is teaching us how and when we should not judge, and also discussing our attitudes in judgment.
The key principle to keep in mind is that we should never speak evil of God’s people, which includes not only Christians, but Jews. There is almost never an occasion to speak evil of a member of God’s family, unless it is directly to the person in the form of rebuke (which is not evil speech, technically), or when it is to rebuke evil which could pollute the rest of the family (such as the case with Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians quoted above).
The Bible speaks of this principle in the Torah:
“Do not go as a gossipmonger among your people.” (Lev.19:16)
The sages say that it is prohibited to speak evil about a Jew only when he is one who acts in the way of his people.
It is not shameful to focus on the shortcomings of a wicked person, but we must be careful to define what is meant by a wicked person. This is not, for instance, someone whom we don’t like, or whom holds to a different doctrinal stance than we do. Rather, it is defined by the sages as a malicious offender. The reasoning is clear: Just as the man being rebuked by Paul in Corinth, or the Cretans being called out in Titus, or the hypocritical religious leaders whom would subsequently stone Stephen to death, the rebuke is for the benefit of the greater community, to restore the fear of the LORD.
However, it is certainly wrong, and therefore constitutes loshon hora to publicly shame a person who sins out of ignorance or temptation. This is not condoned by the sages or by the Lord, and this is what our Master is talking about in this passage as well as the passage in Luke 6 in which he commands us not to judge.
Non-malicious human failings fall under the category of amecha, which means it falls into the category of behavior in Leviticus which speaks of loving your brother, which the Lord has identified as the second greatest commandment on which hangs much of the Law and the Prophets.
The simplest way to summarize the idea in practical terms is to first remove the log from our own eye, and then (perhaps) we might be able to address the speck in our brother’s eye.