Fourth Sunday after Trinity 2021

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ Jesus, in today’s Gospel we hear one of the most famous parables from the Sermon on the Plain, the Sermon in St. Luke’s Gospel that historically has been compared to the longer Sermon on the Mount in St. Matthew’s Gospel. It comes toward the end of the Sermon, and in many ways is a kind of moral encapsulation. It is known as the Parable of the Mote and the Beam, a visually stark reminder that we must avoid the hypocrisy of judging our brother’s faults when we remain blind to our own. A painting by Domenico Fetti in 1619 captures the almost cartoonish imagery: An accusatory man with an outpointed finger sits slightly above the condemned man. A beam comes out from the accusatory man’s eye that is as big as an old forest tree trunk. It hangs over the condemned man like a kind of petrified wood guillotine. With only the slightest tug of gravity this ridiculously long and thick beam will crash down on both of them. It is only a matter of time before the blinded accuser’s haughty moralism and self-righteous tomfoolery destroy them both. With this artwork in mind, we can see that the blind condemning the blind really was the “mutual assured destruction” long before the proliferation of nuclear weapons after the Second World War. Man did not need to split the atom, when he could wipe out himself and everyone else around him with the kind of accusatory rage that equally blinds the eye as it sharpens the tongue. In the Domenico Fetti painting, the mote in the condemned man’s eye is so small as to be almost unobservable. It is there, but it is no larger than a splinter. If left alone, whatever is wrong with the condemned man likely will not negatively impact anyone but himself. Perhaps, he will harbor within his own mind a wrong opinion about some matter. Or perhaps he will remain a bit ornery about something that would be placated, if only he extracted that mote out from his own eye and started to see clearly. Regardless, since he does not presume to be judge, jury, and executioner of others, the man with the mote primarily harms himself. His error in thought, or even his immoral behavior, will not harm others to any great extent. He is a fallen man, as we all are, but his life is not calamitous, for in withholding judgment the man with the mote in his own eye does not presume to be a cheap stand-in for God. He does not presume to put his own selfishness above the truthfulness of his own fallen condition. He has his flaws, but unlike the man blinded by the beam, the man with the mote remains mindful that, “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord.” In the end, the lesson is clear: The pagan who keeps his faults to himself is in a better state of grace than the Christian who clouds his own sins with the fire and brimstone he breathes down on everyone else around him.

So we should withhold judging others, when we have yet to work out what is wrong with ourselves, and yet this is no excuse for moral equivalency. To refrain ourselves from judging the sinner is not the same as to refrain ourselves from judging sin. The answer to self-righteousness is not moral laxity. The answer to highhanded boasting is neither silence nor indecision in the face of what is clearly wrong. The answer to a would be god who is too big for his britches is not to pretend that there is no God. It is important to note that as our modern day society has fallen further away from the Christian culture of the past, and more removed from the Holy Bible, we have seen a proportional increase in the voices of the self-righteous moralizers and of the would be secular gods of our age. The more we collectively forget the real God; so the more we fall under the condemnation of all those false gods out there. The more we erase the existential angst of sin; so the more we are judged to be guilty of political heresy and of cultural impiety. When there are no more real crimes there are only thought crimes. When there are no more real sins there are only the make believe taboos the party in power props up to keep the toadies in line. When there is no more real God there are only false gods. We Christians too often have interpreted the Parable of the Mote and the Beam to mean that we should set aside our moral backbones. We have assumed that not judging others means being politely deferential to those who want to burn the Christian faith and culture to the ground. This is not so. Indeed, it is the very opposite, for the more Christians have deferred to the anti-Christian age of our times, the more self-righteous judgment and stiff necked moralism are all the rage.

St. Macarius the Great offers a keen insight on why it is that a Christian must eschew the role of the crass, self-righteous judge: “The soul that really loves God and Christ, though it may do ten thousand righteous acts, will esteem herself as having wrought nothing. Though she should exhaust the body with fastings, her attitudes toward the virtues is as if she had not yet even begun to labor for them.” Stated another way, if we truly love Christ Jesus, then we are mindful that we fall short of the glory of God.  If we truly seek the truth, then we are mindful that we have yet to acquire the truth in all its glory and that at best we look through a glass darkly. If we truly seek God, then we are mindful that we are not Him and that we must not lord it over anyone as if we are some sort of cheap imitation of Him. For the heart of the self-righteous judge is his own hardened pride. The condemnation he imposes on others is his own condemnation. The sin he points out in others is his own sin. His judgment is a thinly veiled attempt at transference. His high moral exaltation is a mask meant to hide the depths of odious immorality to which he has fallen. We would say that he protesteth too much, and so long as we did not judge ourselves better that self-righteous judge we would be correct to say just that.

St. Paul instructs us to work out our salvation in fear and trembling, but how are we to begin doing so when we think that we have nothing that needs to be worked out? Self-righteous judgment not only blinds us to our own many sins. It blinds us to our own need for salvation. It also sets up a false dichotomy between exalted judgment on the one hand and polite, moral equivalency on the other. Whether pompous and loud when we should not speak, or deferential and silent when we should speak, in either case we are pawns of the devil. Pray, brethren, for that grace by which in time we may learn how and when to speak, and how and when to ponder in our hearts. Pray, brethren, that we may have the courage to withstand our own propensity for self-righteousness, which really serves to hide us from our own glaring faults, and instead to be honest completely with ourselves about our need for God’s salvation.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.     

Published by Michael Sean Erickson

I write, act, and produce films in Los Angeles. Everything else is conjecture.

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