I am sure we have been guilty to one degree or another of having a double standard; I know that I have. A double standard is holding others to certain behaviors, or expecting others to behave in a certain way, while exempting yourself from those same standards. The double standard in the example that I just gave is not expecting others to use roundabouts properly while I just drive through them however I want; rather, it is expecting other drivers to be lenient and understanding with me while not extending the same leniency and understanding to them. As I said, this is just one minor example; I am sure there are many others. And I’m sure almost everyone at times does the same thing – expecting certain behaviors from others while falling short ourselves.
Another word for this is hypocrisy. And this is one of the things that Jesus teaches about in our Gospel reading today. The reading includes in fact a series of teachings or sayings. The Old Testament includes several books that are essentially a collection of sayings or teachings – collectively they are referred to as the Wisdom books of Scripture. They include books like the Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the book from which we hear our first reading today, the book of Sirach. Sirach is essentially a big summary of the whole of Jewish wisdom tradition, of the moral teachings of the Old Testament, and was composed around 200 BC. The early Christian Church used it frequently in catechesis. A good practice for everyone is to study these books, perhaps to read through one or two of these proverbs or sayings each day and spend a few minutes reflecting on them: maybe early in the day before things get busy, or on the way to work, or perhaps before going to bed. Or, here’s a radical suggestion: how about reading one of them when you sit down to eat dinner as a family, and then discussing it? What it means, how you can practice it in your daily life, whether or not you think you are living up to it.
The main teaching from these verses we hear today from Sirach is that a person’s character can be known from his speech, from the words that come out of his mouth. For it is through our speech that we reveal what is going on in our minds and hearts. Even though we can deceive through speech and lead people to believe that we think something that in fact we do not, or that we are someone we are not, this deception cannot be maintained forever, and eventually the true character of a person is often revealed through his or her speech.
Truly, the gift of speech is one of the greatest gifts that God has given us. But as we all know, it can be used for good – or for ill. It is so easy to be careless in our speech: to gossip, complain, lie, swear, deliberately hurt others with our words. In contrast, our responsorial psalm reveals what the highest and ultimate purpose this gift of speech is: to give glory and praise to God. One who uses this gift of speech to give glory and praise to the Lord reveals a heart that is turned to Him, and at the same time, becomes more and more conformed to Him. And the one whose heart is conformed to the Lord is one who should also be heeded or listened to. In other words, that person is a dependable teacher.
Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels reveal him to be the successor to and the fulfillment of all the wisdom teachings of the Old Testament. The sayings he gives in our Gospel reading today are similar in style to the wisdom sayings of the Old Testament. And there are several teachings here: the blind leading the blind, the splinter and the wooden beam, by their fruits you shall know them. They can be considered separately or all together, for the Truth is all related; it all forms a unified whole.
In the first of these teachings, about the blind leading the blind, Jesus is stressing the necessity of having a good teacher. Here he is not referring to teachers of school subjects like math, science, etc., but rather teachers of truth and morality, or what I would call more broadly teachers of life. That is how teachers in the ancient world including Jesus’ time were understood: not someone who instructs us in a skill or a trade or a specific kind of knowledge, but rather someone who teaches us the right way to live. In Jesus’ time, Jewish rabbis would gather disciples or followers who would listen to them and learn from them about the Jewish Scriptures and how that applied to the way one should live one’s life. If one had a bad rabbi or teacher, someone who led an immoral personal life, who did not teach the truth of the Scriptures, then one would learn a very distorted or even false way of life; one would be very quickly misled: it would indeed be like the blind leading the blind.
Then Jesus talks about a person with a beam – some translations say “log” – in his eye who points out a speck or a splinter in his brother’s eye. But the idea is the same: how can you point out a splinter in someone else’s eye if you have a gigantic log in your own eye? In other words, pointing out the faults of others while ignoring one’s own faults. This goes back to the hypocrisy that I mentioned at the beginning. A hypocrite is one who teaches one thing while practicing the opposite. Complaining about bad drivers, while being a bad driver yourself. Expecting high standards from everyone while excusing yourself from those same standards. It’s so easy to spot other people’s faults, to be irritated by them, gossip to other people about them, get angry about them, and so on. It’s not always as easy to notice our own faults. Why is that? Perhaps we are blinded by pride; our pride convinces us that we’re not really doing anything wrong. Perhaps we’ve acted a certain way for so long that we’re not even aware of what we’re doing. Or perhaps taking a good hard look at ourselves, our thoughts, our behaviors, is an uncomfortable or even painful thing to do. We’re afraid of what we might see or learn about ourselves, so we focus on everyone else.
This is as much a challenge for me as it is for everyone, and even more so. That is because one of the primary things that I am asked to do as a priest is teach and proclaim the Truth, which includes what is the right way to live. Like all priests should do, I try to call people to a certain standard – but not just an OK, mediocre, or pretty decent standard, but rather the standard of perfection itself. But I myself am not perfect – far from it! So you could say that there is a certain amount of hypocrisy in me, as there is in every priest. How important it is then for me and for all priests to strive to conform our lives more and more to Christ! Because the less we do so, the less we practice what we preach, the less credibility we have as teachers of the Truth, and even worse, the less credibility the Truth itself has because of us. Conversely, the more our personal lives reflect Jesus Christ, the more credibility we have as witnesses of the faith and as teachers of the Truth.
By their fruits you shall know them, as Jesus teaches us, the last of the three sayings Jesus gives us in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus Himself is the perfect example, the perfect teacher. Because he is perfect, he is a sure guide, one who we can trust, one to whom we ought to listen. There is no splinter in his eye, much less a beam, and he sees us as we truly are. And Jesus bears only good fruit; He is the source of all that is good. Let us look to Jesus Christ as our dependable teacher and guide, one who will not lead us astray, and let us strive to conform ourselves and our way of life to this most perfect teacher.