The Plank and the Splinter

This is a sermon I gave June 27, 2009, at the Olivet New Church in Toronto.

The Plank and the Splinter

A Sermon by Rev. Coleman S. Glenn

Readings:

Matthew 7:1-5 (1) “Judge not, that you be not judged. (2) For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. (3) And why do you look at the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? (4) Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the splinter from your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye? (5) Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye.

Genesis 9:20-23 And Noah began to be a man of the ground, and he planted a vineyard. (21) Then he drank of the wine and was drunk, and became uncovered in his tent. (22) And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. (23) But Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and went backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness.

Arcana Coelestia 1079.  [That Ham saw the nakedness of his father] signifies that he observed the errors and perversions, [which] is evident from the signification of “nakedness”, as being what is evil and perverted. Here, those who are in faith separated from charity are described by “Ham” in his “seeing the nakedness of his father” that is, his errors and perversions; for they who are of this character see nothing else in a person; whereas-very differently-those who are in the faith of charity observe what is good, and if they see anything evil and false, they excuse it, and if they can, try to amend it in him, as is here said of Shem and Japheth. Where there is no charity, there is the love of self, and therefore hatred against all who do not favor self. Consequently such persons see in the neighbor only what is evil, and if they see anything good, they either perceive it as nothing, or put a bad interpretation upon it. It is just the other way with those who are in charity. By this difference these two kinds of people are distinguished from one another, especially when they come into the other life; for then with those who are in no charity, the feeling of hatred shines forth from every single thing; they desire to examine everyone, and even to judge him; nor do they desire anything more than to find out what is evil, constantly cherishing the disposition to condemn, punish, and torment. But they who are in charity scarcely see the evil of another, but observe all his goods and truths, and put a good interpretation on what is evil and false. Such are all the angels, which they have from the Lord, who bends all evil into good.

“First cast out the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to cast out the splinter from the eye of your brother.” (Matthew 7:5)

Do not judge.  This is a familiar teaching, but we can’t hear it too many times.  After we’ve conquered other evils, the inclination to judge others often remains, and can even grow stronger.  What can we do about it?  What is the solution?

Today we read the familiar passage in which the Lord says, “Judge not, lest you be judged.”  But in another place in the New Testament, the Lord said, “Judge righteous judgment.”  So what did the Lord mean when He said, “Judge not”?  What judgments does He want us to make and what judgments does he forbid us to make?

Immediately after saying, “Do not judge,” the Lord illustrates this command with an image.  “Why do you look at the splinter that is in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank that is in your own eye?”  Part of the message is clear: we shouldn’t judge other people for their faults, since we have faults of our own that we’re blind to.

But this is not the whole message.  The Lord went on to say, “First cast out the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to cast out the splinter from your brother’s eye.”  In the end, we are supposed to help our brother remove the splinter from his eye.  In fact, that is the purpose of removing the plank from our own eye.

There are three parts to this illustration of judging.  First, the Lord calls us to notice when we are looking at a splinter in our brother’s eye despite the plank in our own eye.  Second, He tells us to cast that plank out of our own eye.  And third, He encourages us to use our new clear sight to cast the splinter out of our brother’s eye.

The Lord says, “Why do you look at the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own?”  This is the first part.  We all have a tendency to focus on the faults of others.  And sometimes we see the most faults in the people closest to us – we see the splinters in our brother’s eye.  If we know someone very well, we come to see their shortcomings; and because we see these so closely and so often, we can make them out to be larger than they are.  We pay inordinate attention to the minor faults – the splinters – in the way our friends and our neighbors see the world, the way they act.  Maybe they have a tendency to gossip.  Maybe they complain too much about other people.  Maybe they don’t seem to take religion seriously.  There are many, many different ways that people can have a splinter in their eye – that is, a fault in their understanding of the truth, or a minor evil in their lives.

But what if someone really does have a major evil in his or her life?  What if it’s not just a splinter?  This is certainly possible; there are people who are in extreme disorder.  But the book Arcana Coelestia tells us that when angels see a person, they excuse his evils.  This does not mean that they say that evil is not evil; but they assume that a person is good at heart and is doing evil from some mistaken idea or from ignorance.  It seems that the angels may see all faults in another as nothing more than splinters in their eyes.

We have a tendency to focus on those splinters in our brothers’ eyes.  But what about the plank in our own eye?  Arcana Coelestia says, “’To behold a splinter in the eye of a brother’ means something erroneous in respect to the understanding of truth; and ‘the plank in one’s own eye’ denotes a huge evil of falsity” (n. 9051).  When we are looking at others from a judgmental place, we are looking at a minor fault from a “huge evil of falsity” in ourselves.  There are many kinds of evil intentions and false thoughts that go along with the attitude of judging another person.  If we look at another person with contempt, we are in evil from falsity.  We are in evil – in contempt, or hatred, or derision, or self-righteousness – from falsity.  There are many different falsities that we might be in.  Maybe it’s the falsity that we are better than that person, or that we are more worthy.  Maybe we’re in the falsity that we are able to see what a person is really like inside.  When we look at another person with contempt, we are looking at them with a plank in our own eye – we are looking them in evil from falsity.

This is the kind of judging we are forbidden to do.  While we can judge a person’s actions to be good or bad, we can’t judge someone else’s motivations – we can’t judge what he is like in his hearts.  This kind of judging goes hand in hand with contempt – and contempt for others is forbidden by the Lord. If we do judge another person’s internal character – or if we do view other people with contempt – we have no chance of removing even a splinter from anyone else’s eye.  We have a plank in our own eye.

So what are we supposed to do?  From ourselves, we might think that the solution is to ignore the splinter in our brother’s eye – to leave it alone.  In fact, we might think that this is the message of this story.  We are not supposed to judge – therefore, we shouldn’t acknowledge that anyone else has a splinter in his or her eye.  But that’s not what the Lord says.  The Lord says, “First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye.”  We are told that we should try to remove the splinter from our brother’s eye – but first we have to remove the plank from our own.

Remove the plank from your own eye.  How do you do this?  It’s easier said than done, and it can’t be done in an instant.  It is a lifelong process.  The Lord is talking about the process of self-examination and repentance.  If you want to help others remove splinters from their eyes, you have to dig those planks out of your own eye.

The first step is to try to see what the plank is.  Look for the falsities that are clouding your vision.  I mentioned two of the biggest planks earlier.  First, see if you are acting under the falsity that you can see what another person is truly like in his or her heart.  Even if we acknowledge with our lips that we can’t know what a person’s intentions are, we often think that we can.  But the Lord says time and again that only he knows the hearts of men.  We cannot judge another’s spiritual state.  This is the first plank we need to remove from our eyes.

And second, see if you are acting under the falsity that you are better than the other person.  How do we remove this falsity?  First, by acknowledging that we have evils and faults of our own.  And second, by acknowledging that all good and truth is from the Lord; that we did not earn any of the goodness or kindness in ourselves, but we received it as a gift from the Lord.  We need to humble ourselves.  And we need to fight against the tendency to view others with contempt.  We need to pray to the Lord to remove those feelings, that love of self above others.  To remove that plank from our own eye involves coming to a point where we acknowledge that we are no better than the person we are trying to help.

There is one more plank that we need to remove before we can help remove the splinter from our brother’s eye.  The book Divine Providence says, “The hardest of all combats is with the love of ruling from the love of self.  He who subdues this easily subdues all other evil loves, for this is their head.”  If we are going to help cast out that splinter, we need to first get rid of the love of ruling, of the desire to control another person.  We need to cast that plank from our eye – by praying to the Lord for the strength to resist the desire to control others, and by fighting with all our hearts against the inclination to do so.

Only then can we remove the splinter from our brother’s eye.  And we should seek to remove that splinter.  Remember, the Lord said, “Judge righteous judgment.”  We need to acknowledge that certain things really are harmful – both to society and to the person himself who is doing those harmful things.  This is why we lock up criminals: not because we want revenge on them or believe that they are going to hell, but to keep them from harming society, and so they do not hurt their spiritual lives by continuing to act in evil.  And if your brother has a splinter in his eye, that splinter is hurting him.  If you have shunned the evil of arrogance and contempt, you can see clearly to help him remove that splinter.

The story we read from the Old Testament gives a beautiful example of how to help others through their problems without judging them.  In the story, Noah became drunk and fell asleep naked in his tent.  In that culture, nakedness was shameful.  Noah’s middle son, Ham, told his brothers about it and expected them to join in with him laughing at their father.  But Shem and Japheth took a blanket, walked backwards so they wouldn’t see their father’s nakedness, and placed the blanket over him.  The Writings tell us that this is a picture of how angels respond to the faults in others.  They do everything they can to put a good interpretation on anything evil they see in another.  They assume that the person’s motivations are good even though they might be doing something wrong.  That’s like Shem and Japheth walking backwards to avoid seeing their father’s nakedness.  But this does not mean that they do nothing to help him change – they still lay a blanket over him.  Just as Shem and Japeth covered their father with a blanket to amend his nakedness, angels try to help that person overcome his faults – even as they are looking for the good in a person and putting a good interpretation on what is bad.  The passage we read this morning from Arcana Coelestia puts it this way: “If they see anything evil and false [in a person], they excuse it, and if they can, try to amend it in him.”

This is what it means to remove the splinter from our brothers’ eyes: to give assistance, if they can accept it, in changing their lives.  What does it look like to remove the splinter from our brother’s eye?  It might look like gently encouraging a friend in a struggle she is having.  It might look like telling a loved one about something from the Word that helps him overcome a bad habit.  A passage from Arcana Coelestia says that in the Ancient Church, everyone taught his brother, and that this was one of their chief acts of charity – but if his brother did not acknowledge the teaching, he did not become indignant.  If we are continually reminding ourselves that only the Lord can change people’s lives, and that we have no power of our own, we can help our brothers and sisters overcome their struggles without a sense of condemnation and without trying to control them.  We judge an action, or an attitude, to be harmful, rather than judging a person.  We act out of a love for protecting another from harm, rather than a love to dominate or control.

Removing the plank from our own eye is not a one-time thing – and we don’t have to wait until we’re perfect to help other people.  But every time we want to help someone, we need to acknowledge our enormous tendency to put ourselves above others, and to realize that this evil (the love of self) is more harmful than whatever we are trying to help in the other.  We need to rid ourselves of the desire to control others, and instead replace it with a sincere desire to serve.  If we continue to cast out that beam, we are able to help others see the splinters in their eye and remove them – not from a place of condemnation, but from love.  The Lord said, “First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye.”

Amen.

Coleman’s Blog | The thoughts and reflections of a New Church (Swedenborgian) minister

http://www.smallcanonsearch.com/

FIRST BE RECONCILED

FIRST BE RECONCILED
A Sermon by Rev. Brian W. Keith
Preached in Glenview, Illinois, September 28, 1986

“If you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23,24).

Our life consists of routines – patterns which govern much of our conscious existence. While some are ruts from which we would love to break out, most of our routines were consciously chosen for good reasons. If our wake-up routines are disturbed, we are likely to emerge from the house unshaven, or with unusual clothing combinations. If we had no set pattern for going about our daily chores, either at work or at home, we would accomplish far less. And our interactions with others are governed by the dictates of politeness and common courtesy. These kinds of patterns enable us to expend the minimum amount of energy and focus upon what is important.

Unfortunately, such routines can also be used to avoid facing unpleasant situations. What happens when a friend makes a critical comment that we take personally, or the extra effort we put into a project is ignored? Our tendency may be to ignore the offense. We may be bothered, but we try to forget and get on with our lives.

If it is a minor problem, or something so out of the ordinary that it will not recur, we probably can just forget about it – write it off to someone’s having a bad day, or our being overly sensitive. We know that to raise the issue will only cause pain and not produce any good. This appears to be the reason why the Lord was silent when falsely accused (see Matt. 27:12-14). He knew that nothing He could say would change their minds, and words spoken in frustration and anger would certainly not be of any use to them.

But often when we attempt to just ignore the hurt, we hang onto it. We keep it inside and let it seethe and bubble just beneath the surface. It may be the co-worker who takes the Lord’s name in vain. We may try to ignore it, for fear of appearing too good, or because we do not want to cause trouble. But it keeps bothering us. It grates and increases our overall irritability. Perhaps we cannot identify it as the source, but we may find ourselves with a shorter temper and more prone to feel bad about how the day has gone.

This seems to be the state that the Lord was addressing when He told people to leave their gift before the altar and work things out with their brothers. People of that time could think they were fulfilling all their religious obligations by obeying certain laws and regularly offering sacrifices. The Lord pointed out that just going through the motions when there is an inner turmoil is not acceptable. Gifts to the Lord are not received from someone who is agitated and angry at others. When there is conflict between us and another, the Lord would have us face the situation and deal with it rather than let it be a source of continuing upset. For pretending a problem does not exist rarely makes it go away. In fact, it usually complicates the problem, making it more difficult to resolve later.

When someone has hurt our feelings and we try to hide it, we will more than likely wind up complaining to friends. Their willingness to listen will probably encourage our sense of injustice, and magnify the irritation and anger. Then we will see more and more what is wrong with the person who has offended us, and be looking for ways to even the score.

“But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also” (Matt. 5:39). Obviously the Lord does not intend us to invite attack and abuse (see AE 556:8). What He does want is for us to refrain from responding in anger and with revenge. When we are hurting, it seems to be so easy and satisfying to hurt others, but nothing good comes of it. Evil for evil does not lead to good. The Lord would have us leave our gifts before the altar and reconcile things with our brothers.

When we have been hurt and seek reconciliation, the first step is looking at ourselves. The Lord said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:10). There is no blessing in being persecuted as an end in itself, but only if it is for righteousness’ sake. When we are criticized, has there been a good reason for it? Has the complaint against us been valid? In the heat of indignation we tend not to admit any guilt. And if we torment our minds with the cruelty of it, we will find even more reasons to deny any fault on our part. But how often are we entirely innocent, entirely without fault? Like any argument, rarely was it started or continued by just one.

Beyond being hurt by criticism, we have to look at ourselves whenever we feel pain. We can unconsciously place ourselves in positions where we are likely to get hurt. One of the great tragedies of alcoholism is that the spouse or close friends of the alcoholic often aid and abet the disease. Yes, they get hurt by the unkept promises, the lies, the degenerating behavior. But their denial of the problem prevents treatment, the hope of recovery, and they often welcome the pain as a perverse kind of punishment for their own sense of guilt.

Reconciliation begins by looking at ourselves first, for that puts us into the proper frame of mind. We should first remove the plank from our own eyes before we can see to remove the speck from our brother’s (Matt. 7:5). If we approach someone in anger, then he will not be able to hear us – he will be too busy defending himself. Our words will not be of use unless they come from love and are spoken in charity. Reconciliation requires that we shun anger, hatred, and revenge (see Life 73). These must be removed from our minds before there is any feeling of love or concern for others (see AE 746:19).

In a sense, what is required is agreement. “Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him . . . ” (Matt. 5:25). Seeking for what agrees means looking for truth in the criticism. Perhaps what was said or done was, at least in some measure, deserved. If we can remove ourselves from the situation and try to be objective about ourselves, we can often prosper from criticism. One of the uses of the evil spirits in the other world is to draw out what is hellish in others so they might see it and shun it. When they attack someone, their intent is to harm, but it can be turned to good by the Lord.

Along the same lines, Swedenborg was once accosted by some who said there was nothing but evil in him (see AC 10808). Apparently their intent was to drive him away. “But it was given me to reply that I well know that such is the case…… Imagine their surprise when he agreed with them! He could have taken it personally and been offended. Instead he used it as an occasion for instruction. By his agreeing with them, their desire to hurt was deflected, and no harm was done.

Then, after looking at oneself, reconciliation requires confrontation. “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother” (Matt. 18:15). Rather than keep it inside, letting anger build, talk to the person. For change cannot come about unless there is knowledge that it is needed.

Certainly if we were doing something that bothered others, we would appreciate knowing it. If a joke went too far, or if we are not allowing others to finish their stories, we need to be made aware of it so that we can stop. So if we are offended, we are to go to that person, privately, and explain. It has to be done with love, not anger. But if the person really is a brother, meaning he has a love of what is good, then the truth will provide him with a grasp of what was wrong and how to change (see AC 9088:2; AE 746:15).

This does not mean that when we first describe the wrong to someone that person will welcome the news. Would we? It is very difficult to hear that we have a problem. At first there often is denial, so the Lord suggests taking others to speak with the person. This could be done in some situations. But the point is that major change does not occur suddenly, so it takes many confirmations for the knowledge to firmly take hold. Married couples can be working on aspects of their relationship for long periods of time before changes occur. It takes repeated experiences of pain and reconciliation for behaviors to permanently change (which is one of the values of thinking of marriage as an eternally evolving relationship).

The goal is, of course, to regain one’s brother – to have peaceful relationships with others. But this goal cannot always be met. Reconciliation will not always produce harmony. This the Lord recognizes, for if someone refuses to listen, He said, “let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector” (Matt. 18:17). To be a heathen or tax collector was to be repulsive, to be avoided at all costs.

Where efforts to work out differences fail, and when it is possible to avoid the person, it is a wise course to follow. When the Lord was traveling to Jerusalem, a Samaritan village refused to receive Him. The disciples James and John were angered and wanted fire to rain down upon them. But the Lord rebuked them, and they went to another village (see Luke 9:51-56).

We cannot get along with everyone. In the Lord’s house there are many mansions. Different personalities, attitudes, and values cause spiritual distance to occur. Charity is sometimes exercised by avoiding people with whom full reconciliation is not possible.

This does not mean that we turn away in anger or judgment. The Lord said, “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). Love, bless, do good to, and pray for – quite a challenge! We cannot change others but we can control how we think of them – we can change ourselves. Regardless of the wrong others may do to us, we cannot let them be the cause of the growth of hell within us. When we hate in response, we harm only ourselves. The heavenly state to which the Lord is leading is far removed from such feelings, for the doctrines of the New Church state that angels “are in the continual desire of doing good to others, because this is the delight of their life; and therefore as soon as there is any opportunity, they do good both to foes and to friends . . . ” (AC 8223:2).

To be reconciled with others means to allow the Lord to bring peace into our lives. If we always remember that there is good in others, even if we do not see it, we cannot be harmed by their actions (see AE 644:23). If we strive to feel love for others, wish blessings for them, look for what good we may do, and above all, pray for them, then there is no conflict between us and what is good. For we will not be able to hate or stay angry if we sincerely pray for the good of others.

Then we will be reconciled with the good in our brothers. Then there will be no cause for hard feelings or vengeful actions. Then we can return to the altar. We can raise up our gifts, our hearts and minds, and they will be acceptable to the Lord. Amen.

Lessons: Matthew 5:38-48, Luke 9:51-56, AC 9088:2

Arcana Coelestia 9088:2

[2] The case herein is this. If good or truth is being perverted by means of falsity, then that which has been perverted must be amended by means of truth; within the church by means of truth from the Word, or from doctrine which is from the Word. The reason why this must he so, is that truth teaches what is evil and what is false, and in this way the man sees and acknowledges it; and when he sees and acknowledges, he can then be amended. For the Lord flows into those things in man which the man knows; but not into those things which be does not know; and therefore He does not amend what is evil or what is false until the man has been instructed that it is evil or false. From this it is that those who do the work of repentance must see and acknowledge their evils, and thus live a life of truth (see n. 8388-8392).

The case is the same with purifications from the evils of the love of self and the love of the world. Purifications from these loves cannot possibly he effected except by means of the truths of faith, because these teach that all concupiscences are from these loves. It was for this reason that among the Israelitish and Jewish nation circumcision was performed by means of a knife of stone; for “circumcision” signified purification from these filthy loves; and the knife of stone” by which it was performed signified the truth of faith (n. 2799, 7044). Moreover man is regenerated by means of the truths of faith (n. 8635-8610, 8772). This was signified by the “washings,” whereby in olden time they were cleansed. The same is also signified at this day by the waters of baptism, for “waters” signify the truths of faith by means of which evils are removed (n. 739, 2702, 3058, 3121, 1976, 7307, 8568), and “baptism” signifies regeneration (n. 4255, 5120).

DO YOU WISH TO HONOUR THE BODY OF CHRIST?

Do you wish to honour the body of Christ? Do not ignore him when he is naked. Do not pay him homage in the temple clad in silk, only then to neglect him outside where he is cold and ill-clad. He who said: “This is my body” is the same who said: “You saw me hungry and you gave me no food”, and “Whatever you did to the least of my brothers you did also to me”… What good is it if the Eucharistic table is overloaded with golden chalices when your brother is dying of hunger? Start by satisfying his hunger and then what is left you may adorn the altar as well