Whether you’re a person of faith or not, you’ve probably heard the story of Jesus pointing out that as humans, we have a tendency to point out the faults in others more easily than we recognize our own shortcomings.  He offers this analogy: “…first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

Understandably, this is often interpreted as indicating that I actually have worse shortcomings or more things to work on than the person I’m judging.  After all, I apparently have an entire plank in my eye whereas they just have a speck.  But here is a spin on this passage that digs even deeper.

This analogy is embedded in a whole section of text where Jesus is teaching about the perils of judging others.  He is using STRONG language and I picture him a little worked up as he shares these instructions.  Given that context, some theologians think there is a deeper meaning to the plank/speck analogy.

One of my favorite commentaries says it this way: “Perhaps the plank is the (attribute) of fault-finding itself, the disease of the critical spirit, the twenty-twenty vision into the faults of others.  In short, the unnoticed log is often the critical spirit itself.” 

What if one of the worst shortcomings a person can have, referred to here as a giant plank in the eye, is actually a critical or judgmental spirit?  What if this analogy is saying that our critical spirit is the very first thing we must deal with if we ever hope to help others?  It seems that Jesus is pointing out that when we approach people with judgment it is impossible for us to be of any help to them because our vision is blocked by our own critical spirit.  When we’ve removed the plank (aka the spirit of judgment), we are then able to approach others in love to walk alongside them in their journey.

This feels very true to me.  I don’t know that I’ve ever been helped by someone who came at me with judgment and a critical spirit.  And when I’m honest, I know the huge difference between my attempts to help others from a space of judgment and a space of love.

So rather than letting this be an analogy about who has more shortcomings to deal with, you or them, what if we take it one step further?  What if we recognize that if we approach others with a spirit of judgment, we will be of no help to them—even hypocritical because our very approach is a shortcoming itself.  Only when we approach in a spirit of love will we have the vision to see and offer what is most needed: radical mercy.

Jesus makes a strong case in the Sermon on the Mount that ‘mercy’ is the secret sauce of the spiritual life.  He points out that it is how God approaches humanity and it is his firm direction to us to do the same.

We can try to pass off our judgmental spirits as “being discerning” or “holding each other accountable.” But to truly be helpful to someone else, we must ensure that mercy and love are first and foremost in our minds as our motive for getting involved.  Until we get to that space, we won’t have clear vision offer real help.