by Roman A. Montero
Writer, Dandelion Salad
January 28, 2018
Probably the most famous parable by Jesus is the parable of the speck in your brother’s eye as opposed to the beam in your eye. Often this parable is taken to simply be about not being a hypocrite and not being personally judgmental against other individuals. However, this saying was not only used by Jesus and the early Christians, it was also a saying within rabbinic Judaism—seeing how they used it can shed some light on what Jesus meant with it. The saying is recorded the sermon on the plain in Luke 6:41–42:
“Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Friend, let me take out the speck in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”
And in the sermon on the mount in Matthew 7:3–5 with almost the exact same wording. This parable is essentially an explanation of verse Luke 6:37 (Matthew 6:14; 7:1–2), where it says:
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven;”
The word κρινω (judge) can be used both in the personal sense and the judicial sense—so it can refer to an individual expressing an opinion about someone else, or finding fault with someone else, and it can also refer to a judicial process. The word κατεδίκασα (condemn) is usually used as a judicial condemnation. So when we talk about judgment and condemnation—even though it is common, due to the protestant culture of individualizing Christian ethics, to view these simply as personal or emotional judgment—we have to leave the possibility open for those terms referring to actual judicial action.
In order get a better viewpoint from which to exegete these texts, let us look at a rabbinic tradition which uses the same parable:
“Rabbi Elazar says: Job lived in the days of the judging of the Judges, as it is stated in connection with Job: “Behold, all you yourselves have seen it; why then have you become altogether vain?” Which generation was completely vain? You must say it was the generation of the judging of the Judges, when the people judged the Judges, as will be explained shortly.
. . .
“Rabbi Yoḥanan says: What is the meaning of that which is written: “And it happened in the days of the judging of the Judges”? This indicates a generation that judged its judges. If a judge would say to the defendant standing before him: Remove the splinter from between your eyes, meaning rid yourself of some minor infraction, the defendant would say to him: Remove the beam from between your eyes, meaning you have committed far more severe sins. If the judge would say to him: “Your silver is become dross”, meaning your coins are counterfeit, the defendant would say to him: “Your wine is mixed with water”, meaning you yourself dilute your wine with water and sell it. Since nobody behaved in proper manner, the judges were unable to judge.” 
The point Rabbi Yohanan is making is completely the opposite of Jesus’s point. The Rabbis take the person who says “remove the splinter from between your eyes” as behaving improperly; he is subverting the correct order or things: we need judges who are able to judge, if someone is always judging the judge there can be no order. The viewpoint for Rabbi Yohanan’s use of this saying is that of official judges during the time of Job; the message is not that hypocrisy is good, it is rather that constantly looking for hypocrisy in order to avoid judgment is wrong—judgment or condemnation are good and necessary, and if there are people who reject judgment due to some real or perceived hypocrisy they are acting improperly and ruining the generation they live in. What is clear here however is that Rabbi Yohanan is not talking about people personally being judgmental of others; rather, he is talking about the official court system—and people being brought up to the authority of the court: the judge, and attempting to subvert it with accusations of hypocrisy.
We cannot be sure if the saying came first from Jesus or the Rabbis. However, if the saying originated with the Rabbis; then what Jesus is doing is quite subversive: He is reversing the saying. Rather than say that judgment is necessary and thus one should not charge hypocrisy to avoid judgment—he accepts that hypocrisy would invalidate a judgment and then chooses to simply get rid of judgment. The question of what is primary, the office or the person holding the office, is a question that constantly comes up in history—within history it notably became a big issue during the Donatist controversy. The Rabbis take the position that the office outweighs the officeholder, the rulings outweigh the personal integrity of the one giving out the ruling. Jesus takes the reverse position: the office is dependent on the integrity of the officeholder—therefore we should get rid of the office. Even if the saying originated with Jesus and was then picked up by the Rabbis; we can say that the Rabbis were responding to how they understood Jesus’s use of the saying: being about actual judicial systems.
The audience for this statement would have to be those in positions to judge others, perhaps actual judges in the Sanhedrin, or religious authorities such as the Pharisees. They are, according to Jesus, play acting piety in their judgment—while they are actually impious, and would have to fix their own impiety before they have the right to judge others. The problem is fixing that impiety would mean not judging others, therefore the only way to have the right to judge others would be not to do so. This effectively takes away the religious power of the Pharisees and the judicial power of the Sanhedrin. In a very real sense, Jesus is advocating an abolishment of the power of court authority.
 BDAG, κρινω 2; 5.
 BDAG, κατεδίκασα.
 B. Baba Bathra 15b., the William Davidson Talmud
from the archives:
Chris Hedges: The Collapse of the American Judicial System
Roman A. Montero: Jesus Was A Communist
Jesus against Hillel on Usury by Roman A. Montero
The Early Christian Communists by Roman A. Montero
To Be a Disciple of Jesus: What Jesus Said About Following Him
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