Luke 37-49 is usually called the last third of the Sermon in the Plain. But it reads to me like a compilation of things people remembered hearing from Jesus or from those who remembered Jesus. The first two examples show Jesus’ use of hyperbole, the blind guide, and the beam/timber in the eye. How often have we heard these proclaimed from the pulpit as serious teachings. As of course they are, but I can also see those people crowded around Jesus and roaring with laughter, and going home to share these wonderful tales to those who were not there. A blind man leading a blind man. Falling into the ditch. But the lesson spread, and was remembered. Did you hear what he said? You may have a speck of sawdust in your eye, and I will judge you, and the gossip with ensue. But a beam in my own eye! See that as a meme. Humor works, too. The lesson: Don’t judge lest you be judged. And this lesson reinforces the teaching of the Lord’s Prayer. We are a community. You will be forgiven only in the measure you forgive. And it is the Holy One who shakes down the measure. So these two parables are setting up the truth of the new covenant which will be fulfilled on the Cross. We are not to judge each other’s human failures. We have plenty of our own. Yet we are also called to judge, and that takes discernment. We aren’t taught to blindly accept evil, but we must become like our Lord, our kurios (kuvrioß). Then with the mind of Christ we can and must judge what is good and not good.
Then we turn to fruit trees. A good tree produces good fruit. However, a fig tree produces figs, and grape vines produce grapes. A thorn bush produces thorns, although brambles often produce perfectly edible berries. However, collecting let’s say, blackberries will also yield a payment of many scratches, whereas domesticated fruit is gentle to gather. If you are a fig tree, don’t expect to produces bunches of grapes. We each have our fruit and we are enjoined to be our own kind of tree, God fearing, obedient to the law, pruned for best fruit. And if that isn’t clear, Jesus nails down the message when he says, “A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart, and an evil person produces evil things from the treasury of an evil heart. What you say flows from what is in your heart.” Jesus is reinterpreting the law again. It is the heart, not the law, unless following the Mosaic Law comes from love of God.
In the last section Jesus reprimands his listeners in no uncertain terms. If those disciples and the curious crowd knew who he was, they would be struck down in fear, the fear of God when Jesus says, “So why do you keep calling me ‘Lord, Lord!’ when you don’t do what I say?” (also Mt 7:21) We remember the unwise virgins who cry “Lord, Lord,” to no avail and are excluded from the wedding banquet. And the voice of the Father at the miracle of the Transfiguration saying, “Listen to him.” There are not two ways. You hear and obey, or you don’t.
We are all so apt to make excuses, beg off, justify. This is not disciplined world. But the core of our faith and of our salvation depends to our willingness to listen to him, an ability we receive in baptism. But imitation of Christ in our lives is modeled by Jesus pleasing his Father, by listening to his Father and doing what he heard.
So far these teachings are pretty obvious to any of us who have prayed regularly, read scripture, and experienced some degree of Christian formation. And Jesus’ words at the end of this reading state that. If you build a house and dig a deep foundation, laid on rock, when the floodwaters rise your house will be safe. “But anyone who hears and doesn’t obey is like a person who builds a house right on the ground, without a foundation. When the floods sweep down against that house, it will collapse into a heap of ruins.” Are we a people who hear and don’t obey? Do we have a foundation? A firm one on a rock solid base? Or are we doomed to collapse into a heap of ruins? Because we will face that flood. Lead us not into temptation. Save us from the time of trial. We pray this often. We need Christ’s love to deliver us from the evil one, the flood, the rising waters. And it is given as a pure gift, but we are also taught to ask for it. And the habit of asking humbly is part of our training as discerning disciples.
When Jesus says, “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher,” he is teaching us to put on the mind and behavior of Christ, of Jesus. In the section just above this one we are taught to forgive our enemies, and yes, it is hard. Because God the Father is compassionate, and loves his sinners, the ones we don’t want to love and forgive. Go and do likewise. Be like Jesus. Be in concord with the Father. No, none of this is easy. Turning to ourselves and confessing that we are sinners, and that the dust in your neighbor’s eye is inconsequential. We are not here to judge. That job is taken. We are here to love and forgive, with Christ’s help. All of this is totally counterintuitive to common sense and natural behavior.
All of these disconnected parables do, in fact, tell one story, a story of forgiveness, foregoing judgment of others, a story of digging deep foundations of the faith in our souls. Yes, it is taught with wild exaggerations, and a laugh or two. Yes, it is in lots of pieces. But when we look at it, now, after the Way of the Cross and the Resurrection, we can see the pattern. And the vital need for strict and deep formation, even if it hurts, even if we have to see the log in our own eye. We are not above our Teacher, and if we think we are, we are committing the sins of pride that Jesus chided the Pharisees for.
How do we gain this discernment? A strong community is one part. A wise spiritual mother or father is another. But the bottom line is prayer. Pray the scriptures. Pray the offices. Open our hearts to the Holy One daily. It is not just the best selling devotional book of the week or the celebrity preacher of the year. It is Christ within us, around us, under us. Use what two millennia have taught us, and Jesus teaches us in the Gospel every day.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.