“Fill the earth and subdue it”
It’s a summer day, I’m 9 or 10, and my father and I are in the garage. He passes me a small can of engine oil and says: “Take care of this.” I comply by digging a hole in the flower bed and pouring the oil in. I slowly toss dirt into the hole and enjoy watching it drown in the gooey oil. Once the hole is filled, I pat down the surface and return to the garage, my job done.
What was I thinking? Well, I was doing my father’s will. But I didn’t stop to consider whether he wanted his garden turned into a toxic wasteland. He didn’t ask how I’d disposed of the oil, either, because he was busy fixing something. Maybe my father expected me to pour the oil down the storm sewer rather than bury it. Dumping oil and other contaminants was not a big issue back then. Creation care meant keeping the weeds subdued and the lawnmower working.
Not reflecting, not being clear, not asking, and not noticing—for those reasons our best intentions can have negative consequences. The Heidelberg Catechism notes that “even the holiest” don’t come close to fully honoring the Ten Commandments (Q&A 114).
Even those with the keenest spiritual vision somehow miss their most obvious mistakes. It’s often only with ample hindsight that we finally see the error of our ways, that attitudes change and we realize engine oil shouldn’t be dumped in the flower bed or the storm sewer.
“First take the plank out of your own eye”
Maybe you’re thinking, “Hold it with the catechism lesson! What a foolish kid, and what a negligent parent!” OK, let me ask you this: have you ever slipped an old can of oil paint into the trash? Or left a car to rust in a field? Never? Then how about this: have you ever driven somewhere when you could have biked or walked? Or failed to reuse or recycle every plastic or paper item your hands touched? Think carefully before you criticize my father or me.
I’m taking an environmental angle to make a point about judging. As a carpenter, Jesus explained the point differently. He said that before judging anyone, we should first look for the plank in our own eye (the mega-fault we need to get rid of) before pointing out the speck (the mini-fault) in our neighbor’s eye.
Even in the 21st century, Jesus’ illustrations are usually easy to visualize: a sower in a field, a hidden treasure, a lost sheep. Other illustrations can be harder to picture, and a plank in the eye is one of them. This exaggerated illustration, however, underscores the way selfishness stops us from seeing ourselves. Is the simple speck of dust also a simple exaggeration? I’m not so sure. Remember, any time you get something in your eye, you have a hard time seeing anything at all.
This passage is not saying that Christians may never judge. In fact, Jesus is assuring us that judging is beneficial because it can bring complete vision to us and to those around us. The entire chapter contains warnings about strays, swine, false prophets, wolves in sheep’s clothing, bad trees, bad fruit, and foolish builders. In sharing the gospel’s pearls, we must not be naïve about people, and that involves judging—seeing clearly—their motives and actions.
Such judging requires careful self-examination. If we’re naïve about our own ill-considered motives and actions, we risk poking out someone else’s eye. In other words, our good intentions of judging someone by the gospel run the risk of blinding that person to the gospel.
“Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?”
I have often heard pastors explain that in Jesus’ day tax collectors got much less respect than IRS or Canada Revenue agents do today.
Tax collectors robbed from the poor, gave to the Romans, and kept the rest for themselves. In rubbing shoulders with them, Jesus was, according to the Pharisees, compromising his morals and acting as a traitor to his people. But what I’d never noticed before is that in this passage the NIV includes quotation marks around the word “sinners.”
The NIV translators were likely pointing out that the Pharisees labeled certain people as unworthy of their attention. In contrast, Jesus dined with tax collectors and other “sinners” because he saw something in them. He knew he could change their hearts. One tax collector, Matthew, became Jesus’ disciple; Zacchaeus, another tax collector, climbed down from his tree and gave back to the poor.
So whom do you consider—or treat—as a tax collector, as a “sinner”? The way we apply that label to people can change according to the moral, political, or theological issues of the day. But can you give a real, human face to the labels you put on people? If not, do what Jesus did—spend some time getting to know your “tax collector.” Maybe you will build a relationship while disposing of some planks and sawdust found in each other’s eyes.
“Love your neighbor as yourself”
The real focus of this reflection is on tolerance. I didn’t begin by talking about tolerance because the word is understood in different, sometimes opposing, ways today. For example, we define the verb “to tolerate” as
- to allow (The art teacher tolerates graffiti in his classroom.)
- to endure the objectionable (I tolerate her love for very ripe cheese.)
- to respect different opinions and beliefs (The mayor said our city must learn to tolerate difference.)
Christians often condemn tolerance, particularly when the term is used to mean “respect.” I’ve encountered comments such as “Today’s tolerance is a form of moral relativism that respects various opinions and beliefs, but has no room for Christian truth” and “Our tolerant society (ironically) cannot tolerate Christianity, which it views as being intolerant.”
Daniel Taylor offers a useful response: “It’s difficult to argue with a straight face that Christians are unfairly accused of intolerance when I so often see the very attitudes of diseased intolerance. . . . Suspicion, mean-spiritedness, aggressive ignorance, close-mindedness, primitive anger, and refusal to dialogue” (Is God Intolerant? Christian Thinking About the Call for Tolerance, Tyndale).
Tolerance plays a useful role in helping us act out our faith. How about defining tolerance as a step toward love, a step founded in the respect we owe our neighbors as participants in God’s creation? Tolerance recognizes that such love is difficult, that it requires effort.
I am not saying that we need to agree with everyone. But we can only have meaningful dialogue—or disagreement—if we realize our limitations and work toward building trust.
If we don’t, our Christian witness may be diminished to someone shouting down from a mountaintop, with people below wondering what all the noise is about. Or worse, people may see the oil in our lamps as nothing better than oil dumped into a hole in the ground.
- What is your definition of the word tolerance?
- Do you think Christians are judgmental? How can judgment be beneficial?
- Whom does our society treat as a “tax collector” or “sinner”?
- Otto Selles says that “we can only have meaningful dialogue—or disagreement—if we realize our limitations and work toward building trust.” What opens us up to our own limitations? What can we do to build trust?