A few years ago, I had the opportunity to play a really hilarious role in a very silly play by Mark Twain. My character dressed herself like a toy doll from the mid-19th century. I wore a satin and lace dress, an impossibly large wig, and obnoxiously long false eyelashes. One day, while onstage, one of my lashes popped halfway off my lid. It sort of drooped into my field of vision, blurring everything in the footlights. It wasn’t painful but it made the set - a French style drawing room with all manner of stools and settees and poufs that created a kind of obstacle course - that much more difficult to navigate, and by the end of the scene my eyes were watering to the point where my cast mate had to guide me offstage. Just the other day, backstage in a different production, I applied my mascara perhaps too quickly, and poked myself in the eye with my mascara wand. My eye watered and turned red and I had to carry a tissue backstage with me to blot it before heading on. Just this morning I put my glasses on, and realized right away that it has been some time since I’d last cleaned them. It was like trying to read emails through waxed paper.
As a person who is blessed with the gift of relatively good sight, I notice when I can’t see something, and it drives me bonkers when I get something in my eyes. It’s uncomfortable to be without this sense; it can be painful, for sure, but mostly I feel vulnerable.
In today’s gospel, Jesus describes what to me sounds like a horrendous obstruction. I don’t like splinters anywhere, but a splinter in your eye sounds awful. And that’s not even the one applied to us readers! Jesus says, “Why do you notice the splinter in your sister or brother’s eye, but you do not perceive the wooden beam in your own?” I can barely handle a speck of dust in my eyes when the wind kicks up; how do you think I’d handle a 2x4?
We know what Jesus is getting at because to take him literally would be absurd. Anyone who has ever flown on an airplane knows you secure the oxygen mask over your face before you take care of your kid’s oxygen mask. Bc if you pass out before you can manage it, you’ve just made matters worse. Same thing here: it is OBVIOUS that if you literally cannot see because you have a tree sticking out of your eye, there’s no way you’ll be able to help someone witha tiny shard in theirs. It would be ridiculous to behave that way, and no one wants to be ridiculous.
But we know, we know that Jesus doesn’t mean our literal eyes. Luke uses the Greek word “ὀφθαλμῷ (ophthalmō)” which does literally mean eye, but also means vision, the mind’s eye, a person’s mode of perceiving, understanding the world around her.
And Jesus asks: why, why is it that you are so quick to perceive in your mind’s eye the flaws and failures of others - the things that cloud their vision: their pettiness, their pride, their politics - when you so thoroughly fail to see what is yours to change? Would you not do better to fix your own perception?
My own pride is so great a thing that it can indeed blind me. Convinced as I so often am of my own rightness, my own perception of what is true, of what ought to be done, I am like a horse with blinders on: I cannot always see what is happening to my left or right. I am forever praying for the humility to recognize when I am stuck in a pattern of self-certainty.
I suspect that one of the major sins of our age is a failure of imagination. To be incapable of dreaming that we might not have the answer, and that the truth may lie inside a perspective we’ve yet to consider. It’s a failure to pursue humility. A failure to approach the troubles of our time with anything other than an angular, edged, iron fist of self-righteousness.
Sandwiched as this gospel reading is between the great Love Commandment to “love our enemies and do good tothose who hate us” (v. 27) and the image of a house built on a strong foundation as opposed to a shaky one, we can begin to draw out the following conclusion:
Loving my neighbors - my colleagues, the students I minister to, my relatives whose perspectives just have me shaking my head - LOVING them has almost nothing to do with judging them or trying to “fix” them - but most certainly has to do with looking to myself, considering what needs remedy in my own mindset, my own pride, my own pettiness, my own politics. With our attention focused here, we discover, as the psalmist says:
The just shall flourish like the palm tree, shall grow like a cedar of Lebanon.
Planted in the house of the LORD,
they shall flourish in the courts of our God. They shall bear fruit even in old age,
they will stay fresh and green… (Ps. 92: 13-15).
That’s what the firm foundation looks like: a tree, with roots reaching deep to her source, who stays near the water that gives her life, a person unafraid of vulnerability, unafraid of being wrong, because I am deeply, deeply rooted in theradical and boundless love of Jesus. This is the tree Jesus mentions at the end of today’s reading: the tree known by her fruit. I’d so much rather be a healthy fruit tree than a 2x4.
Jennifer Theby-Quinn is a professional actor, vocalist, educator, and campus minister. Jen believes in the power of story-telling to shift perspectives and explore questions. She currently serves as a Campus Minister focusing on the Graduate Student/Young Adult Community and Women’s Community at The Catholic Student Center at Washington University in Saint Louis, Missouri. Jen also heads Upper Room, an undergraduate spiritual and theological formation program she had a hand in creating. Based in Saint Louis, Missouri, Jen performs regionally in everything from contemporary drama to musical theatre to long form improv. Jen lives with her Beloved husband and two snuggly pups.
Jen completed her undergraduate education in Theology and Theatre Performance at Saint Louis University, and promptly spent eight months as a mainstage and touring actor for the Shakespeare Festival - Saint Louis. After growing tired of living out of a tour van, Jen followed the Holy Spirit to a position as Director of Campus Ministry at Visitation Academy, an all-girls prep school, where she served for six years, focusing on developing student-led, relationship-focused ministry. She also taught middle school theology at the Academy of the Sacred Heart. She thought she’d hate it. (Hint: she didn’t. Middle Schoolers are amazing.)
Jen completed a Masters in Theology and Certificate in Biblical Study (New Testament) at Aquinas Institute of Theology, where she researched narrative parallels and character development to piece together composites of women in scripture.
Jen’s experiences of young women in (and out) of the Church and her parallel career in the professional theatre world continue to shape her mode of interpreting and preaching scripture.
Jen is a proud member of Actors’ Equity Association, has been nominated for six Saint Louis Theatre Circle Awards, won two of them, and is a Kevin Kline Award Nominee.
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