The Parables (20)
The Mote and the Beam - A Bible Cartoon

(Bible Study - August 1999)

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye...? (Matt. 7:3)

Sound and vision make indelible impressions upon us which enable us to completely digest knowledge. When a brief punch line is coupled with an image, what we now call a "cartoon" is created.

Cartoons can be powerful
Cartoons that are both witty and incisive powerfully impress our mind, so we easily remember them and pass them to others. No doubt each of us has a favorite cartoon image which has stayed in our memory for years. One of my favorites is the cartoon I saw many years ago which shows a man sitting at his desk with his feet up, eyes closed and little "z,z,z,s" coming out of his head to clearly show he was snoozing. Behind him is a sign on the wall, "Think". In the next cartoon box, the man is working feverishly and his boss is looking angrily over his shoulder; the sign on the wall is now crudely modified to say "Think NOW!" The point of this cartoon has not been forgotten even though it is probably thirty years or more since I first saw this in print.

We might not immediately recognize the associated power of spoken words and visual images that are woven throughout the Biblical text. Even though the scriptures were written long before any readily available means of mass producing text with illustrations had been invented, the Word of God is filled with such examples. For our benefit, Jesus, through his parables, often provided "word pictures" as the means for us to see as well as hear what he was teaching. Hence we should neither be spiritually deaf, nor blind, to the words of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Using word pictures to teach
While scripture has no illustrations, it accomplishes the same result with powerful "word pictures." The entire description of the tabernacle the Lord God gave to Moses was a three-dimensional structure meant to create a visual reminder of the Law to the people of Israel on a daily basis. Another example is the image pictured in the dream of Nebuchadnezzar: "This image’s head was of fine gold, his breast and his arms of silver, his belly and his thighs of brass, his legs of iron, his feet part of iron and part of clay" (Dan. 2:32-33). Think of how powerful these few (34) words are as an illustration of the entire history of the world relative to the people of God over the last 2,500 years. We can easily imagine all the facets of this image, and with that picture impressed upon our thoughts we can readily recall the elements of this prophecy which are so important to the ultimate fulfillment of the plan and purpose of God. No doubt if a modern historian were asked to undertake a similar illustrative task, we would get a tome occupying hundreds of feet of library shelf space!

Jesus was keenly aware of the power of illustration and drew many "word pictures" in his teachings. It is often thought that the political cartoon first came from 19th century illustrators. But 19th century cartoonists had nothing on the Lord Jesus who incisively used animals to depict the characteristics of the Pharisees and Sadducees when he said, "O generation of vipers, how can ye, being evil, speak good things? for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh" (Matt. 12:34, see also: Matt. 23:33, Luke 3:7). The "viper" image has all the wit and bite that is the element of any clever political cartoon. By visualizing the Pharisees as "vipers" we know everything we need to know about the danger of their brand of religion.

Mote and beam
Jesus uses the same technique by drawing a word picture to illustrate powerfully a lesson. The story of the "mote and the beam" is a prime example. While it is not usually considered a parable, the illustration of a "mote and beam" presents exactly a "word picture" that has a deeper meaning beyond mere surface appearances and this is precisely the whole point of parables. Our Lord Jesus tells us:

"And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye" (Matt. 7:3-5).

As with other parables, the words of Christ are meant to portray an important spiritual principle, in this case the principle of judging others without hypocrisy.

The word "mote" is taken from a Greek root meaning "dry twig or straw." Straw was the normal carpeting used in houses and barns in the mostly agrarian society at the time of Christ. Dust from crumbled pieces of straw must have been everywhere and there can be no doubt that every one who heard the words of Jesus (as today) had at one time or another had a small "speck" (as it is translated in the NIV) enter his eye.

While this problem was perfectly understood, the other part of the image, namely the person with a "beam in his eye" complaining about the speck in the other person’s, can only conjure up the most ludicrous situation. Here the word for "beam" probably comes from the piece of timber usually used to hold up the roof of a house. As a carpenter, our Lord Jesus was perfectly familiar with the large main beam used to hold up the stone or tile roof common in Palestine. The idea that someone would walk around with a huge beam stuck in his eye, and yet be oblivious to it, while at the same time being perfectly able to see the small speck in his brother’s eye is both outrageously funny and immensely powerful.

The audience that heard this "word picture" would not forget the image that was drawn; neither do we. Yet is the lesson taken to heart? How easy it is to see the faults and sins in others and yet be totally blind to our own!

Some judgments necessary
Sometimes the "mote and beam" parable is taken to the other extreme and used as an excuse for making no judgments whatsoever, but this is not what is intended either; we need to be mindful of the whole council of God. In the Gospel of John our Lord Jesus Christ says: "Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment" (John 7:24). The apostle Paul also called on the Corinthian Ecclesia to adjudicate in matters that were troubling the ecclesia because of the sin of one brother: "Do ye not know that the saints shall judge the world? and if the world shall be judged by you, are ye unworthy to judge the smallest matters?" (I Cor. 6:2).

Yet Paul also cautioned the Roman Ecclesia in this way: "Let us not therefore judge one another any more: but judge this rather, that no man put a stumbling-block or an occasion to fall in his brother’s way" (Rom. 14:13). What does this all mean?

Here is the kind of scriptural material, taken out of context, Bible critics love to dwell on (not that I want to unfairly judge such critics, but they simply have not considered the whole counsel of God).

Lessons are pointed
The cartoon image that should stick in our mind is self-evident, namely, we must first judge ourselves before we approach others and such judgments must be without hypocrisy. It is hypocritical to expect others to live up to high standards that we ourselves ignore.

It is tragic to see circumstances where ecclesias have so harshly judged a brother or sister they have driven them away from the meeting. It is essential that we judge righteous judgment and do so in the right fashion.

All judgment is meaningless unless it is done without hypocrisy and harshness; instead it should be carried out with kindness, love and compassion. Too often standards of behavior are tolerated within our family, or our own friendship circle, which we would never accept from those with whom we are not socially compatible.

The Law required equal justice for all; all were supposed to be subject to the same standards, regardless of whether it was the king or the lowliest farmhand. "Ye shall do no unrighteousness in judgment: thou shalt not respect the person of the poor, nor honour the person of the mighty: but in righteousness shalt thou judge thy neighbour" (Lev.19:15).

The situation is no different for us today; God is not a respecter of persons and neither should we treat one brother or sister differently from another (James 2:1, 3, 9). Let us render unto others not only unbiased judgment, but also let us go beyond this and share with them the measure of mercy we desire from our Lord in asking him to forgive our own transgressions. For the Lord God has said what He expects of us: "For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings" (Hosea 6:6 NIV).

The cartoon picture that Jesus drew with his words depicting the "mote and beam" is an image drawn in response to the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. Let us not be the character who walks around with the beam in his eye, but rather let us first remove the flaws in our own character before we dare judge others.

John C. Bilello

Return to Top