For the last two Sundays, we have been listening to Jesus’ discourse on the mountain, and today, we listen to the final part of it in which he teaches us some practical measures to improve our spiritual life. Here Jesus uses four kinds of parables: the parables of two blind men; the disciples and the teacher; speck and the log and of good and bad trees.
The first one is the parable of the two blind men. Here, Jesus is talking about people who are blind to their own sinfulness, weakness, and faults. In the writings of many saints, one of the important parts of the spiritual life is growing in self-knowledge. Growing in self-knowledge means becoming aware of our own sinfulness. For example, in St. Therese’s Story of a Soul, she’s just condemning herself as the greatest of sinners. It seems to us a (kind of) false piety. The reason the saints regard themselves as “so great” sinners is not that they’re morbid, or it’s not because they have bad self-esteem. It’s because they spiritually aren’t as blind as we are. They can see clearly the holiness of God, and the greater the light of the holiness of God becomes, the more they become aware of their sinfulness. So they’re not exaggerating. They’re speaking the truth but from a vantage point that most of us can’t see because we are blind to our own sinfulness and our own faults. So Jesus is inviting us to verify our own spiritual blindness.
The second one is the parable of teacher and disciple. Jesus says that we are not just called to be a believer but to be disciples. That means if we want to be his follower, we don’t just have to believe, but we need to be a student, which means we need to study the word of God, His teachings, and we need to imitate him.
The third one is the parable of speck and the log. It seems to be an absurd image. One person has a giant log coming out of his eye, but he’s worried about the other person who has a speck! That’s how absurd it is when we have massive faults and massive sins, but we’re busy condemning and judging and correcting other people who have minor faults.
The best example is Peter’s denial of Christ. Peter says: “Lord, even if everyone else denies you, I will never deny you.” He is completely unaware of how weak and cowardly he will turn out to be. Because whereas the others will scatter (which is reprehensible), Peter will verbally deny three times that he even knows Jesu. Here, it is clear who has got the speck and the log. So, this is something we need to give more attention to. Because this spiritual blindness is what makes us a hypocrite whom Jesus hates the most.
So, we are to imitate our master here to grow in self-knowledge of our sinfulness; otherwise, we risk the sin of hypocrisy.
The fourth one is the parable of the trees. Jesus’ contrast between the fruit of a good and evil tree clearly echoes the two trees in the Garden of Eden. By this allusion to Genesis, Jesus reveals that the choice between good and evil ultimately takes place within the deepest part of a person: the heart. Thus, when Jesus says that each tree is known by its own fruit, he emphasises the necessity of recognising the movements of one’s own heart towards vice or virtue. In short, he’s using the imagery of the two trees to speak about spiritual self-knowledge.
Moreover Jesus is using the same imagery to emphasise the necessity of recognising virtue and vice in others. Specifically, he warns against being deceived by people who seem outwardly virtuous but inwardly vicious.
“…for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good man out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure produces evil” (Lk 6:44-45)
At first glance, it seems that Jesus is contradicting himself with these words. Just a few verses earlier, he famously commands his disciples, “Judge not, that you be not judged”, and warns them against seeing the speck in their brother’s eye while failing to notice the log in their own.
In reality, however, the two teachings fit together perfectly. For it is precisely those who lack self-knowledge who are often quick to condemn others for minor faults while failing to see the major vices in their own hearts. That is what Jesus is referring to when he tells his disciples not to judge. On the other hand, it is quickly important not to be deceived by frauds and predators who appear to be outwardly virtuous but are inwardly evil. Jesu wants his disciples to avoid the spiritual pride and the spiritual naivete that often stem from the failure to see clearly the good and evil in their own hearts.
So, how can we grow in self-knowledge? It is through examination of our hearts. I like the method of St. Ignatius of Loyola, who recommends examining one’s conscience according to the capital sins and their opposing virtues.
As an aid to this kind of examination, the seven vices, and their opposing virtues are depicted in the diagram of the “Two Trees”. This diagram, I hope, will help us throughout Lent as well.
Notice in this diagram that the three main branches of the evil tree are identical to the three disordered desires of the triple lust. If we choose to cultivate our disordered desires for self-exaltation, we will bear the fruits of envy, anger, and pride. If we cultivate our disordered cravings for physical pleasure, we will bear the fruits of lust, gluttony, and sloth. Finally, if we cultivate our disordered desires for worldly possessions, we will bear the fruits of avarice and sorrow.
Notice also that the three main branches of the good tree are identical to the three spiritual exercises given by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. If we persevere in secret prayer to Father, we will grow in the virtues of humility, mercy, and meekness. If we practice detachment from possessions by discreetly giving to the poor, we will grow in the virtues of generosity and patience. Finally, if we practice self-control through private fasting, we will grow in the virtues of chastity, temperance, and diligence.
In sum, when we examine our hearts according to the capital sins and their opposing virtues, we will likely find that we have plenty of work to do in cutting off the bad branches and their fruits and cultivating the good branches.