Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament
Beam And Mote
BEAM AND MOTE.—The proverb of the ‘beam’ and the ‘mote’ occurs in Matthew 7:3-5 and in the parallel passage Luke 6:41-42. It condemns the man who looks at the ‘mote’ in another’s eye while a ‘beam’ unconsidered is in his own; and it points out the futility and hypocrisy of the attempt to cast out the mote from the eye of a brother while the beam remains in one’s own eye. The proverb appears to have been current in various forms among Jews and Arabs. Tholuck, in his Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, gives several illustrations; e.g. from the Baba Bathra: ‘In the days when the judges were judged themselves, said the judge to one of them, Take the splinter out of thine eye; whereat he made reply, Take thou the beam out of thine eye’; and from Meidani (ap. Freytag): ‘How seest thou the splinter in thy brother’s eye and seest not the cross-beam in thine eye?’
There is no obscurity in the terms used. The word δοκός is common in classical writers for a beam of wood, and is used in the LXX Septuagint (Genesis 19:8, 1 Kings 6:2, Song of Solomon 1:17) to translate קוֹרִה, a beam used in the roof of a house. Grimm-Thayer derives from δέκομαι Ion. for δέχομαι with the idea of bearing, so that δοκός is that which supports a building. So Plummer (‘St. Luke’ in Internat. Crit. Com.) says: ‘The δοκός is the bearing beam, the main beam, that which receives the other beams in a roof or floor.’ A. B. Bruce (‘St. Matthew’ in Expositor’s Greek Test.) says: ‘δοκός, a wooden beam (‘let in,’ from δέχομαι) or joist.’ Clearly a large piece of timber is suggested, such as could not literally be in the eye. The symbol has the touch of exaggeration familiar in Oriental proverbs, as, e.g., in the camel and the needle’s eye.
The ‘mote’ (τὸ κάρφος, from κάρφω, ‘to contract,’ ‘dry up,’ ‘wither’) may be a dry stalk or twig, or any small dry body. The word is used in the LXX Septuagint (Genesis 8:11) to render טִדָף, the adj. applied to the olive-leaf brought by the dove. Weymouth (NT in Modern Speech) renders ‘speck.’
It is clear, therefore, that the point of the proverb lies in the contrast between a smaller fault in the person criticised and a greater one in the eritic. The figures chosen express the contrast in a very emphatic way, pushing it, indeed, to the verge of absurdity, to suggest the essential folly of the unbrotherly and insincere faultfinder.
Various illustrations are given by commentators of the possibly greater defect of the man who is finding fault with his neighbour. Morison, e.g., quotes Augustine as comparing ‘settled hatred’ (the beam) with a passing burst of anger (the mote). A. B. Bruce (l.c.) says: ‘The faults may be of the same kind: κάρφος a petty theft, δοκός commercial dishonesty on a large scale …; or a different sort: moral laxity in the publican, pride and inhumanity in the Pharisee who despised him.’
All such illustrations are to the point, for the proverb is capable of many applications; and it is very often true that men eager to correct others have great and obvious faults of their own which disqualify them for the office. It seems clear, however, that ‘the beam’ is very definitely the censorious spirit. Our passage, as it stands in St. Matthew, follows immediately upon the general exhortation ‘judge not,’ and the warning, ‘with what measure ye mete it shall be measured unto you.’ There is a spirit which sees and notes faults in others where true goodness would be blind. The ‘beholding’ is in the judgment of Jesus often a much greater evil than the fault it beholds. Such a spirit leads a man on to the officious attempt to correct others, and makes him doubly unfit for the task. To cast out the mote from another’s eye is always difficult. It needs clear sight and wonderful delicacy of touch. To the censorious man, blind in his fancied superiority, it is of all tasks the most impossible. Moreover, the censorious spirit is closely akin to hypocrisy. It pretends to zeal for righteousness, but really cares only for personal superiority. A sincere man begins with that humble self-judgment which is fatal to uncharitable judgments of others. A zeal for righteousness which begins with correction of others stands convicted of dishonesty at the outset. If a man has once taken the true ground of lowly penitence, if he has cast out the proud, self-sufficient, censorious spirit, he will leave no other beam unnoticed in his own eye. He will be too much occupied with the task of self-discipline to be the quick and eager censor of others. Yet he will not be blind to moral distinctions. On the contrary, the single eye will be full of light; and while he will have no wish to ‘behold’ the mote in his brother’s, he will see clearly to cast it out. Love and pride are both quick to observe; but with what different results!
In St. Luke’s Gospel our passage stands in a slightly different connexion. There the command ‘judge not’ is separated from the proverb of the Mote and the Beam by the verses which speak of the reward of generous giving, of blind leaders of the blind, of the disciple not above his master. A. B. Bruce suggests that the parable comes in at this point, because censoriousness is a natural fault of young disciples. In any case the essential meaning of the passage remains unchanged.
Literature.—Dykes, Manifesto of the King, 536 ff.; Dale, Laws of Christ for Common Life, 93 ff.
E. H. Titchmarsh.
Sunday, August 28th, 2016
the Week of Proper 17 / Ordinary 22