Whether dispensed by Ann Landers, Miss Manners, a legion of talk show hosts, or reams of self-help books, handy advice on a host of matters is as American as apple pie. Whatever their lofty and diverse religious ideals, people live out of a store of folk wisdom: A stitch in time saves nine, You do what you gotta do, You only get as good as you give. In biblical terms this represents a wisdom tradition, which appears in Sirach and at the conclusion of Luke’s Sermon on the Plain. Wisdom sayings crystallize experience and apply it to daily life, an instance of the concrete universal, in which memorable and concrete language expresses tested truth: When a sieve is shaken, the husks appear; so do one’s faults when one speaks (Sirach); A good tree does not bear rotten fruit, nor does a rotten tree bear good fruit (Jesus).
The Gospel sayings portray a human Jesus deeply immersed in the culture of his time and drawing on the folk wisdom of that culture, but turning it into a demanding challenge. Two distinct ways of viewing the world emerge. Some people are spiritually blind, produce evil fruit, act hypocritically, lack integrity (hear without acting) and build their lives on shaky foundations. Others, like their teacher, are self-critical, bear good fruit and act out of the goodness of their hearts.
In our hypercritical age, the saying about the splinter and the beam may be most challenging. Psychologists say that often those things we most dislike in others tend to be our own less desirable characteristics. Jesus says that we should look inward before blaming others for problems. We should be more concerned about the goodness of our own hearts than the thorns and brambles around us. I once heard a story of a visit by a young associate pastor to his bishop to complain about his tyrannical pastor. The bishop listened sympathetically, frequently writing on a pad and asking the priest to repeat certain things. The priest felt that the bishop was surely composing a scathing letter to the pastor, only to be surprised when he gave him the letter, sealed, at the end of the meeting and said, Now, Father, when I make you pastor, take this letter and read it carefully. As Lent approaches, perhaps it is a time to check the beams and also to take a look at the goodness in our hearts.