SAWDUST & SHAVINGS
Why do you see the speck in your neighbour's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?
There is a German proverb which reads: "Wo gehobelt wird, da fallen Spähne!" Loosely translated it means that shavings fall to the ground wherever shaving takes place. You can't shave and expect no shavings. In other words, there are always consequences to our actions. I learnt this proverb last Saturday after a long conversation with German visitors about sawdust -- what interesting topics we sometimes get into! Earlier I had mentioned to them the book Bill Everett and I are writing called "Sawdust and Soul" and my friends asked me to tell them what sawdust is as they had never heard the word before. So we discussed all the possible German translations and in the end realised that, as in English, so in German, there at least two words that can be used. These distinguish between the small specks of dust that result from sawing wood, and the shavings that are made when you plane wood. Of course, when you turn wood on a lathe you get plenty of both because you cut, shave and sandpaper! Today the upmarket vacuum cleaners used in a workshop collect shavings in one bin while the sawdust, being lighter, is sucked into another.
Did you know that sawdust has many uses? Making particle boards and fake snow, providing grip on wet or icy road, soaking up oil spills, feeding plants, starting a fire, filling wood holes and defects, chasing away weeds, lightening up cement and providing fuel for boilers. There is a whole conversation on the web about how people use sawdust and shavings, some of it quite graphic and not particularly salubrious! I have also discovered that there is a sawdust art festival, several design studios called sawdust , someone called the sawdust girl, and even a sawdust mountain which is described as " a melancholy love letter of sorts" whatever that means! There is also a web page of sentences in which the word "sawdust occurs." Take these as an example:
- The unreduced nose of the wine combines figs, apricots, nectarines, scented candle wax and hard wood sawdust. (Life's too short to drink that one!)
- Are you on a yeast free diet and tired of eating sawdust or cardboard tasting bread? (Yes, indeed, sounds like a gluten free diet!)
- Small wonder its promoters can't see the wood for the trees: they all have sawdust in their eyes.
This last one could well have been said by Jesus! After all, as a carpenter he would have been very familiar with sawdust and shavings. The problem with many people is not that they cannot see the wood for the trees, as we often say, but they cannot even see the trees because their eyes are full of sawdust! And sometimes it is not dust a sprinkling of sawdust that gets into their eyes with stinging effect, but a whole log that blinds them totally!
Sawdust may have many uses, but it is also toxic. When it gets into your eyes it burns, when it gets into your body it can cause serious allergies, and some is also carcinogenic. It is precisely for this reason that there is such a strong emphasis today in woodworking, especially when using power tools, on the need to suck up sawdust not just from the floor after you have finished working, but to suck it up out of the air as it comes off your machines and before it gets into your lungs. It is not so much the shavings and dust particles you can see that are the problem, but the very tiny specks of dust that float in the air and get into your eyes, your lungs and, I might add, into your hair as well! So don't mess with sawdust, it can be a killer.
Sawdust is not only physically toxic, when used as a metaphor, as it is by Jesus, it refers to a spiritual blindness that destroys relationships, preventing us from seeing ourselves and others as we should. But it is, as Jesus also says, nothing compared to having a whole chunk of tree, bark and all, in your eye! "Why do you see the speck in your neighbour's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?" asks Jesus. Imagine not noticing a log in your eye and yet being able to see a tiny speck of sawdust in someone else's. What a good example of Jesus' humour as a way of undermining our self-righteousness.
Jesus is speaking about the danger of judging others -- something we are all prone to do, and sometimes do too often for our own and others good. But the saying could apply more widely. If we have sawdust or logs in our eyes, we not only cannot see the wood for the trees but, as I have already mentioned, we also cannot see the trees. In other words sawdust and logs in our eyes is a metaphor for that spiritual blindness, that prevents us from seeing the world with open eyes. Not only do we fail to see the beauty around us, not least in trees themselves, or the good in other people, we also fail to see the plight of people who suffer from poverty, illness and old age, or the despair in the eyes of angry unemployed young people, or that other people are hurting. When Jesus opens the eyes of the blind, it is not only those who are physically blind, but also those of us who cannot see as we should, and above all see things differently from Jesus' own point of view.
Sometimes it may be necessary to exercise and express criticism, to challenge people about things that are wrong. So I don't think Jesus is saying that it is always wrong to do so. What is toxic is when we do so in the wrong way and for the wrong reasons, especially in a self-righteous and destructive way. Before we criticise others for a speck of sawdust in their eyes which prevents them from seeing our side of the argument, we must be aware of and get rid -- not just of the speck in our own eyes, but the LOG! In other words, we need to be more self-critical and far less critical of others. It is the same as not casting the first stone. How easy it is to find fault with others; how difficult to see our own faults, the shavings that fall to the ground all around us, in fact the chunks of wood that blind us and so prevent us from seeing! And it is not just us as individuals who sometimes cannot see, or who are wrongly judgmental, it is also true of the church. For this reason Peter writes in one of his letters in the New Testament that "judgment begins with the house of God!" In other words even before the church begins to challenge faults in the lives of others and of society more generally, it is judged for its own failures and should therefore get its own house in order. So don't let sawdust get in your eyes, or logs blind you. We might miss seeing the wonder and beauty that surrounds us. And let us be slow to judge, for we will certainly be judged in turn.
John de Gruchy
13 February 2014