“The Mote That Is in Thy Brother’s Eye, Not the Beam That Is in Thine Own Eye”

Brant Gardner

The saying about the mote and beam is known from rabbinic literature. It is a different way of looking at the same problem Jesus deals with in the first set of sayings. Again, he counsels against harsh comparisons and unmerciful evaluations. It is human to make comparisons with others, and it is unfortunately human that we may more quickly see another’s faults than our own. This verse provides another example to reinforce the command to emulate God in how we judge (or measure) our fellow human beings.

This example contrasts our ability to see other’s faults with our blindness toward our own. The contrast is exaggerated by reference to the mote and beam. A mote is a small speck, probably most familiar in current speech as a “dust mote.” Thus, when we see a small speck in someone’s eye, we are seeing some small fault in them. The implication is that we have turned something inconsequential into the basis for a harsh judgment.

In contrast, a beam is a large timber that supports a roof. Jesus is not describing a literal condition; rather, he is using hyperbole to describe our ability to see minute problems in other people while being blinded to huge problems in our own actions. These things are in the “eye” because the eye is the thing that actively sees. (See commentary accompanying 3 Nephi 13:22.)

Jesus calls hypocrites those who suffer from the inability to see their own faults clearly. The modern connotations of insincerity are certainly applicable, but the term also had the contemporary meaning of an actor. (See commentary accompanying 3 Nephi 13:2). Therefore, the ancient hypocrite was acting superior when he was actually inferior. The saying concentrates on another horizontal relationship that determines God’s relationship to us. If we are overly critical of small faults in others, God will be justified in judging us for the very large faults in our own hearts.

Old World Context: This teaching was an important way to improve horizontal relationships in a world fraught with actual or potential conflict. In the political arena, his Israelite listeners might see a neighbor as not sufficiently indignant about the Romans, or too radical in his indignation, or dangerous in proposing violent revolution. In the religious arena, one might not follow the purity laws as scrupulously as the Pharisees dictated or might believe that the Pharisees went too far. One might follow the Rabbi Shammai, or one might follow Hillel. There were multitudes of ways that differences existed, and those differences could create internal contention. Jesus was teaching that, while differences could and did exist, we could be merciful in our treatment of others and their differences. In Israel it was not only a heavenly survival strategy, but a pragmatic earthly one.

Book of Mormon Context: The Nephites in Bountiful had undergone a tremendous calamity and, in its aftermath, had probably become more united. The effect of a natural disaster on a group is usually to make them more tolerant of differences to promote greater communal healing. An example is the outpouring of shared sorrow and support following the tragedy of September 11, 2001, where many Americans died in the attack on the World Trade Center. Like the cataclysmic destruction endured by the Nephites, that tremendous loss galvanized and united the will of a large country.

Nevertheless, the Nephites had recently endured religious persecution; Jesus’s lesson was an important reminder of the dangers accompanying unrighteous judgment and intolerance.

Comparison: There are no changes from the Matthean text.

Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 5