Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Call an Opthamologist

Downsides of my office: Fluorescent lights, limited parking, and a particular cheap brand of coffee that I like to call “gut rot.” Upsides: among a few others, occasional, interesting conversations about words.

A few weeks ago, a co-worker — who, as a result of her upbringing, has very good reasons to be unfamiliar with the New Testament — asked me if a person who gave an interview with the paper could have possibly misquoted Jesus. The sentence was this: “Don’t worry about the mote in your brother’s eye, worry about the beam in your own.” Without really reflecting on the word mote, she interpreted the passage to mean that one shouldn’t waste time worrying about a moat — as in, the body of water — when one has some sort of wooden plank that could be used to cross such a barrier. Which makes sense, really, if you haven’t already been told what we’re supposed to think that Jesus actually meant with this strange chunk of syntax. (I’m sure it sounded great in Aramaic.) The quote struck my ears as strange as well, because my Catholic education had familiarized me with a different though not necessarily better translation of the quote: “Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” This one avoids using the word mote, which doesn’t get used all that much in modern American English. I think that alone helps the (supposedly) intended meaning to be clearer: Don’t rag on someone for some small fault when you yourself are guilty of something even worse.

To me, the problem with this bit of Christian wisdom is that the wording of it always distracted me from the meaning. When seven-year-old me first heard this one, I was too amused or horrified or just generally preoccupied with the notion of a guy walking around with a portion of Abraham Lincoln’s childhood home sticking out of his eye socket. (What if he turned around? What if a woodpecker lived on him? If he fell forward, would it kill him?) Really, it reminds me of the whole “Lily Allen has a ladder in her tights” thing, which itself was confusing and ridiculous until I found out what it meant.

Beam doesn’t help the situation much, either, especially because now it makes me think of someone taking a laser pointer to the face. Actually, that might be the best way to explain it to seven-year-olds today.

According to this website, which conveniently lists specific Bible passages as different editions translate them, the following are also considered fair game, at least by some whacko sect of Christianity somewhere:
  • “sawdust” and “wooden beam”
  • “grain of dust” and “bit of wood”
  • “splinter” and “beam”
  • “craisin” and “pineapple”
Okay, I made the last one up, but it makes just as much sense as all these carpentry terms. (Oh that Jesus — always talkin’ shop.)

As I said earlier, mote is almost equally problematic, especially if the passage is being recited and not read from the page. Which is too bad, really, because mote is a cool word. Say it to yourself. Ten times. Loudly. Now don’t you feel a little bit better about life?

Aside from confusion with the water-filled river that you put around your castle to keep out invaders, mote is notable for one other reason, as one Shakespeare-savvy intern pointed out during the offices original discussion of this matter. Mote is also a character in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which itself should not be confused with A Midsummer Night’s Cream. Mote appears as one of Queen Titania’s attendant fairies, alongside Peaseblossom, Cobweb and Mustardseed. It’s easy to forget about Mote, however, because she — or possibly he, I guess — never speaks. In fact, some productions of the play leave the character out altogether.

To complicate the matter even further, some editions of the play render the name as “Moth” instead, which pretty much eliminates the possibility that a reader could interpret the name as a pun on the word mute, which the character could very well be, since she or he has no lines.

Following that logic, I personally would like to read the Jesus quote as “Don’t point out the moth in your neighbor’s eye, when you have the trunk of General Sherman, the tallest tree in the world, in your own.”

Unless that overstates the point.

EDIT: At Spencer’s request and for the sake of accuracy, this post has been retitled “See an Ophthalmologist” from its original title, “See an Optometrist.”

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