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Workshop Teachings


Matthew 7:1-5         Deuteronomy 30:15-20        Ephesians 4:25-30


If there’s to be a national holiday for Queen Victoria ‘s birthday and Canada Day and “civic” whatever, how much more important is it that there be a national holiday that honours labour.  On Labour Day Canadians wisely acknowledge the place of work in our nation as a whole and in our individual lives.  We work not merely because we have to in order to survive; we work inasmuch as God has ordained us to work.  His command enjoining work is prior to the story of the Fall in Genesis 3. In other words, regardless of what frustration or pain or seeming futility might arise with respect to work in the wake of the Fall, work itself is good.  God’s command is always and everywhere good, always and everywhere attended with blessing. In recognizing work on Labour Day we are gladly owning the dignity of labour; we are saying that humankind is meant to work, is honoured through work, is to find work fulfilling.  We are also saying, by contrast, that there’s nothing demeaning about work, hard work.

We should know this in any case, for Jesus himself worked.  Prior to the work of his public ministry he worked with his father in their “rough carpentry” business, “Joseph and Son”, in Nazareth . From what we glean here and there in the gospels the two men made large, functional items like ox-yokes and ploughs. When Jesus begins his work of preaching and teaching, those who hear him are astonished and say, “Where did this fellow get his wisdom?         He’s only a carpenter, isn’t he?”   Yes, he is a carpenter from a sleepy town in Galilee , yet he’s more than a carpenter. He has more to say to us than up-to-the-minute woodworking advice.  At the same time, the “more” that he has to say to us is all the more credible just because we know he isn’t an armchair wordsmith.  His workshop days have given him down-to-earth, workshop wisdom.


I: — Think about his pithy comment concerning plank and sawdust.  Sawdust is always blowing around in a workshop.         Sooner or later a speck finds its way into someone’s eye.  It’s bothersome, and work can’t continue until the speck is removed. A fellow-worker who means well (of course), whose intentions are the best (of course) immediately offers help: “Here, let me take the speck of sawdust out of your eye, and then you’ll be able to see better” — all the while forgetting that he himself has a two-by-four, ten feet long, sticking out of his own eye. “First take the plank out of your own eye”, our Lord insists, “then you might be able to do something to help your neighbour with his sawdust-speck.”

Jesus insists that we, his disciples, mustn’t fall into the habit of fault-finding, carping, nit-picking, ceaseless criticism of matters small and smaller still, as we whittle our neighbour down until she has the stature of a toothpick (we think) when, by contrast, we appear larger than life ourselves, gigantic even, in our inflated self-estimation. The habit, the deep rut of constant, niggling criticism, is a habit that is as self-intensifying as any addiction.  It’s a habit easy to fall into just because we all want to think highly of ourselves, and the surest way of building ourselves up is to grind someone else down.

I have learned that many people perceive the wisdom and force of our Lord’s teaching yet are confused about its application.  At the same time as they hear Jesus speaking of plank and sawdust they also hear him saying, “Judge not, that you be not judged.”   Confusion arises when such people mistake judging (in the sense of hyper-critical faultfinding) with making sound judgements.  The two shouldn’t be confused: disdainful judgementalism has nothing to do with the formation of  sound judgements.

Everywhere in scripture God’s people are commanded to form sound judgements. God isn’t honoured when his people remain naïve, readily victimized or fooled or “fished in.” We have to discriminate between what enriches us profoundly and what appears to enrich but actually impoverishes. We have to discern what can be welcomed and what must be shunned.  We do everything in our power to foster such discrimination in our youngsters just because we know what disasters await those who lack sound judgement. To lack sound judgement anywhere in life renders people tragic concerning themselves and dangerous concerning others.  Jesus tells us we have to be as wise as serpents.         His apostles tell us we have to test the spirits, since not all spirits are holy. Once we understand the distinction between our Lord’s command to form sound judgements concerning ourselves and his prohibition of a contemptuous attitude concerning others; once we understand this distinction, confusion evaporates.

Jesus Christ speaks so very vehemently on this matter because he knows our hearts. He knows, for instance, our capacity for unconscious rationalization.  You and I can insist with genuine sincerity, genuine, conscious sincerity, that is, that the sawdust speck in someone else is real while the plank in our own eye is only imaginary.

A few years ago I was asked to conduct an afternoon communion service and to preach at Emmanuel College , U of T, the seminary where I was prepared for the ministry of Word, Sacrament and Pastoral Care. I took unusual pains with the sermon because I knew that theology students come to chapel with their sermon-dissecting knives super-sharp.  And besides, I wanted to impress the students with an uncommonly fine sermon. The week had been exceptionally busy. The morning had brought several pastoral upheavals before me.  The traffic on the way to Toronto was heavier than usual. And then of course I had to scramble for a parking spot.  Still, as I walked into the building I felt I was ready to meet the students and show them a thing or two.  Out of a student body of 150, six came to the service.  I preached and administered Holy Communion as scheduled. After the service a student who had attended said to me, gently, “You were hostile this afternoon.”  “I was not!”, I told her, “I’m not the slightest….”         “Victor, you were hostile today.”   “I may have been upset, but I wasn’t hostile.”  There’s the rationalization, as sincere as the day is long: when other people are hostile, they are hostile for sure and hostile without excuse; when I appear hostile, however, I am in truth merely upset. Our unconscious capacity to rationalize is so vast that we can magnify our neighbour’s sawdust-speck into an oak tree, even as we shrink our plank to a twig.  In it all we seem not to know how ridiculous we appear; more than ridiculous, how cruel.

Again our Lord speaks so vehemently on this matter because he knows that berating someone for her sawdust-speck often discourages her, then depresses her, and even immobilizes her.  In the face of relentless criticism she feels she can’t acquit herself. She gives up trying. She is simply crushed into immobility.

Our Lord knows too that our habit of faultfinding drives the person faulted farther and farther into self-righteousness (how else can he protect himself?), whereupon, of course, we fault him for being self-righteous. When our constant criticism drills him like a woodpecker’s beak drilling into tree bark until it finds the insect it’s looking for, he insists that he’s a better person than he’s made out to be.  What else can he do to ward off our painful pecking?  As he defends himself we find our approach to him confirmed, for now it’s plain that he can’t stand the truth about himself.  We forget that his self-righteousness swelled only in response to our savagery.

The worst consequence of our carping, however, is that it forces the victim to retaliate in kind. Carping begets carping, pecking pecking, savagery savagery.  Psychologically fragile people may crumble when ceaselessly faulted; the psychologically resilient, however, fight back.

When Jesus speaks to us about faultfinding he uses strong language: “hypocrite.” Hupokrites is the Greek word for the actor who wore a false face.  When we see the speck in our neighbour’s eye but not the plank in our own we are phonies. We have forgotten that we too are fallen creatures, as warped in mind and heart as the person in front of us whose depravity we find glaring.

Jesus ends his workshop teaching bluntly: “First take the plank out of your own eye; then you will see clearly to take the sawdust-speck out of your neighbour’s eye.” It is only as we admit frankly, even fearfully, our own inner depravity and corruption, and it is only as we do something about it that we will ever be able to help, correct and encourage our brother or sister.  To pretend anything else is to be a phoney, hupokrites.


II: — Another workshop saying, this time less severe and more comforting: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am meek and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Jesus made yokes every day. He knew that if the yoke were made well and were well fitted to the animal’s neck, the ox could pull the heaviest load efficiently and with minimal discomfort. If, on the other hand, the yoke were poorly made, it would rub the animal’s neck raw. Pulling the load would be a torment. Trying to pull the load might even strangle the animal.

Our Lord knew that some loads in life we simply cannot avoid.  We must pull them. “Since there are some loads in life you must pull”, he says, “why not pull them with a yoke that fits well? A yoke made by anyone other than me will only torment you, perhaps choke you. My yoke is easy.” When he says, “Come to me all who labour and are heavy-laden”, the word he uses for “labour” isn’t the normal word for “work.”  The word he uses for “labour” has about it the air of frustration, grief, weariness, the matter of being worn-down and worn-out, tired to the point of being utterly fatigued and fed up.

Earlier in the sermon I said that work as such is not a sign of the Fall but rather an instance of God’s blessing.         Frustration at work, however, grief over work, futility and self-alienation and frenzy: these are a sign of the Fall.         And all of us are fallen creatures living in a fallen world.  Therefore there is an element of frustration and futility and self-contradiction in the matters we “labour over” throughout life.

The ten year-old wants to be a firefighter or a police officer or physician or ballerina. The ten year-old can’t see anything negative about these jobs.  Why, working at any one of these jobs is tantamount to endless glamour and play. The same person, now 40 years old, has found more frustration in the job than he thinks he can endure. Now he wants to get away from it all and raise beef cattle or write novels — as if beef farming were without frustration and the literary world were without treachery! The truth is, frustration and fatigue won’t disappear with the next job.         They have to be pulled along throughout life.  Then with whose yoke do we pull them?  Jesus insists that his yoke fits best, for only his yoke lets us pull life’s burdens without torment or strangulation.

Think about grief. The only way we can avoid grief at the loss of someone dear to us is not to have anyone dear to us. The only way to avoid grief is to avoid love.  But to protect ourselves in this manner against losing someone dear to us is to have lost everything already.  In other words, to love is to ensure grief.  Then grief is another of life’s burdens that can’t be dropped.

As for burdens, one of the cruellest myths floated in our society is the myth that life can be burden-free.  The myth survives for one reason: everyone wants to believe it.  In our silliness we often think that our life is burden-riddled, but so many others’ is burden-free.  The truth is, no one’s life is burden-free.  There is no magic formula which, recited frequently and believed ardently, will evaporate burdens overnight.

Our carpenter-friend doesn’t specialize in magic formulas or mantras. He specializes in yokes. His yoke allows the burden that must be pulled to be pulled without tormenting us or ruining us. But there’s something more. Not only were oxen yoked to the burden they had to pull, oxen were always yoked to each other. Ox-yokes are always made in pairs. At the same that we are yoked to the load we have to pull, we are always yoked to someone who pulls alongside us.

Who? To whom are we yoked as our companion throughout life’s burden-pulling?  Christ’s people are forever yoked to him.  The yoke he fits to us he fits to himself as well.  In other words, there is no burden known to you and me that isn’t his burden as well. His yoke is easy, then, in two senses: one, the yoke he makes for us fits well; two, the yoke he makes for us he makes for himself in addition.  He has bound himself to us in all of life’s struggles.


III: — The last workshop teaching we shall examine today, a stark one this time: “No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God .” There’s urgency about entering the kingdom through faith in the king himself.  There’s urgency about moving ahead in the kingdom, undeflected by distractions great or little. There has to be resolve, determination, to enter the company of the king and remain in it. Anyone who puts his hand to the plough and looks back ploughs a furrow that meanders in all directions, a hit-and-miss matter that would shame any farmer. Anyone who puts his hand to the plough and looks back resembles Lot ‘s wife: she looked back to the city she was leaving in that she thought there was greater security in what she was leaving behind than there was in what she was journeying towards.  Under God, however, in God, there is always greater security in what we are journeying towards than in what we are leaving behind.  The automobile driver who persisted in looking in the rear-view mirror alone would crack up in no time and go nowhere.

Jesus comes upon a man who gushes that he’d like nothing more than to be a disciple. “Then follow me”, says Jesus, “Follow me now.”

“I’ll follow as soon as I’ve buried my father”, the man replies, “I have domestic matters to attend to before I can begin following.”

“That’s an evasion”, says our Lord, “it’s a delaying tactic. Let the dead bury their dead. You come with me. If you put your hand to the plough and start looking around at this and that, the “this and that” will take you over and the kingdom will pass you by.  You’ll disqualify yourself.”

It’s difficult for us modern folk to appreciate our Lord’s urgency. We don’t grasp why his invitation to join him always has “RSVP” on it and why we mustn’t dawdle or delay. We overlook something that Jesus found transparently obvious and undeniable; namely, we can always delay making up our mind, but we can never delay making up our life. The man who says he hasn’t made up his mind about getting married is a bachelor. The woman who says she hasn’t made up her mind as to whether or not she should have children doesn’t have any. The student who says he hasn’t decided whether he should study tonight or take the night off isn’t studying. And those who have not yet made up their mind about following Jesus have not begun to follow. We can always delay making up our mind; we can never delay making up our life. Jesus won’t allow anyone he meets to deny this truth or forget it.  Again and again he stresses the urgency of entering the kingdom as we abandon ourselves to the king himself.

This third carpenter teaching, the starkest of the three we have probed today, has much to do with the first two, the ones about sawdust and yokes. It is only as we put our hand to the plough and do not look back; it is only as we resolve to live in the company of Jesus Christ and never reconsider; it is only as we continue to love him rather than fritter our affection on trifles and toys; it is only as we are instant and constant where he is concerned that we find ourselves free to hear and heed his word about sawdust and planks and the phoniness that laps at all of us; free to hear his word, we should note, and no less eager to do something about it.

In the same way it is only as we are serious about the yoke-maker, serious enough to move from detached mulling to ardent embracing of the one who has already embraced us; it is only when we are this serious that we find ourselves proving in our experience that his yoke is easier than any other, that what life compels us to pull is pulled better when his yoke both connects us to our burden and connects us to him.

We can always avoid making up our mind; we can never avoid making up our life. Either our hand is on the plough and we are looking ahead or we are looking around elsewhere, distracted, preoccupied with everything but him, perhaps majoring on minors, perhaps concerned with much that is good but with nothing that is godly.


Yes, our Lord was a carpenter. He knew about work, about salty sweat and sore muscles and slivers.  But he is also more than a carpenter.  He is the incarnate Son of God.  With the ring of authority, therefore, he urges us to come to him and never forsake him. In this we shall find ourselves both corrected and comforted.  Corrected when his sawdust-reminder challenges us to drop our carping born of pseudo-superiority; comforted when he yokes himself to us and pulls with us the burden that would otherwise torment us or strangle us.

Knowing all of this, today we should bind ourselves to him anew, and never, ever look back.


                                                                                             Victor Shepherd