I first heard this in another form in Encyclopedia of Jewish Humor, a book I love so much that I had worn out my first copy before I graduated from high school. While pondering it last night, it occurred to me that it could just as easily be about the Christian concept of original sin. (The printed version was about common sense as part of rabbinic wisdom.)
A Sunday school teacher was talking about how foolish it is to see other people’s faults and how wise it is to see one’s own faults. She told a story about two burglars who climbed down a soot-filled chimney. One burglar’s face was covered with soot and the other’s face was clean, but there was no mirror in the house.
“Which burglar do you think washed his face?” the teacher asked.
“The one with the dirty face,” said one student.
“Maybe. But I think it was the burglar with the clean face,” said the teacher, “because he saw the other burglar’s face was dirty, so he thought his was dirty too. But the burglar with the dirty face saw that the other burglar’s face was clean, so he thought his face was clean too.”
Another student raised her hand and said, “I don’t get it. How could one of them have a dirty face and the other one have a clean face? They both came in through the same chimney!”
And so did we all.