Spiritual blindness, and what that looks like.
Matthew 15.13-14 • Luke 6.39-40 • John 9.39-41
Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount has a counterpart in Luke, usually called the Sermon on the Plain. They don’t entirely overlap. Matthew has more of Jesus’s teachings. But relax; I’m gonna go through both sermons’ content.
Here’s a bit which is part of the sermon in Luke but not Matthew, though Jesus does also teach it in Matthew: The bit about blind guides. It’s a memorable mental image, so it’s become a memorable lesson. Though sometimes Christians only remember the mental image… and don’t always remember what Jesus meant by it.
To a degree, the idea of one blind person guiding another is ridiculous. Like Jesus said, they’ll both fall into a ditch. Or worse; the
At the same time, blind people are frequently the best people to advise other blind people about how to get around, how to do things, despite impaired vision or sightlessness. They know from experience. No, they can’t always navigate others around ditches. But if they’re particularly good with their canes, they can. Commonsense will tell you whose guidance to trust. Much like commonsense makes it clear Jesus’s comment is generally true: Blind guides aren’t ideal when you’re trying to evade holes in the ground.
What’s the point of this parable? Jesus was critiquing teachers whom he considered blind guides.
In Matthew Jesus said this after the Pharisees were irritated by Jesus’s criticism. The Pharisees griped at Jesus that his students broke custom; Jesus responded they straight-up broke commands.
In Luke it’s part of the Sermon on the Plain; it’s right in the middle of Jesus’s lesson about judging by double standards. Jesus taught that same lesson in Matthew but didn’t squeeze the “blind leading the blind” bit into it there. Why here? Well, if you judge by double standards, you’re a bit of blind guide, aren’t you? And blind teachers are gonna wind up creating blind students.
The bit where Jesus used the adjective tyfloí/“blind” a lot is in Matthew 23, when he denounced Pharisees who couldn’t fathom how their loophole-ridden teachings were ruining their relationships with God. If you wanna see what a blind guide looks like, this’d be the passage which explains just what Jesus is thinking.
Matthew 23.13-24 KWL
- 13 “Scribes, Pharisees, hypocrites, how awful for you: You shut off heaven’s kingdom to your people.
- You don’t go in—nor permit others to enter.
- 14 [Scribes, Pharisees, hypocrites, how awful for you: You eat up single mothers’ homes.
- And while praying huge prayers? This is why you’ll receive an extreme judgment.]
- 15 Scribes, Pharisees, hypocrites, how awful for you: You travel sea and land to make one proselyte—
- and whenever you can, make them twice a child of ge-Henna as you.
- 16 How awful for you blind guides, who say,
- ‘Swearing by the temple is nothing. Swearing by the temple gold is binding.’
- 17 Stupid and blind. What’s greater, the gold? Or the temple sanctifying the gold?
- 18 And ‘Swearing by the altar is nothing. Swearing by the gift on it is binding.’
- 19 Blind. What’s greater, the gift? Or the altar sanctifying the gift?
- 20 Swearing by the altar, swears by it and by everything on it.
- 21 Swearing by the temple, swears by it and by the Spirit who dwells in it.
- 22 Swearing by heaven, swears by God’s throne and by the One sitting on it.
- 23 Scribes, Pharisees, hypocrites, how awful for you: You tithe mint, dill, and cumin.
- You dismiss the Law’s central ideas: Justice, mercy, and faith.
- You should do the one—and not dismiss the other!
- 24 Blind guides. You’re filtering out gnats and swallowing camels.”
“Filtering out gnats and swallowing camels” describes Pharisees perfectly. Either they were nitpicking fine details in the Law, much as one would try to make absolutely sure there were no bugs in their tea; or they found a loophole which let ’em break the Law altogether, much as one would gorge oneself on a ritually unclean animal if it were tasty enough.
Yet the Pharisees imagined themselves experts in the Law. Experts on God. Experts on how to have a proper, righteous relationship with him. People who could pressure others—for their own good!—into following God exactly the same as they; hence the proselytism instead of simply sharing.
Let’s be fair. Not all Pharisees were this type of dense hypocrite. The ones Jesus addressed in Matthew 23 were, but others studied with the Pharisees because they really did seek God—and knew the Sadducees weren’t gonna be any help. Pharisees like Nicodemus and Paul, who sought God with all their hearts (even though Paul made a lousy start of it); Pharisees who went to synagogue just to hear Jesus, who chased Jesus to the far side of the Galilee’s lake to hear him, who realized Jesus is Messiah: Some of ’em were earnest.
Those Pharisees harassing Jesus definitely weren’t. Because they should’ve quickly realized who Jesus is, and followed him. But they were blind.
And a blind guide isn’t on the path to God. Isn’t on any path. Basically they’re going nowhere. Round in circles; round like a loophole. Maybe they know it, but they really don’t appreciate you saying so. ’Cause they’re pretty sure they can see enough. Better than you, anyway.
Blindness in John.
Jesus’s response to the whole sorry mess:
John 9.39-41 KWL
- 39 Jesus said, “I came into this world to provoke judgment.
- Thus those who can’t see may see—and those who see may become blind.”
- 40 Some of the Pharisees with Jesus heard this and told him, “Surely we’re not also blind?”
- 41 Jesus told them, “If you’re blind, you didn’t sin!
- But now you say ‘We see!’—so your sin stays on you.”
Now since Jesus was speaking with Pharisees, and suggesting they might possibly be blind, Christians tend to leap to the conclusion he was condemning them same as he did the Pharisees who opposed him in Matthew 23. Is that valid? Yes.
We don’t know if these were the same Pharisees as went to the formerly-blind guy’s synagogue. Maybe so. Maybe they’re the ones who told Jesus what had happened, and provoked Jesus to go find the blind guy.
This blind guy hadn’t even seen Jesus. Couldn’t identify Jesus by sight till Jesus identified himself.
That’s what Jesus’s answer means. “If you’re blind”—like this man—“you didn’t sin!” You used your noggin; you figured Jesus out. “But now you say ‘We see!’ ”—like the Pharisees in synagogue—“your sin stays,” because you’re just as stubborn.
Blind means you can’t see past yourself to follow Jesus. And if you think you’re following God without him, it’s not possible.
Blindness doesn’t just apply to Pharisees, of course. It’s true of any person, Christian or not, who figure “We see!”—that they’re right and Jesus isn’t. That they know best, and Jesus… well, he can’t mean what he appears to mean, and they’re gonna have to reinterpret him till he means what they prefer he mean. Jesus gets in their way sometimes. Keeps closing their loopholes, or kicking down their legalism.
What to do? Well, realize we’re wrong and Jesus is right, and follow him. It’s not that complicated.