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12 February 2019

Can’t see; pretty sure they can.

What spiritual blindness looks like.

Matthew 15.12-14 • Luke 6.39-40 • John 9.39-41.

Jesus’s saying about “the blind leading the blind” is pretty famous. So much so, people don’t remember who originally said it. I once had someone tell me it comes from the Upanishads. And it is actually in there; Yama the death god compares the foolish to the blind leading the blind. Katha Upanishad 2.6 But ancient, medieval, and modern westerners didn’t read the Upanishads! They read the gospels. They got it from Jesus.

But Jesus didn’t use the idea only once, in only one context. We see it thrice in the gospels. It appears in Matthew after Jesus critiqued Pharisees for their loopholes; it appears in Luke as part of Jesus’s Sermon on the Plain; and in John it appropriate comes after the story where Jesus cures a blind man.

So let’s deal with the context of each instance. Matthew first.

Matthew 15.12-14 KWL
12 Coming to Jesus, his students then told him, “You know the Pharisees who heard the word are outraged?”
13 In reply Jesus said, “Every plant will be uprooted which my heavenly Father didn’t plant.
14 Forgive them; they’re blind guides.
When blind people guide the blind, the both fall into a hole.”

Not every Jew in Jesus’s day was religious. Of the few who were, one sect was the Pharisees—and Jesus taught in their schools, or synagogues. Problem is, Pharisee teachers had created customs which permitted them to bend God’s commands, or even break them outright. And after one Pharisee objected when Jesus and his students skipped their handwashing custom. first Jesus brought up how their customs were frequently hypocrisy… then he went outside and told everyone that being ritually clean or unclean comes from within, not without.

You think this behavior might offend Pharisees? You’d be correct. That’s what Jesus’s kids came to tell him about. In response he called ’em blind guides. Well they were.

Most interpreters of Matthew 15.14 tend to treat ἄφετε αὐτούς/áfete aftús, “forgive them,” as “dismiss them” (or KJV “let them be”) —when we’re being kind. More often than we oughta, we’re not. Too often we interpret it as “To hell with them.” As if Jesus had all he could stand of Pharisees and their nitpicking, Law-bending, phoniness, intolerance, you name it. Screw grace; Jesus doesn’t have infinite patience and compassion for just anyone.

Yeah, it’s an interpretation which violates Jesus’s character. Sounds more like a typical grace-deficient Christian than Christ.

Yes, Judgment Day is our deadline for getting our respective acts together. And we don't know whether our individual judgment days will fall at the End, or in the next several seconds once that runaway truck plows into us. But Jesus didn’t come to earth to judge, but save. Jn 3.17 The Pharisees still had time to repent. Many did.

Blind Pharisees.

The bit where Jesus used the adjective τυφλοί/tyflí, “blind [people],” 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. Mt 23.15 But once they get their hooks into such a person… well, they made ’em Pharisee. Their brand of Pharisee. Hillel’s disciples would make Hillelites; Shammai’s disciples would make Shammaites. And each would bend, fold, spindle, or mutilate the Law same as their teachers. “Once fully trained,” Jesus said, “everyone is like their teacher.” Lk 6.40

So in other words… just as bullheaded, fruitless, heretic, and so unfit for God’s kingdom they’ll never inherit it. Hence Jesus’s “child of ge-Henna” statement. Mt 23.15

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.

Blind teachers.

In Luke the saying is right in the middle of Jesus’s lesson about judging by double standards. ’Cause if you have one standard for yourself, and another for others, what kind of standards are you demonstrating? You certainly aren’t teaching consistency. Or you’re teaching hypocrisy. Either way, you’re a bit of a blind guide.

Luke 6.39-40 KWL
39 Jesus also said this analogy to them: “Can a blind person guide the blind
without the both falling into a hole?”
40 A student doesn’t exceed the teacher;
once fully trained, everyone is like their teacher.”

To a degree, the idea of one blind person guiding another is ridiculous. Like Jesus said, they’ll both fall into a βόθυνον/vóthynon, “hole.” We don’t know if Jesus had a specific depth in mind for this hole, which is why some bibles go with “ditch” and others with “pit”; it depends on how badly the interpreter wants retribution on people. Still, tripping over or into any hole might seriously injure people.

Thing is, blind people are often the best guides for other blind people. They know how to advise ’em on how to get around, and do things despite their impaired vision or sightlessness. They know from experience. No, they can’t always navigate others around holes. 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 walk unfamiliar ground… full of holes.

Blind judges.

Now John 9. First Jesus cured a blind man on Sabbath, ’cause he does that. No, this doesn’t mean Jesus changed the Law and now we can work on Sabbath. We’re still meant to stop and rest. But Jesus points out doing good deeds is a totally valid exception. Mt 12.11-12 Problem was, Pharisees didn’t agree. Most insisted there were fewer exceptions than Jesus permitted; some graceless Pharisees might go so far as to say there were no exceptions at all.

Either way, Pharisees were so hidebound in their insistence Jesus was sinning, Jn 9.24 they refused to recognize him as a valid prophet, and wouldn’t listen to a thing he taught. And tossed this poor formerly-blind guy out of their synagogue because he dared state the obvious: “If this man isn’t from God, he hasn’t the power to do anything!” Jn 9.33 KWL

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. Jn 9.35 Since they assumed Jesus’s statement might apply to them, it’s a good bet they identified with the Pharisees in synagogue.

This blind guy hadn’t even seen Jesus. Couldn’t identify Jesus by sight till Jesus identified himself. Jn 9.37 But he knew since Jesus cured him, Jesus must be from God, and believed in him. Whereas the Pharisees in synagogue had seen Jesus, but because their customs identified Jesus as a sinner, they couldn’t imagine he was from God. Their eyes might work just fine, or not. But their ability to interpret spiritual things—their “vision,” so to speak—was kaput.

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. Just as grace-deficient.

Blind means you can’t see past yourself to follow Jesus. And if you think you’re following God without Jesus, it’s not possible. Jn 14.6

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.