The Sermon on the Plain: The Clueless Leading the Helpless


photo by Ashish Gupta

Jesus also told them a riddle. “A blind person can’t lead another blind person, right? Won’t they both fall into a ditch? Disciples aren’t greater than their teacher, but whoever is fully prepared will be like their teacher.” (Luke 6:39-40 CEB).

  • The CEB (Common English Bible) uses the word “riddle” instead of “parable” here, which I think is an interesting choice. The parables are often like riddles, where the meaning is hidden. I’m not sure the meaning is particularly hidden here.
  • But the context of these two verses is Luke puts them in the Sermon on the Plain, between “do not judge others” and “why do you see the splinter in your neighbor’s eye, but not the log in your own?” Luke makes these verses about why we shouldn’t judge or criticize others. “Do not presume to be a spiritual leader,” he seems to say.
  • But Matthew uses the same two sayings in two different places in his gospel (Matthew 15:14 and Matthew 10:24). There they have a different context: “blind leading the blind” refers to hypocritical religious leaders, and “disciples aren’t greater than their teacher” is a warning that disciples can be expected to be harassed by religious leaders the same way Jesus is.
  • This is a good example of the way different authors hear different meanings in Jesus’s sayings. To me, it is evidence that Luke and Matthew are drawing from the same source document (Q), but interpret it differently.
  • So it shouldn’t be any surprise that faithful Christians today come to different conclusions about what Jesus means! If I’m to take this passage seriously, I should be doubly circumspect about criticizing others—both because of what it says, and how it came to be written!
  • The earliest recorded example of the “blind leading the blind” is from the Katha Upanishad, a sacred text of Hinduism, which was written somewhere between 200 and 800 years before Jesus: “Ignorant of their ignorance, yet wise in their own esteem, these deluded men, proud of their vain learning, go round and round like the blind led by the blind” (2:5).
  • Some people argue that Jesus was aware of the spiritual teachings of Hinduism and Buddhism. It is certainly possible that the metaphor arose independently, and it occurred to more than one person in several centuries. But we also already know that Jesus quoted other religious leaders like Rabbi Hillel, who said “What is hateful to you, do not do to another; this is all the Law and the Prophets.” It would almost be more shocking if Jesus was not influenced by the spiritual teachings of other faith traditions. He even referenced pagan mythology in his teaching.
  • Both of these quotes are about spiritual leadership. In context, I believe Jesus is saying one of the reasons we should not presume to judge others is that most of us are not in the position to be spiritual leaders. “Lead yourself first,” Jesus seems to be saying.
  • Many of us have been on “trust walks,” where we are blindfolded and led by someone else. These can be powerful forms of embodied learning. Those of us who are not physically blind should try navigating the world without sight. Are you able to even stand on one leg with your eyes closed? Try it!
  • We also need to recognize that this metaphor is ableist. Blind people are able to navigate the world, often very well, to the surprise of the sighted. “The helpless led by the clueless” might be a more inclusive phrase. If you try the exercise above repeatedly, standing on one leg with eyes closed, you will probably find that you are able to do it better with practice. How much more so those who refine their senses without sight over the course of years.

Teacher, lead us to humble wisdom.