Have you seen the memes calling anyone who disagrees with the person who made the meme blind? Or accusing them of leading blind people around? There are a lot of them – but who were the blind Pharisees in context? Well, lemme tell ya, it’s a funny story.
Matt 15:14 “Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.”
First, the context of the story – Yeshua had just rebuked the Pharisees because some of them were more concerned with external washings which were not commanded, than with the correction of their internal character flaws. Is washing bad? Heck no, it kept the Jews alive during the Black Plague – in fact they were so healthy that they got accused of starting it all through witchcraft just to kill off the Gentiles. I will say though, that you would not want to stand downwind from their accusers – European non-Jews almost never bathed. #bathingisagoodthing
Now the washings wouldn’t normally have been a problem (in fact, given a choice of who to hang around with, I choose people who like to wash their hands and feet as opposed to those who don’t), but they were symbolic of a bigger issue – righteousness that is merely superficial in nature.
And here we come to the crux of the issue – what made one a blind guide? Protestants say that the Catholics are the blind guides (and vice versa), many Hebrew Roots people say that everyone is a blind guide (except for themselves) who does not accept Torah – but is that an accurate assessment? Did Yeshua simply introduce a foreign concept or did it mean something to that first century audience? Well of course it meant something, we just have to find out the answer from their own writings (always the best way to learn context – learn it from the people themselves) – and here it is from Sotah 22b of the B Talmud:
Our Rabbis have taught: There are seven types of Pharisees: the shikmi Pharisee, the nikpi Pharisee, the kizai Pharisee, the ‘pestle’ Pharisee, the Pharisee [who constantly exclaims] ‘What is my duty that I may perform it?’, the Pharisee from love [of God] and the Pharisee from fear. The shikmi Pharisee — he is one who performs the action of Shechem.4 The nikpi Pharisee — he is one who knocks his feet together.5 The kizai Pharisee — R. Nahman b. Isaac said: He is one who makes his blood to flow against walls.6 The ‘pestle’ Pharisee — Rabbah b. Shila said: [His head] is bowed like [a pestle in] a mortar. The Pharisee [who constantly exclaims] ‘What is my duty that I may perform it?’ — but that is a virtue! — Nay, what he says is, ‘What further duty is for me that I may perform it?’7 The Pharisee from love and the Pharisee from fear — Abaye and Raba said to the tanna [who was reciting this passage], Do not mention ‘the Pharisee from love8 and the Pharisee from fear’; for Rab Judah has said in the name of Rab: A man should always engage himself in Torah and the commandments even though it be not for their own sake,9 because from [engaging in them] not for their own sake, he will come [to engage in them] for their own sake. R. Nahman b. Isaac said: What is hidden is hidden, and what is revealed is revealed; the Great Tribunal will exact punishment from those who rub themselves against the walls.10
King Jannai11 said to his wife’, ‘Fear not the Pharisees and the non-Pharisees but the hypocrites who ape the Pharisees; because their deeds are the deeds of Zimri12 but they expect a reward like Phineas’.13
Now each of the five unrighteous Pharisees had a different reason they were called unrighteous. Specifically turn your attention to the “kizai” Pharisee – why does his blood flow against walls? Because he has blinded himself by covering his eyes and “in his anxiety to avoid looking upon a woman he dashes his face against the wall.” (click on reference 6 above for this explanation) The blind Pharisee wasn’t really blind – he was simply a man with no self-restraint and he was unable to look at a beautiful woman. He covered his eyes and thus did not have to face his sinful nature and overcome his evil inclination. Kizai means “bloody-browed.” In effect, he was cleaning the outside of the vessel while leaving the insides filthy.
External washings, when used as a substitute for internal refining, are just a charade, like covering one’s eyes to avoid being lustful. They were teaching others to do likewise, making them “blind guides.” The Rabbis wisely called such men unrighteous and lumped them among the five unrighteous kinds of Pharisees – like those who made sure that people saw their good works or who walked with exaggerated holiness, and not among the two righteous kinds of Pharisees who loved and feared God (of whom Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimithea and Gamaliel would most certainly qualify).
It is, of course, very tempting to point to those with a lack (or supposed lack) of knowledge or revelation and call them blind – but this verse is clearly talking about character. After all, the Pharisees He was talking about not only knew the Torah but were keeping it – this this can’t be about a lack of knowledge. So, are we blind guides ourselves? Are we going through the motions according to our own best judgment while criticizing others who are doing the exact same thing? Would someone further along the path have a right to look back at us and call us blind? If we are more concerned with looking righteous than with being conformed to the character of Yeshua, then we are nothing but blind guides ourselves. If we simply call people without knowledge blind, then do I get to call people who don’t know what I know blind? Do my teachers get to call me blind? In that case – are we not all headed for the ditch?
As with many verses, this wasn’t spoken in a vacuum and we can’t just say, “Well, that’s not what it means to me.” It doesn’t remotely matter what it means to us – it matters what it meant to the audience. And that audience would have snickered, thinking of an honored yet unrighteous Pharisee walking past a woman with his eyes covered, with all of his buddies following him as they topple shamefully into a ditch together.
This is just one of many cases where you can’t interpret Scripture by googling what the Urban Dictionary has to say.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Mt 15:14). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.