Knowing the Father through the Son 

by Herb Montgomerypicture of a father and son
“Everything has been entrusted to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, nor does anyone know the Father except the Son and to whomever the Son chooses to reveal him.” (Q 10:22)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 11:27: “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”

Luke 10:22: “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows who the Son is except the Father, and no one knows who the Father is except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”

Gospel of Thomas 61:3: “Jesus said to her: ‘I am he who comes from the one who is always the same. I was given some of that which is my Father’s.’”

Jesus’ Substantiation of the God of the Vulnerable

Last week we discussed how the God Jesus called his followers to envision was committed to the most vulnerable ones in society. The very next saying shows Jesus appealing to direct revelation to substantiate his claim that God was a God for the vulnerable and not just the strong and well-placed. Consider the possible responses to Jesus’ saying from last week—that God had actually revealed truth to those on the margins of their society rather than to their religious sages and learned leaders. Pairing that saying with this week’s implies that the Jesus community attributed this truth to direct revealation.

How did Jesus know that God was the revealer of truth for the vulnerable? That this God belonged to the marginalized and excluded in his own society? This knowledge had been given to him directly from God and he was choosing to reveal it to his followers.

And while this defense of direct and unique revelation may have established the credibility of the Jesus community in their society in the first century, it leaves some big questions untouched in our context today.  In this saying, Jesus says that what he knows was “entrusted to him by his father” and that he also chooses to “reveal” things to the folks he chooses to.

That opens up questions like:

  •                 How do we know we’re getting insights from God or Jesus?
  •                 Are there any other possible sources?
  •                 Does direct revelation have to be validated by the authorities (in Jesus’ case, it wasn’t even though he appealed to and reinterpreted the prophets)?
  •                 How can we distinguish healthy insight/revelation from destructive insight/revelation?

Some modern people worry about whether their interpretations are valid or they are self-deceiving, especially if they’ve been taught that nothing the Holy Spirit reveals will contradict scripture. Could it be that the best way to know whether or not you’re on the right track is to actually follow what Jesus is teaching in this section of the sayings and listen to the voices of the most vulnerable and how they are affected by your “revelation?” This method, which my friend Keisha McKenzie calls Listening for God in the Othered, is a way to test “revelation” by its fruit.

Jesus’ direct revelation was not attested to by the status quo authorities, but he spoke of his father entrusting insight to him as he taught that we need to listen the revelation God has given to the lowest sector of our society: we need to listen to “the children.”

There is a danger in claiming direct revelation and ending the discussion there. Direct revelation is not a method that is reproducible and that we can use ourselves at will.  But we can lean into the truth that Jesus is attesting to in this saying. We can listen to the most vulnerable. We can hear from their experiences whether or not our “revelations” or interpretations of sacred texts produce good fruit.

It’s a hermeneutical method of testing by considering results. (See Matthew 7.16-20.)

My Father

I want to discuss for a moment Jesus’ referring to God as his “Father” because of the problematic nature of gendering Divinity. There are a number of things we must take into consideration.

First, Jesus lived and taught within two deeply patriarchal cultures: Roman and Jewish. We cannot escape the reality that Jesus and those he ministered to moved about within a patriarchal world.

Second, Jesus naming God as Father was less parental and more political. This way of naming God had a historical context in Judaism.

Referring to God as “Father” and having God referring to someone as “son” was a special relationship attributed to Judah’s king and YHWH. In the Psalms, this title was applied to David and it was also extended to Solomon.

Psalms 2:7: “I will proclaim the LORD’S decree: He said to me [David], ‘You are my son; today I have become your father.’”

Psalms 89:26: “He will call out to me, ‘You are my Father, my God, the Rock my Savior.’”

2 Samuel 7:12-14: When your days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom. He [Solomon] is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son.

Matthew’s gospel, a very Jewish version of the Jesus story, identifies Jesus with this language. It makes perfect sense. Matthew’s gospel continually employs imagery of Jesus and God as Father and son, and it is impossible to determine whether this unique rhetoric was original to Jesus or was created by the Jewish community who loved and followed him. What is clear is that this rhetoric was part of the hope for the liberation and restoration of Israel in the first century. At minimum, the followers of Jesus claimed that Jesus’ coming marked the start of this restoration.

Luke’s Gentile community would have used this rhetoric as well, not to associate Jesus with a past Jewish leader but for the purposes of contrast with a present Roman one.

As we covered last December in Two Visions [or Versions] of Peace (Part 3 of 3), this language was also used in the Roman empire to refer to Caesar’s supposed divine ancestry:

“It was Augustus Caesar who, during the time of Luke’s birth-narrative, was entitled Divine, Son of God, God from God, Lord, Redeemer, Liberator, and Savior of the World. Here is why.

Rome experienced several civil wars as a democratic republic and had regressed to the point of disintegration when Octavian, later called Augustus, became Rome’s savior. Through Augustus, Rome transitioned from an imperial republic to an imperial monarchy. Augustus, the adopted son of Julius, was like his father deified, or regarded as a god. He was given the title Augustus in Latin (One who is divine) and Sebastos in Greek (One who is to be worshipped). Temples were inscribed to him with the dedication, ‘The Autocrat Caesar, the Son of God, the God to be worshipped.’

And as with all domination systems, the four imperial aspects produced a society where an elite at the top benefited from the subjugation of the many beneath them. Luke addresses all four of these aspects in his gospel. In response to Rome’s military power, Luke presents the teachings of Jesus on nonviolence. In response to Rome’s economic power, Luke presents Jesus’ teachings on wealth redistribution. In response to Rome’s political power, Luke presents Jesus, not Caesar, as Liberator, Redeemer, the bringer of Peace, Lord, and Savior of the world. And in response to Rome’s theology of a ruler who was supposedly born to divine-human parents and so was named the Son of God, God from God to be worshiped, Luke presents Jesus and his subversive ‘kingdom.’ Rome’s theology was larger than Caesar and included the worship of deities such as Mars the god of war, but it included the worship of Caesar as the incarnate representation of the Divine.

As theologian Adolf Gustav Deissmann wrote, it’s important for us to recognize the early establishment of a polemical parallelism between the cult of Christ and the cult of Caesar in the application of the term kyrios, “lord”’ (p. 349).

Knowing Augustus’ birth-narratives is also beneficial to us. The story was that on the night of Augustus’ conception, Augustus’ father had a dream in which he saw the sun rising from Atias, his wife’s womb: Caesar Augustus was the coming of light to the world. Augustus was believed to be the ‘Son of God’ fathered by Apollo, and Apollo in turn was the ‘Son of God’ fathered by Zeus, the supreme god of the Roman and Greek pantheon.

Here’s a description from the 2nd Century CE of the divine conception of Augustus Caesar; it cites an Egyptian story about Augustus that dates to 31-29 BCE:

‘When Atia [Augustus’ mother] had come in the middle of the night to the solemn service of Apollo, she had her litter set down in the temple and fell asleep, while the rest of the matrons also slept. On a sudden a serpent glided up to her and shortly went away. When she awoke, she purified herself, as if after the embraces of her husband, and at once there appeared on her body a mark in colors like a serpent, and she could never get rid of it; so that presently she ceased ever to go to the public baths. In the tenth month after that Augustus was born and was therefore regarded as the son of Apollo.’ (Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, p. 94.4, emphasis added)”

Our Father

Gendering God as Father creates negative problems in human society but we must also consider the positive shift in Jesus’ teachings. God as Father was no longer an isolated privilege of one king at the top of a hierarchical societal structure. Jesus stands in his own prophetic tradition in affirming the communal nature of this title. The prophets had also shifted away from calling only the king the “son” of YHWH, and spoke of the entire nation as equal claimants to the parentage of YHWH.

Isaiah 63:16: “But you are our Father, though Abraham does not know us or Israel acknowledge us; you, LORD, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name.”

Isaiah 64:8: “Yet you, LORD, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.”

Jeremiah 31:9: “They will come with weeping; they will pray as I bring them back. I will lead them beside streams of water on a level path where they will not stumble, because I am Israel’s father, and Ephraim is my firstborn son.”

Hosea 11:1: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.”

Malachi 2:10: “Do we not all have one Father? Did not one God create us? Why do we profane the covenant of our ancestors by being unfaithful to one another?”

And Jesus, when asked in Matthew to give instruction about prayer, like the prophets before him, taught his followers to address God as “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” (Matthew 6:9, emphasis added)

Jesus’s teaching affirmed within a deeply patriarchal society that being able to refer to God as a parent was not the privilege of an isolated hero or king, but an egalitarian privilege that the entire community could enjoy. We are all children of Jesus’ God. We are all siblings (cf. Luke 19:9). We are all bearers of the image of God.

Luke also includes some evidence that Jesus used some feminine images for the Sacred Divine. For our time, some think it problematic that these images are domestic, but for Jesus to associate this imagery with God in his society would have been very provocative.

“Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:8-10, emphasis added)

Jesus is accessing portions of his own Jewish tradition in using these feminine images for God. As Garth Kasimu Baker-Fletcher so aptly points out in the book My Sister, My Brother: Womanist and Xodus God-talk, within the Torah, God is likened to a Mother Eagle:

Like an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young, that spreads its wings to catch them and carries them aloft. (Deuteronomy 32:11)

This imagery is both earthy and transcendent, nurturing and independent; it is strong, powerful, and compassionate. The motherly love of the eagle as an image of the Divine holds much promise, specifically for women. (For further discussion, please see My Sister, My Brother: Womanist and Xodus God-talk, pp. 49-51, 64-65.)

Jesus also used the Mother Hen image as well. Yet, as Karen Baker-Fletcher points out in the same volume, this image reemphasizes in patriarchal cultures negative stereotypes of women as “old hens,” “hen pecking,” and overprotectiveness.

I would strongly argue, though, that in the Jesus stories, we do not see Jesus applying the mother hen imagery to God, but to himself. He states “How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.” (Matthew 23:37, emphasis added.) For a man in Jesus’ context to have embraced using the mother hen language for himself could deeply affirm men as they strive to abandon harmful stereotypes of masculinity and strive toward becoming more nurturing and tender, as men, just as Jesus was.

We don’t always remember that Jesus grew up with a mother who was likely a widow for most of his adulthood. Jesus would have witnessed firsthand the struggles that women in his society faced. I think it is also telling that Luke includes a statement that women were supporting Jesus’ ministry from their own means (Luke 8:3). As the director of a nonprofit, I can attest that folks don’t financially support you unless they resonate with something you are saying or doing. In Jesus’ teachings, these women must have seen something that liberated them, too.

So what we see this week is Jesus gendering God. We must pair with his references to God as Father examples of him using female imagery for God as well. Jesus used imagery that affirmed patriarchal structure and stereotypes as well as imagery that challenged patriarchal structures and stereotypes. He did both. Like the Jewish prophets before him, Jesus enlarged the image of the divine as parent and saw the whole community having the same equal relationship. And lastly, his reference to his Father in this week’s saying substantiates a relationship where, through direct revelation, YHWH had revealed that to him that YHWH is a God who possesses a preferential option for the most vulnerable, not the “sages” and “leaders” of their society. This could have been deeply subversive in his time.

We’re considering all of these things as we contemplate this week’s saying and its possible application to our work of survival, resistance, liberation, transformation and restoration. Jesus claimed that God, in the patriarchal terms of his own place and time, is a “Father to the fatherless,” and we could add a “Mother to the motherless.” God parents the most vulnerable among us. Jesus calls us to imagine this “God” ourselves, and begin centering the most vulnerable as we seek to understand societal truths from their experiences. I’ll place both last week’s and this week’s saying together for your meditation, as we close. The title that the Q scholars give this section is Knowing the Father through the Son. What does the son reveal to us about the Father? That God is the God of the most vulnerable among us.

“At that time he said: I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for you hid these things from sages and the learned, and disclosed them to children. Yes, Father, for that is what it has pleased you to do. Everything has been entrusted to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, nor does anyone know the Father except the Son and to whomever the Son chooses to reveal him.” (Q 10:2122, emphasis added.)

HeartGroup Application

  1. This week, contemplate on your own and as a group the implications of affirming God as both Mother and Father. According to Genesis 1, God made us all in God’s image. How does this shift to a more inclusive image of God challenge the boundaries our culture has created? What does God as both Mother and Father say to you about the value of men and women?
  2. For the next seven days, try something new in your prayer time. If you address the Divine in your prayers, simply try using the phrase “Mother-Father God.” See what this does inside of you. What of your own prejudices and stereotypes does it push against? What might it begin to free you from?
  3. Lastly, journal your experiments with praying like this and share what positive and negative things you discover with your HeartGroup next week for discussion.

Thank you again for checking in with us this week.

Wherever you are, keep living in love, till the only world that remains is a world where love reigns.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

More than a Prophet

(And the Inability of Those in “Fine Clothing”)

by Herb Montgomery

Man in Tux, adjusting cufflinks.“And when they had left, he began to talk to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A person arrayed in finery? Look, those wearing finery are in kings’ houses. But then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, even more than a prophet! This is the one about whom it has been written: Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your path in front of you. I tell you: There has not arisen among women’s offspring anyone who surpasses John. Yet the least significant in God’s kingdom is more than he.’” (Q 7:24-28)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 11:7-11: “As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.” Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.’”

Luke 7:24-28: “After John’s messengers left, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear expensive clothes and indulge in luxury are in palaces. But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.” I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.’”

Gospel of Thomas 78: “Jesus says, ‘Why did you go out to the countryside? To see a reed shaken by the wind, and to see a person dressed in soft clothing [like your] kings and your great/powerful persons? They are dressed in soft clothing and will not be able to recognize the truth.’”

In the Jewish tradition, the role of a prophet was to be a gadfly to those at the top of the Jewish domination system, both priests and kings. The common thread in their work was a call for justice for the oppressed, marginalized, vulnerable and exploited. The clearest example of this focus is Amos. Hebrew prophets were not prognosticators. Rather they were those who cast a imaginative vision of a future where all violence, injustice, and oppression were put right.

Yet John the Baptist was more than this. He emerged not by casting a vision for a distant hope, but by announcing that the vision long hoped for had arrived. It was here, now, today!

Last week we discussed the differences between the proclamations of John and the actual ministry of Jesus. In our saying this week, however, Jesus reveals deep respect for John and those who followed him. John was the “real deal” calling for social change now! And, he practiced what he preached. He did not come in “fine clothes” and “luxury” bringing good news to the exploited and subjugated. He had abandoned the luxury of the priestly aristocracy (in Luke John’s father was a priest). He was a voice, in solidarity with the exploited, crying out in the wilderness, to prepare the way for the coming that Isaiah had announced.

This connection to Isaiah’s (and Malachi’s) liberation theme was central to the community that cherished Sayings Gospel Q.

Isaiah 40:3: “A voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’”

Isaiah 57:14: “And it will be said: ‘Build up, build up, prepare the road! Remove the obstacles out of the way of my people.’”

Isaiah 62:10: “Pass through, pass through the gates! Prepare the way for the people. Build up, build up the highway! Remove the stones. Raise a banner for the nations.”

Malachi 3:1: “I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me.”

 

Inability to Recognize The Truth

This saying appears in Gospel of Thomas as well as in the canonical texts. This gospel captures the inability of those benefited or “privileged” by the status quo to rightly characterize the movements of John and Jesus. Those who represent the institutional establishment, its apologists, and its complicit supporters do not internally resonate with a revolution: they aren’t in a position that enables them to recognize “good news” when it emerges.

In Mark, too, the Jesus movement isn’t perceived as good news by Herod, Caiaphas, or Pilate, but rather as a threat to each. The Gospel of Thomas expresses this universal truth explicitly when it states that these leaders “will not be able” to even “recognize the truth.” The truth could be all around them and they would either miss its significance or proclaim it as dangerous or even heretical. But the oppressed know good news when they hear it.

In matters of theology, and I would now also argue in economics and politics, it is important to listen to the perspectives and interpretations of those who don’t benefit from the present system. In matters of theology, as we have discussed in previous weeks, it is White, colonial, European, and patriarchal theologians that struggle to “recognize” liberating truth, and the Church desparately needs the voices of our liberation, Black liberation, feminist, womanist, and queer theologians. As a result of their places in the present society, they are best positioned to recognize what is genuine good news and what is the same old religious endorsement of exploitative systems that benefit some at the expense of the many or benefit the majority at exclusion and marginalization of a few.

 

Egalitarianism in the “Empire” of God

Also notice that even though John was “more than a prophet,” in Jesus’ subversive “empire,” those considered the most insignificant are esteemed even more than John. Why? This upends the customs of the empire of Rome, but it works because in Jesus’s new world people value and take care of people. Everyone is valued and that which dehumanizes or devalues is systematically dismantled. In Jesus’s new “kingdom,” every person is of equal worth and value. This value is based on their being not on their doing; their essence, not their performance. Their value is rooted in each person’s humanity.

Again, as we have said for the last three weeks, the Q community seemed to place special emphasis on rooting Jesus’s liberation in the “good news” of Isaiah and Malachi, a book written in the same era Isaiah was redacted.

 

What Does This Mean For Us Today?

We’ve discussed the egalitarian nature of Jesus’ social vision at length. What I’d like to focus on this week is the inability of those in “fine clothing” to “recognize the truth.” What does this mean?

This verse reminds me of comments I received the first time I wore blue jeans and a sports coat to a church service I was speaking at: people insisted that my clothes were not quite “fine” enough. It made me wonder whether there was a link between a congregation’s fine clothes and their complicity with a status quo that leaves many impoverished for elite benefits.

The “fine clothing” in this week’s saying represents an economic privilege: it is a symbol. That economic privilege is our spring board to other areas of social, political and religious privilege, too. Today, we can simultaneously exist in positions of privilege and disadvantage in multiple areas of our lives because of the social oppressions that influence our society. A white collar woman has a different set of privileges and disadvantages than a blue collar male. A man of color has a different social position than either White men and women or women of color. A White gay male will experience society differently than a straight man of color and a gay or bisexual man of color.

My most recent encounter with this dynamic was a discussion I had with two LGBT friends. One is a white collar professional while the other is an Appalachian blue collar laborer. Both have the same concerns right now about the protection of their rights in the U.S. Both favor individuals running for office that will stand up for their rights. Yet what surprised me was my professional friend’s inability to see the economic perspective of my blue collar friend. My white collar friend preferred candidates that are pro-LGBT and support corporatism. My blue collar friend supports candidates that are pro-LGBT and have more interventionist, pro-labor policies. I expected that much.

What surprised me was my white collar friend’s inability to understand my other friend’s priorities, even to the point of near insult and derision. Their final parting statement was, “Your candidate would have no significant effect on my life so why should I care about a candidate that won’t affect me at all.”

Politics can get ugly, and this is the season of ugliness here in the States. The intersections of our own privilege and our disadvantage is complex. Our privilege and disadvantage overlap and “intersect” on multiple levels in society and at some point we must ask “What is best for us all?” not just “What is best for me?”

How does this relate to our saying this week? In every area of our lives where we are in a position of privilege, or “wearing fine clothes,” our saying this week states that we are unable to see things as they are for those who are not like ourselves. Someone else’s truth is unrecognizable to us. In that very place, a humble posture of listening becomes important as we labor to transform our world into a safer, more just, more compassionate home for us all. We saw this vision last week in the words of Micah, “Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid” (Micah 4:4). As we each listen to the stories of those whose experience differs from our own, we can learn to build communities where each person receives what is necessary for them to thrive and develop into the best version of themselves that they can be.

But it’s not easy. Our defenses are easily triggered. Listening takes practice.

We typically want to protect and preserve the “fine clothes” areas of our lives, and so listening to the experiences of others can be threatening. In these moments we must make the choice to lean into our discomfort rather than away from it. For it’s in these moments of discomfort that we discover oppressive paradigms and gain an opportunity to reject them.

To each of you who are taking stands and feeling the pressure of being “shaken in the wind,” may this week’s saying be an encouragement to you. Those in “fine clothing” may not recognize the value of what you are doing. But those whom you’re working alongside often will. Together, we can create a world where each of us are equally heard, listened to, valued, and understood.

“And when they had left, he began to talk to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A person arrayed in finery? Look, those wearing finery are in kings’ houses. But then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, even more than a prophet! This is the one about whom it has been written: “Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your path in front of you.” I tell you: There has not arisen among women’s offspring anyone who surpasses John. Yet the least significant in God’s kingdom is more than he.’” (Q 7:24-28)

HeartGroup Application 

This week, do two things with your group.

  1. First, list all the ways you are different from one another. This list will be rather long!
  2. Second, list all the ways in which you are the same or similar to each other. Then prioritize this list. Which areas of sameness are most important to each of you?
  3. Now, focus on that second list. In the light of the ways in which you’re the same, return to your first list and see if you have more respect for the areas that make your group different as well. Where our differences cause our experiences in society to also differ, maybe, just maybe, we can begin to reach out from our private experiences and stand in solidarity with others.

 

Thank you for joining us this week.

Keep living in love, till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you, dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

The Blind Leading the Blind

by Herb Montgomery

The Blind Leading the Blind by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

The Blind Leading the Blind by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Can a blind person show the way to a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit? (Q 6:39)

Luke 6:39: “He also told them this parable: ‘Can the blind lead the blind? Will they not both fall into a pit?’

Matthew 15:14: “Leave  them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.”

Gospel of Thomas 34: Jesus says: “If a blind person leads a blind person, both will fall into a pit.”

The earliest record of a saying like the one we’re considering today is more than 200 years older than the time of Jesus:

Abiding in the midst of ignorance, thinking themselves wise and learned, fools go aimlessly hither and thither, like blind led by the blind. (Katha Upanishad; The Upanishads written between 800 BCE-200 BCE.) [1]

Two other early references to this metaphor appear in North India and Rome during the first century BCE. In North India, the Buddhist Pali Canon recorded an oral tradition story in 29 BCE:

Suppose there were a row of blind men, each holding on to the one in front of him: the first one doesn’t see, the middle one doesn’t see, the last one doesn’t see. In the same way, the statement of the Brahmans turns out to be a row of blind men, as it were: the first one doesn’t see, the middle one doesn’t see, the last one doesn’t see. (Canki Sutta) [2]

In Rome, a similar phrase is found in the writings of Quintus Horatius Flaccus (Horace), a leading Roman lyric poet during the time of Augustus, who lived from 65 BCE to 8 BCE:

Caecus caeco dux” [“the blind leader of the blind”]. Epistles 1.17.3-4

The Jewish community that treasured the sayings of Jesus in Sayings Gospel Q included this metaphor as one Jesus used. We’ll look at Luke’s and Matthew’s versions of this saying in just a moment.

First, Jesus wasn’t talking about physical vision.  He was talking about perception, ignorance, and an unwillingness to learn, and the danger this becomes when one is in a position of influence. I’ve experienced this personally this year. In my small town of Lewisburg and statewide here in West Virginia, I’ve witnessed ignorant leaders influencing the masses that follow them, inciting them to be afraid of those they are unwilling to genuinely “see” for who they are.

At the end of last year, our local city council began the process of updating the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance. Lewisburg’s nondiscrimination ordinance already included discrimination based on race, gender, sex, and religion. The city felt the need to also include gender identification and sexual orientation, to broaden the current nondiscrimination ordinance to include members of the LGBTQ community. This effort came when a coal miner with over a decade of employment was hazed, vehicle vandalized, and fired after getting married when the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage last summer. In West Virginia, a person can be evicted from their housing or fired from their job because of their orientation.

During the campaign to change this ordinance, one of the council members asked my wife and me, “Every person is somebody’s child. How would you like your child to be treated?” Regardless of what differences may exist among people, everyone should have a fair chance to qualify for work, to provide for themselves, and have a safe roof over their head at night. My family believes that, and not just for our own children.

Not long after that conversation, a local minister of the largest Baptist church in Lewisburg began to incite his congregation to fear. Choosing not to perceive members of the LGBTQ community for who they are, he began a campaign of dehumanization and mischaracterization. Out-of-town lobbyists we invited, rallies were held, signs were placed all over town. The message, like Seth Brundle’s in the 1986 horror film The Fly was, “Be afraid. Be very, very afraid.” Some of the most moral, ethically upstanding people I know belong to our local LGBTQ community, so the minister’s campaign was nothing short of slander. But the folks here in small town West Virginia don’t have the exposure or education to be able to “see” people unlike them for themselves. This was a classic example of the blind leading the blind.”

Despite that rampant misinformation, in February of this year, our city council unanimously voted to update our city’s nondiscrimination policy. I’m also happy to say that it has been over a month now in our sleepy little town and the world has not come to an end.

After this decision though, many of the people who were working locally to incite fear and misinformation moved their effort to thestate level to try to undo the local vote. Lobbyists got legislators to introduce a new bill that was a West Virginia version of the “religious freedom” bills that have been popping up all over the U.S. Over and over again, those responsible for this bill denied their bill was connected to the discrimination ordinance but was simply designed to “restore” religious freedom they claimed had been lost (yet they could not show where or how).

This new bill passed in the state House but was voted down in the Senate. What made the difference? The Senate amended the bill to state that its provisions could not be used to undermine nondiscrimination ordinances in the name of religious liberty. Legislators then dropped the bill, proving that it had nothing to do with religious liberty, but was rather designed to give people a legal loop hole for continuing discrimination against others in the name of their  “sincerely held religious belief.”

Yes, each person should be free in matters between themselves and their God, with at least one exception. When one’s sincerely held religious beliefs endanger another human being, one is never free to practice those beliefs. Once, child sacrifice was a sincerely held religious belief. For some people, racism is still a sincerely held religious belief. Subjugation of women is a sincerely held religious belief, and homophobia and heterosexism are also sincerely held religious beliefs.

Religion has done good. And religion has done great harm. We must encourage the good while we limit the harm. The freedom to practice what one believes is a value that must be held subject to the greater value of “do no harm to one’s neighbor.” Anyone our religious beliefs would endanger has the right to be protected from our sincerely held religious beliefs. While we possess freedom of religion, they also possess the right to live in freedom from our religion.

So what does this have to do with the blind leading the blind?

I took a day to go and visit my state capitol and speak directly with my local representatives in both the House and the Senate about our religious freedom bill. What I was overwhelmed with as I left that day, beside disillusionment of the system, was how “blind” two of my three local representatives had been to understanding what was really behind this bill. Only one of the three understood. The truth did eventually come out, but in the meantime, the depth of ignorance and lack of exposure of my local and state leaders left me speechless.

In both secular civil governance and religious faith and worship, the metaphor of the blind leading the blind is, at times, overwhelmingly appropriate.

Now, there are plenty of instances in first-century Palestine where Jesus could have applied this metaphor.

  • The faithful, radical Zealots who felt the only way to liberate Palestine from Roman domination was through violence.
  • The Jerusalem-centered aristocracy who, in order to preserve their own place in society, copted the Temple to add religious legitimacy to Rome’s imperialism.
  • The wealthy elite who failed to share their surplus with the poor and instead used their capital to exploit the poor and make greater wealth.
  • The group of Pharisees and Sanhedrin members who subscribed to the teachings of the school of Shammai, and who not only drew strict lines between Jew and Gentile but also drew lines between themselves and other Jewish people they perceived as not orthodox enough.

How do Matthew and Luke show Jesus using this parable?

Luke includes this as one of Jesus’s sayings in the body of teachings scholars call The Sermon on the Plain.

He also told them this parable: “Can the blind lead the blind? Will they not both fall into a pit? The student is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher. (Luke 6:39-40)

Matthew does something quite different, and his use of the saying begins with Mark’s underlying narrative.

In Mark 7, Jesus contrasts physical “defilement” with ritual “defilement.” The author of text mistakenly claims that “all the Jews” do not eat without first washing their hands. This is historically untrue, and the later Matthew and Luke, knowing this to be untrue, correct the error by leaving it out. (Compare Mark 7, Matthew 15, and Luke 11:37-41) In fact, among the Pharisees, only Pharisees of the school of Shammai would have washed their hands before eating, and only the priests (according to both Hillel and Shammai) were required to wash their hands before eat their food. That is, the rest of the people who were not priests were not legally required to wash their hands. But the stricter Pharisees chose to conduct themselves like the priests, believing that they also held a scholarly position in Jerusalem’s religious hierarchy. So it was not a requirement for all Jews during Jesus’s time.

By refusing to wash his hands in the presence of the Pharisees, Jesus was making a political statement. I believe he was aligning himself with the “common” people of his day as opposed to the religious “elite.” In all three gospels, Jesus turns the discussion from washing hands to the religiously-justified oppression of the poor by the wealthy, religious elite of his day. As we’ve discussed in previous weeks, the religious elite included the priests and some wealthy Pharisees.

This is where our saying from Matthew comes in this week:

Then the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?” He replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” (Matthew 15.12-14)

The context of this saying in our most Jewish gospel is Jesus’s preferential option for the poor, the common people, and even those judged as unorthodox.

We can pair this week’s metaphor, “blindness,” to the one we discussed last week, “deafness.” The inability or unwillingness to listen to the stories of those whose experience is different than your own is what these metaphors are describing. Could it be that the cure for socio-political “blindness” is using our ears to listen to the stories of those unlike ourselves? By listening, our eyes can be opened and we can begin to “hear with our ears” “see with our eyes” and “understand with our hearts” and our blindness can be “healed.” (Compare Isaiah 6:10; Matthew 13:14-17; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10; John 12:40.)

I believe that those who desire to follow the teachings of the 1st century Jewish Jesus of Nazareth must learn to listen to each other. Especially, we must learn to listen to those who, as in Jesus’s time, are presently being marginalized and subjugated by social structures of privilege.

We must learn to stop debating about people who are being oppressed by the status quo, and begin listening to them instead. Those interested in leaning into this exercise of listening, consider beginning with listening to the experience of people of color. There are other demographics that you could start with, but this would be an excellent first step. Three books that I can recommend to get you started on your journey of listening are:

The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone

God of the Oppressed by James H. Cone

A Black Liberation Theology (Fortieth Anniversary Edition) by James H. Cone

As we use our ears, our eyes become opened. The cure for healing our eyes is in letting others have our ears and thereby access our hearts.

In the words of the Jesus of Sayings Gospel Q:

Can a blind person show the way to a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit? (Q 6:39)

HeartGroup Application

One of the purposes of HeartGroups is to facilitate a space where we can begin to learn how to listen to each other. Yet even this is not enough. Too often the groups we listen to are the ones we most identify with. In other words, we listen to people who are most like ourselves. This can create a ideological feedback loop that becomes precious little more than philosophical inbreeding. The type of listening that cures our blindness is when we listen to those who are unlike us, especially those harmed by the way things are.

This week, I invite your HeartGroups to:

  1. Together, watch the recently released film Enough Room at the Table. You can access the film here. It will only cost your group $0.99 to watch together. That’s unbelievably affordable.
  2. Discuss with your group, after watching the film, how your group could begin taking steps to become more diverse. List the steps you discuss.
  3. Pick one item on your list to practice.

Thank you for joining us this week. We’ll continue with Sayings Gospel Q next week.

Until then, keep living in love, till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

  1. Juan Mascaró. The Upanishads (Penguin Classics, 1965) p. 58
  2. Canki Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 95), translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu