“Can the blind lead the blind? Shall they not both fall into the ditch?” [Luke 6:39b]
Today’s lessons all have one theme that seems to pull them together. They all deal with blindness. Not physical blindness but rather spiritual blindness. And this blindness is something from which none of us are exempt.
In our Old Testament lesson, we have Jeremiah being told by God that he must warn the people of Judah. He must warn them because they are slipping into spiritual blindness:
The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD, saying, “Stand in the gate of the LORD’S house, and proclaim there this word, and say, ‘Hear the word of the LORD, all ye of Judah, that enter in at these gates to worship the LORD.’”
And what was this spiritual blindness? When we read these opening lines, it seems quite UNCLEAR. After all, Jeremiah is warning the people who are COMING to the Temple to worship the Lord. These are NOT unbelievers. These are those who DO believe. They are there, it seems, because they want to worship God. Yet, there is a problem, and that problem is made clear later on in this passage:
“Behold, ye trust in lying words, that cannot profit. Will ye steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and burn incense unto Baal, and walk after other gods whom ye know not; and come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered to do all these abominations’? Is this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, even I have seen it,” saith the LORD.
The reason that Jeremiah needed to warn the people of Judah was that they were falling away from God. Now, let us make one point clear – falling away from God rarely is quick. It usually takes time. Sometimes it happens over one generation; sometimes it happens over many generations.
But, no matter how long or how short, it usually starts with a lie: something that makes falsehood palatable. And that falsehood often comes from the pulpit. In our Gospel lesson, Christ warns us:
“Can the blind lead the blind? Shall they not both fall into the ditch? The disciple is not above his master: but every one that is perfect shall be as his master.”
In other words, no disciple is better than the man or woman who leads them. Therefore, if the leader is blind, those that follow will be just as blind – which is born out by the tragedies we have seen like Jonestown.
This reminds me of the story of the two priests talking about their sermons. The first priest said, “I think a pastor needs to study diligently for his Sunday morning sermon.” The second priest said, “I disagree. Many times I have no idea what I am going to preach about, but I go into the pulpit and preach and think nothing of it.” The first priest smiled, “And you are quite right,” he said. “Your deacon told me he shares your opinion.”
In the case of ancient Judah, their priests had been misleading the people. They fed them the idea that they could worship other gods as long as they continued worshipping Yahweh. And what is also clear from our lesson for today is that the hypocrisy was becoming quite evident.
Now, before we get high and mighty about our ancient brothers and sisters, let us look at our Epistle lesson. And the reason why this is important is because I fear that people will look at the Old Testament lesson and say it is the perfect example of the liberal church. This may be true, but the conservative churches are just as vulnerable. They can just as easily fall into hypocrisy through what they perceive as their absolute devotion.
In our Epistle lesson, which, by the way, is one of my favorite passages of Saint Paul’s, we have a curious statement:
The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law.
“And the strength of sin is the law” … this phrase puzzled me. How could the law be the strength of sin? Isn’t it supposed to keep us from sin? But Saint Paul has often told us that the Law is death, but Christ is life. So, what does he mean?
If we look at the Mosaic Law, we see that there is no true salvation. Sin sacrifices were only good for a year, and even at that, extremely imperfect. Then, if we look at the Sermon on the Mount, we discover that, for God, these commandments are NOT strenuous enough. Anger is as bad as murder, for example. It becomes clear that we cannot save ourselves. Only through Christ can we ever be saved.
But there is more. In the Old Testament, there are not just Ten Commandments. There are actually 613 commandments, with 365 of them being negative: “thou shalt not,” and the remaining 248 being positive: “thou shalt.” The Jewish people, while in exile in Babylon, took these 613 commandments and extrapolated them to fit every “known” situation. This book of rules was known as the Talmud and is still used today. New sections have been added over the years to deal with new situations, which have arisen. But the Talmud is huge, comprising many volumes.
Here is where it is clear that the Law cannot save. It is massive and unyielding. It is legalistic and strict. There is no room for mercy or compassion or love. But it is also clear where blindness may arise. With so many Laws and rules, it becomes impossible to know all of them. Consequently, it becomes impossible to keep all the laws.
What happens is that, as is part of our human nature, we will single out those laws that we feel are important and lose sight of the others. Then we become myopic as to these laws. We become obsessed with keeping the letter of these laws, and at the same time, we start observing the fact that others are NOT. Christ warns us in the form of a parable as to where this will lead:
And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but perceivest not the beam that is in thy own eye? Either how canst thou say to thy brother, ‘Brother, let me pull out the mote that is in thy eye,’ when thou thyself beholdest not the beam that is in thy own eye? Thou hypocrite, cast out first the beam out of thy own eye, and then shalt thou see clearly to pull out the mote that is in thy brother’s eye.
This is clearly where conservative churches can fail. When we become so obsessed with others not doing what we think is important, we are in danger of losing sight of our own failings. We may bulk at the idea that we are being hypocritical, but isn’t that exactly what we are doing? “He is not a good Christian because he does not tithe.” “She is not a good Christian because she doesn’t make it to church every Sunday.” “They are not good Christians because they do not …” then fill in the blank. This is NOT what God wants us to do. And it is as fatal as burning incense to Baal, stealing, committing adultery, or swearing falsely.
No, both the liberal church and the conservative church are in danger of a blindness that results in hypocrisy. And the only way we can avoid this trap is to follow what Christ, Himself has told us:
Whosoever cometh to me, and heareth my sayings, and doeth them, I will show you to whom he is like. He is like a man which built a house, and dug deep, and laid the foundation on a rock. And when the flood arose, the stream beat vehemently upon that house, and could not shake it: for it was founded upon a rock.
As Saint Paul has written:
But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, immoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as you know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.
And what is the “work of the Lord?” As Saint James tells us, “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” [James 1:27] It is also what Christ Himself told us, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.”
And what is Christ’s commandment? “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it; Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”
The Eastern Orthodox teaches that each Christian needs to go through the process they call “Theosis.” It is the process of becoming more Christ-like. It is a never-ending struggle in this life because, being imperfect, we can never achieve it. However, we are compelled to do so. And with this command comes a wonderful promise:
Behold, I show you a mystery: we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.
But we are also warned that, while we try to become more like Christ, we MUST be careful NOT to become hypocritical, thinking ourselves better than anyone else.
If there is any time in which we should put our desire to become more Christ-like into motion, it is during our upcoming Lenten devotion. So let us all commit ourselves this Lent to start our own personal Theosis. Let us learn to be kind to our brothers and sisters. Let us try to refrain from judging. And let us all try to remove the beam in our own eye rather than the mote in someone else’s. If we do this, I can promise you that we all will become a little less blind.