As Jesus traveled around ministering in Galilee, He attracted crowds from places near and far, including Jerusalem—the authoritative center of Judaism at the time. The Gospel of Matthew records a scene in which a group of Pharisees and scribes travel from Jerusalem to confront Jesus. These religious leaders were the representatives of Judaism in that day. They were entrusted with studying the Scriptures and guiding God’s people in the ways of the Lord.
Without a doubt, these Jewish leaders were receiving reports of miracles and unconventional activities surrounding Jesus’ ministry. They became alarmed that their many regulations, laws, and age-old “traditions of the elders” (Matthew 15:2, ESV) were not being kept. Specifically, they had come to question why Jesus’ disciples were breaking the tradition of ceremonial handwashing before meals. According to their procedures—which, in reality, were human-made regulations and not part of God’s Word—Jesus and His disciples were behaving in a way that made them ritually unclean. These so-called spiritual leaders had elevated their legalistic traditions to the point of equality with the commands of God in Scripture, a transgression Jesus was now compelled to confront.
Leading up to His description of the religious leaders as blind leaders of the blind, Jesus pointed out how the Pharisees had broken God’s commandments (Matthew 15:3–9). First, He established their hypocrisy—they regularly broke the laws of God while demanding that others follow their human-made traditions. They displayed outward piety but lacked true devotion to God and His Word in their hearts. They were rebellious toward God and blind to their spiritual emptiness.
In Matthew 15:10–14, Jesus returns to their question about handwashing. Instead of addressing the Pharisees and scribes directly, He shared a parable with the crowd. The teaching upended the Pharisee’s tradition, revealing that it’s not what is outside of a person that causes defilement. What makes a person unclean, Jesus taught, originates from inside the individual: “What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them” (verse 11). Christ wasn’t refuting the idea that people can become unacceptable before God, only how it happens. Handwashing can’t make a person clean if his or her heart is tarnished. And the human heart can be deceitfully wicked (Jeremiah 17:9).
Employing a second parable, Jesus calls the Pharisees “blind guides” (Matthew 15:14). He repeats this characterization in Matthew 23:16: “Woe to you, blind guides!” And again in verse 24: “You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.”
When Jesus said of the Pharisees, “The blind lead the blind,” He was emphasizing the foolishness of the situation. Only a person who can see ought to lead a blind person. To be a successful guide to others, one must be able to see where he or she is going. If the blind lead the blind, those leaders are arrogant, overconfident, and in serious denial about their own sightless condition. Jesus knew this was true of the scribes and Pharisees who had come to confront Him. “Guide for the blind” was a common title for Jewish teachers of that day (Romans 2:19). Jesus wasn’t about to let His detractors continue claiming this title when, in truth, they needed someone to lead them.
After Christ called the Pharisees “blind leaders of the blind,” He said to “leave them” in Matthew 15:14. By this, He meant for His disciples to ignore the Pharisees, to let them alone and not to try to please them. These religious leaders thought they were experts in God’s law, but they were blind and ignorant of the law’s true meaning. Christ revealed that they were contradicting the very laws they claimed to understand. Instead of leading their students along the right path that leads to life, they were guiding themselves and their followers straight to disaster: “Both will fall into a pit.”
Christ’s parable of the blind leading the blind is just as relevant today as in Jesus’ day. The tendency to elevate human interpretation of Scripture and tradition to a place of equal authority with God’s Word is a blindness that has afflicted people of every generation. The inclination Jesus confronted in the Pharisees is no different from the legalistic traditions and unwritten rules that many churches, denominations, spiritual leaders, and individual believers try to enforce today.
When we allow human rules and regulations to take priority over God’s laws, we lead people astray from “the simplicity that is in Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:3, NKJV). If we become blind leaders of the blind, we heap God’s judgment on ourselves: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to” (Matthew 23:13; see also Matthew 18:6).
We must be careful not to let arrogance and denial blind us to our spiritual condition. We must make sure that our vision is clear enough to guide others in their spiritual walk. Likewise, we do well to choose our leaders wisely, being careful not to follow blind guides who will lead us away from the straight and narrow path of God’s Word.