8th Sunday in Ordinary Time: The Blind Leading the Blind

SCRIPTURES & ART: The theme of today’s Gospel is ‘Authenticity.’

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, “The Blind Leading the Blind,” 1568
Pieter Brueghel the Elder, “The Blind Leading the Blind,” 1568 (photo: Public Domain)

One of the new words of the 1960s was “authenticity.” The sixties prized being “authentic.”

But what does “authenticity” mean? Some people have tried to reduce it to “doing your own thing,” i.e., being non-conformist. In that sense, Americans sometimes cherish an “authenticity” that is unique but perhaps not worthy of emulation. 

The Catholic philosopher Germain Grisez once spoke of “authenticity” among the basic human goods. For him, “authenticity” was part of the progressive integration of the person in relationships: integrity pulls him together within himself, harmonizing reason, will, and passions; authenticity ensured that the persona we present to the outside world is the same as the person within; friendship binds one human person to another; and religion binds the human person to God.

In that sense, “authenticity” is opposed to hypocrisy, to “talking the talk without walking the walk.” This is what recent popes have gotten at when they speak of the contemporary world valuing witnesses over teachers, i.e., people who live what they preach, and not just preach it. (See Evangelii Nuntiandi, no. 41).

“Authenticity” is the theme of today’s Gospel.

Luke’s Sermon on the Plain warns us that the Christian vocation is demanding and will invite persecution. It calls us to internalize our moral conviction in justice and mercy. And it recognizes the importance of making sure we address what needs to be fixed in ourselves first.

Decades ago, I remember a celebrant who, preaching on this Gospel, literally underscored the image contained in it. He held up a long two-by-four to his eye and then, with that beam, tried to approach another person to take the speck out of his eye. It was physically impossible.

We are all sinners. We all have flaws. We all fall short. Awareness of those sins, flaws, and shortcoming sometimes inhibits us from addressing evil we see around us. It should not. The fact that we are flawed does not mean we are blind and, if we speak the truth charitably (and not judgmentally) we can help our brother. 

But we also help our brother if we take to heart the Greek maxim, “Know thyself!” For, in knowing ourselves, we recognize also what needs to be fixed in us, tempering our excess with an awareness that “there, but for the grace of God, go I.” It calls us to be humble enough to recognize that we need to be authentic, that what others see of us in the world corresponds to what is really there inside. That’s what Jesus is getting at when He says that bad trees cannot bear good fruit nor vice versa. Our goal as Christians should be the transparency of authenticity: what you see is what you get because it is what is.

Today’s Gospel is illustrated by Pieter Brughel the Elder, whom we met last week. That Netherlandish Renaissance artist painted “The Parable of the Blind” in 1568.

Six blind men stumble across the canvas, their very angles suggestive of their stumbling, inclining us towards their impending or actual falls. The first, in brown on the right, has already fallen into the ditch. His colleague in the white hat, staring with vacant eyes at us (and thus bringing us into the painting) is himself ready to stumble on top of his erstwhile guide. The four behind them are ready for a fall. They have their heads pointed up, as if relying on their other senses, especially hearing, to make up for their lack of sight, but it doesn’t help. All the blind men carry blind men’s canes, by which they try to “guide” each other. 

Some commentators have noted that a careful study of the eyes of each blind man indicates different ocular diseases, attesting to Brueghel’s attention to medical detail. For example Number Two, about to fall, has no eyes, which commentators suggest were gouged out in some form of punishment. 

His blind men stumble across a brown and relatively bare Dutch landscape. As previously noted (here and here), Brughel likes to set his Biblical paintings in Flemish settings — usually rural — of his time. In one sense, it’s anachronistic: Jesus’s blind men certainly looked different. In another, it’s perfectly accurate: we have the blind leading the blind in every age, and some are even well-dressed, like these Flemish men. I find that detail important. These men are not messy beggars. While their clothes might be a bit soiled, presumably because they have already been stumbling and bumbling, they are otherwise rather ordinary, rather normal, rather somewhat bourgeois. Rather us.

Hypocrisy is not unique to any one time. The continuing debilitation of the Church’s moral voice and witness in our own day is very much a function of clergy sexual abuse and episcopal coverup, not just “decades and decades” but today, a “massive, massive” boil that will impede the Church until it is lanced. That’s what today’s Gospel is getting at when it speaks about being authentic and overcoming hypocrisy. About not letting the blind lead the blind.