Tripping Helen Keller
The tap-tap-tapping of the cane against the concrete outside our Cincinnati home had become a familiar sound. Working their way up and down the sidewalk, morning till evening, were students at Clovernook Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired, which was just down the street from our townhouse. My children, eight and six at the time, were naturally curious. They’d never encountered a blind person before, much less dozens of them on a weekly basis.
One day, when traffic had bottlenecked around the apartment complex, we helped a blind gentlemen maneuver around the maze of cars. Afterward, my children wondered aloud what it would be like not to be able to see, so I took that chance to talk with them about the man’s disability. We discussed what my daughter had learned in school about Helen Keller, the challenges faced by the visually impaired, and how we should always be ready to lend them a guiding hand. But, you know, throughout that conversation, and the whole time we lived in Cincinnati, it never once crossed my mind that I should teach my children one simple, but very important, rule: Do not put a stumbling block in front of a blind person.
Well, duh. I never taught them that rule for the same reason I never taught them not to push a wheel chaired person in front of a moving bus, or not to put a razor blade in a baby’s hand. Why would I? Some rules of behavior are so obvious that to voice them suggests that the one being instructed is so morally degenerate, or so intellectually challenged, that you have to spell out darn near everything. I mean, really, what kind of monster would purposefully trip a blind person?
Yet, page over to the nineteenth chapter of Leviticus, which happens to be the OT reading for this coming Sunday, and note this prohibition, “You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am the LORD.” Or later in Deuteronomy 27, “Cursed be anyone who misleads a blind man on the road.” Well, now, what have we here? Why, given all the things we wish God had told us, but didn’t, does he “waste our time” by stating the patently obvious? Was there, in Moses’ day, an outbreak of violence against the disabled? Were lowlifes sneaking around cussing out deaf people and putting rocks on paths frequented by the blind? I seriously doubt it. No, what we have here, in this prohibition, is a profound statement about who we are. In this single command, not to trip a blind person, is compressed volumes about the human condition.
To put it briefly: obvious wrongs are expressly forbidden because humanity excels at calling evil good and good evil. Granted, I do not foresee a day when tripping the blind will be deemed decent behavior. But, then again, I suspect that few Americans, fifty years ago, ever envisaged a day when it would be considered decent and acceptable to clinically murder fifty million unborn babies either. Be not deceived. Any boundaries to humanity’s capacity for evil are drawn with pencils, easily erased and widely expandable. Good is defaced as “bigoted, narrow-minded, oppressive.” Evil is prettified as “loving, freeing, merciful.” This one command, don’t trip the blind, thunders this universal truth: humans perpetually fail at being humane.
So God gives us this law, and a slew of others. And, when you think about it, this command is no different than the prohibition against murder, adultery, or theft. Do we really need to be explicitly warned not to take another person’s life or spouse or property? For, are not those laws written on the heart of man? Indeed, they are. But the heart and conscience of a man are unreliable, fickle things. Our conscience is an untrustworthy ally in the fight against evil, echoing God’s law one moment and parroting cultural assumptions about right and wrong the next. We need more than what is traced on the heart; we need words chiseled in stone. We need more than the whisperings of the conscience; we need words boomed from the pulpit.
We need these words to hold forth the truth before our eyes. And the truth that we will see is not only the good we should do, and the bad we shouldn’t do, but that we’ve fallen flat on our faces with both. We may not have stuck out our foot to trip a blind man, but we have failed to protect the vulnerable, to fight for them with all our heart. We may not have cursed the deaf, but we have gossiped and spread lies about our neighbor when he was out of earshot. We may not have rolled in the hay with another man’s wife, but we have rolled over and over in our mind how lustfully fun it would be. The truth is that we humans have failed at being humane, have trashed God’s image within us. We, along with the whole world, stand before the divine judge with no other option than to say to him, “I plead….”
“…guilty,” someone says beside us. He stands shoulder-to-shoulder with us, this other man, finishing our sentence. He holds up his hands, jagged scars on each, and shows them to the judge, “Guilty,” he repeats. He pulls off his shoes to reveal the same scars on them, and affirms, once more, “I am guilty.” He lifts his shirt and points to a healed gash on his ribcage. And with the same confidence, he admits, yet a third time, “Yes, Father, I am guilty. Let my brother go. He does not belong here. I, not he, am the guilty party. I, not he, have been punished justly. Here is the record of justice, inscribed upon the scroll of my skin.” And so it is. The guiltless become guilty so that the guilty becomes guiltless.
What a strange God we have: to give us laws that we break; to show us how we break them; and yet, when it comes time for us to receive the penalty of our sins, to show us that there is no penalty. Or rather, that someone else has already been penalized in our place. Indeed, what a strange God we have: to demand all from us, and to give all to us, that, in him, we might become all that he wants us to be.
For all the commandments of God are kept, when what is not kept, is forgiven (St. Augustine).
If you enjoy my writings, please consider purchasing my recently published book, The Infant Priest: Hymns and Poems. This poetry gives voice to the triumphs and tragedies of life in a broken world. Whether you weep, rejoice, struggle, or hope, through these hymns and poems you can speak to God with honesty and fidelity. By buying a copy, you will also aid mission work, for 25% of the proceeds from book sales go to benefit Lutherans in Africa. Click here to purchase your copy. Thanks!