Sight and Blindness
This past Monday night some of us attended the final session of our Lenten series at Kings Crossing in Frogtown. We began each session with dwelling in scripture. For those who don’t know what “dwelling” is, it involves listening to what the Holy Spirit is saying to us when we read scripture together. We pay attention to the words, phrases, and images that capture our imagination, and we wonder about the passage together – raising questions without answering them.
Monday night we dwelt in the story of the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, which took place in his hometown synagogue. The passage was from the fourth chapter of Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and then sits down and says “today this passage has been fulfilled in your hearing.” At first Jesus is the celebrated hometown boy made good, but when he begins to mention the fact that the prophets Elijah and Elisha ministered to outsiders, his faith community tries to throw him off a cliff.
After we spent some time together at tables of four wondering about this passage and talking about what captured our imaginations, we came together as a group and shared some of the insights that had arisen in our small groups. After a couple of Episcopalians spoke, a striking woman in a smart-looking fedora raised her hand. She talked about how people of faith, have, over the course of history, been preoccupied by who’s in and who’s out, who’s respectable, and who’s not, and how their opinions often run counter to Jesus’ vision of who is part of God’s Kingdom.
Her insight was so true, and it appears in our Gospel reading from John. In our Gospel Jesus heals a man born blind. The restoration of the blind man’s sight throws the Pharisees, the respectable religious leaders of a day, into a tail spin, because they believe that the blind man’s inability to see is a result of his sinfulness. At that time, any sickness or physical deformity was understood as God’s punishment for sin, and the person was thought to be ritually unclean. So not only did a deformity or sickness leave you isolated, you were also isolated by the community’s fear of being near and touching you. If you were blind it not only meant that you couldn’t see, you were also not in relationship with your neighbors.
What is most poignant about this story – to me at least – is the fact that the Pharisees only see the man as blind. They see his deficit, rather than his assets and gifts. In their eyes he is simply “the blind man,” and in his neighbors’ eyes, he is the blind man who begs. They don’t even know his name. No one in this story appears to have made an effort to get to know the blind man. What does he care about? What does he think about or like to do? What gives him joy?
Neither the Pharisees nor the neighbors bother to get to know this man and how his blindness might cause him to “see” things in different ways, or might heighten his other senses. For example, does he already know them by their different voices? Their footsteps? Which of them walk by quickly, and which of them have heavy and belabored steps? How many people walk by him each day without saying a word? What might this man have to teach them about their corner of the universe?
I love the humor in this story especially the way the blind man’s parents try to evade being kicked out of the synagogue by passing the buck to their son. I also love how the man born blind is the only one who is able to see what is really going on. Eventually he is able to see who Jesus is, to and embrace him as his Lord and teacher
What I also appreciate about the blind man is the fact that while he isn’t quite sure who Jesus is, he’s able to name and rest in what he knows, and has experienced. What a great starting point for learning more about God and the life of faith! We don’t need to have all the answers, or whatever those around us deem the “right” answers, but we can rest assured in what we have known and experienced – and it is important to name those things. God invites our questions and authenticity, desiring first and foremost that we develop a meaningful relationship with Him. He doesn’t want just our Sunday best, but our whole selves – the good, the bad, and the ugly. God continually pursues us and tries to initiate this relationship with us– and we are free to respond with our honest perceptions and questions.
It’s fascinating to me that the Pharisees are interested in finding a root cause for the man’s blindness: either he sinned or his parents sinned. It’s as if having an explanation helps them feel in control of the situation. Labeling also enables them to dismiss the man born blind. If it’s his fault or his parents’ fault that he’s blind, the Pharisees and the man’s neighbors don’t have to deal with him, treat him with dignity, and face his pain, questions, and disappointments. Further, they can dismiss him without reaching out in friendship. If he’s sinful, or a social parasite, they can walk by him quickly, or even cross to the other side of the street. They don’t need to acknowledge his humanity, and thus add more messiness to their lives.
Throughout John’s Gospel the evangelist not only plays with the metaphors of light and darkness, he also explores who is truly able to see, and who is blind. For John, participating in God’s life means listening, seeing, and ultimately believing – even when you don’t have all the answers. As the man born blind develops a relationship with Jesus, he begins to have a deeper understand of who is he is. At first he understands Jesus as a wonder worker, later as a prophet, and at some point the one to whom he will give his ultimate allegiance.
John’s Gospel is not preoccupied with the root causes of sin and suffering. Instead, it is concerned with sight, specifically spiritual sight. Are we able to see and participate in God’s light, the light our reading from Ephesians talks about? Are we able to understand Jesus as the one who will set us free from all that keeps us from living as God intended? Are we able to see those around us as God sees them, not as wounded people, but as precious, full of gifts and potential? Are we able to embrace God’s light and hopeful future, or do we wish to remain blind and dismiss those around us as blind as well? This Lent I encourage you to be open to the light of Christ, the light that will help us see the world and our neighbors in new ways, and ultimately give us not only a hopeful present but a hopeful future.