Title: “We are not blind, are we?”
Date: April 3, 2011, Lent 4
Texts: Jn 9:1-41
Author: Isaac Villegas
The disciples stand at a distance and are curious about the beggar; they use the blind man as a way into a theological discussion with Jesus. “Rabbi,” they say, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (Jn 9:2). The disciples want to fit this man into their understanding of the world. The beggar’s blindness is a sad situation that needs to be explained.
I think we are like those disciples. We see people in pain; we see devastation and tragedy; and when we see so much of what’s wrong in our world, we try to find ways to explain it all: to explain why this or that person is begging on the street corner—maybe, we think to ourselves, mental illness drove him to the streets, maybe she suffers from an addiction, maybe he was never able to adjust after getting back from Vietnam or Iraq, maybe she just got tired of civilization and decided to withdraw into the woods.
We want a reason for all that we find troubling about the world, we want an explanation. “Rabbi,” the disciples ask Jesus, “why was this man born blind?” Once we can explain it, then we don’t have to think about it anymore. Once we can come up with an answer, we no longer need to be troubled by the problem.
The temptation is to turn people we don’t know into problems we can solve without getting to know them, without them getting to know you, without becoming part of their world, without sharing in their struggles, without sharing in their suffering. Ron Sider, an author I usually respect (he wrote a book that was very important to me in college: Rich Christians in the Age of Hunger)—in a recent article in Christianity Today, Sider stereotypes beggars in order to explain them away. He explains away their problems with his solutions, all for the sake of making us feel okay about not giving them money when they ask for it. Sider writes, “One reason we should not give handouts is that some people are begging for money to support irresponsible behavior. Some want money for alcohol or drugs. Some beg because they are lazy.”
Ron Sider leaves us a safe distance away from the problems he describes. He turns to stereotypes instead of inviting us into the lives of the people he has met and the addictions they may have; he could have invited us into the emotional pain of sharing in their suffering, but he doesn’t. He could have told the good news of a homeless woman being healed from her addiction, but he doesn’t. The problem with Sider’s way of writing is that he lets the beggars remain faceless, without a story, without a voice. His uses his wisdom to muffle their cries; he keeps them far enough away from us so that we don’t have to see the pain in their eyes. Through his writing, he blinds us with his generalizations and explanations.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus shows us a very different approach. Jesus invites us to get our hands dirty with mud made from spit. When his disciples ask him to explain the blind man on the side of the road, Jesus offers an answer that involves the intimacy of touch, of getting mixed up in this beggar’s life.
It’s not just the moment of healing that’s important in this story; it’s also important to pay attention to the way this blind man is healed. Jesus could have healed the blind beggar with a word, a command that would have displayed his majesty, his miraculous power from on high. Jesus could have kept his distance from this blind man. He could have healed him from a distance, and continued on his way with his friends. But that’s not what happens at all. Jesus steps away from the conversation with his friends and steps into the world of the blind beggar. Jesus spits on the ground and makes some mud, enough mud to cover the man’s eyes, both of them—which must have involved a lot of saliva. Verse 6: “he spat on the ground and made mud with saliva and spread the mud over the man’s eyes.”
What does it mean to worship a God, who in Jesus Christ, heals people with mud, with spit, with dirt? I think part of what it means is that God isn’t afraid of getting dirty with the stuff of this world. In this moment of healing, Jesus affirms creation: he affirms the world and shows us that it is good for us. The dirt, the stuff under our feet, is not foreign to God’s healing power. God made us from the dirt, and uses that same dirt to recreate the man’s eyes. This story reaches back to the story of creation in Genesis, where God made the first human with mud.
We also see how God is not afraid of touching us, of reaching out to us in our pain, and drawing close to our woundedness. Jesus touches the man’s eyes, the source of his shame, of his embarrassment; the part of him that has always made him feel inadequate, like he is less than human, or at least less significant than the other people in his community. Yet Jesus shows us that God is not afraid of touching our wounds, of drawing close to our vulnerability and shame, and inviting us into healing.
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The bible is not a source book for explaining the world. The gospel doesn’t provide us with a system of knowledge that helps us process the pain we encounter as we go about our day. The gospel, instead, is an invitation to become alive to the world, alive to all of it, the suffering and the joy, and to let your life flow with God’s life, with healing, with restoration. For the beggar in the story, being able to see is only one part of his process of healing and coming alive. We can see him become more and more alive as we watch his conversations with the other people in the story. His liveliness shows up in the way he finds his voice, and refuses to let others deny what has happened to him. (see James Alison, Faith Beyond Resentment, p. 7)
At the beginning of the story, he is a minor character: without a name, completely passive, marginal to the action. But soon he develops into the leading actor with the most important lines. He even wins a debate with the Pharisees, who resort to name-calling because they can’t shut him up: “You were born entirely in sins,” the Pharisees say to him, how dare you think you have something to teach us? After they insult him, they drive him out (v. 34).
Sometimes those who tell the truth find themselves rejected by the moral authorities, rejected by those who assume the responsibility of explaining how the system works. But Jesus seeks out the rejected man. Jesus, the one who is rejected by the world, locates himself among the rejected, and offers hope. Jesus sees the rejected man and steps into his world, and becomes a force of life.
“I came into the world for judgment,” Jesus says to him, “so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind” (v. 39). Even though Jesus is talking to the beggar who was just thrown out by the Pharisees, for some reason there are a few Pharisees hanging out nearby. I think it has something to do with the Pharisees fear of what else the beggar may say; they want to keep tabs on him, monitoring his movements, taking notes on who he associates with.
The Pharisees become interested again in Jesus, and it almost sounds like they feel convicted by his words. They ask him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” (v. 41). I think that question is supposed to linger with us and become our question as well: surely we are not blind, are we? Where don’t we want to look? Who don’t we want to see? Have we become comfortable with our blindness?
Who are the people our society has rejected because their existence calls everything into question? Who are the people we would rather keep at a distance—out of sight out of mind—because we know that as soon as we take them seriously, our lives will become all the more complicated? Two populations come to my mind, and I bet you can guess who they are because I mention them probably too often: the homeless and prisoners. They are a constant reminder that the way we organize our lives in this country is unjust. They are signs to us of the failure of our society, of our status as a kind of failed state, at least for those who have been rejected.
Besides those two groups, I am spending a lot of time these days thinking about combat veterans. It seems as if we don’t want them too close to home because we are discovering that the wounds of war run deep, and we would rather not think about such suffering. Last year more soldiers committed suicide than were killed in combat. Not only are they a sign to us of the horrors of war, but they also unmask the darkness of our way of life—that our life here in the United States is indebted to violence, a violence we would rather keep at a distance. Pacifism can easily become a way to make us comfortable with our blindness to the violence that permeates our lives.
As I mention these lists of different groups of people, I find myself among the disciples at the beginning of John’s story: the friends of Jesus who point at the blind beggar from a distance, and use him to ask a questions about the system in which they live: How does he fit in? How are we supposed to sit here and think about them? Rabbi, who sinned, him or his parents, or the schools or the economy or the criminal justice system or the president or the Democrats or the Republicans? Who started us down this path of sin? Who can I blame?
I would much rather assign blame for our society of sin, instead of getting my hands dirty with the work of healing, of restoration, of peace, of life. I would rather keep my distance and protect what I have, instead of becoming part of the world of the people who have been driven out from among us.
The gospel is the story of how God brings life through Jesus. The gospel is not a special revelation of knowledge that helps us explain the world better than anyone else can. Rather, the gospel is the power of God’s very life that begins to flow through your life—a flow that begins to move your hands and feet. And the Christian life is about nonresistance to this flow; it’s about letting your heart beat with the rhythm of God’s love for the world. And sin is the way we refuse to let God’s life make us alive to the world around us. Sin is the way we refuse to follow Jesus into the lives of people like the blind beggar.
At the end of our passage from John’s Gospel, the question is not about whether we can see what’s wrong. That’s easy. We can do that from a distance, while keeping our hands clean, without having to change anything about our lives. But the gospel is about taking a step into the world of another: Jesus says to the Pharisees at the very end of our passage, and with this I will close—Jesus says to them, and to us: “But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains” (v. 41). Now that you say, “We see,” your sins remain. Yes, we can now see, but our sins still remain.