"One thing I do know: that though I was blind, now I see."
This is, perhaps, the simplest confession in all of the Gospels. In an era wracked with uncertainty, mistrust, and unwieldy imbalances of power, this simple statement boils down to a few words that can be certain: I was blind, but now I see.
If you're like me, you will hear the strains of "Amazing Grace" crooning in the deep corners of your mind in the warbly voices of the octogenarian choir who bears responsibility for teaching this hymn to you. "I once was lost, but now I'm found; 'twas blind, but now, I see" is a lyric that offers comfort in the most difficult of times, and its source is the complex and heavy story of a man born blind.
Listeners to a story often find themselves in the characters. And often, we identify with the protagonist, but more frequently (and with less eagerness) we identify with the antagonist. I fear that is the case for me, as I listen to the Pharisees' response to the man's healing.
How often have I been the one to doubt the mysterious, life-changing love of God, revealed in the unlikeliness of a story I hear? The anecdotes of tumors gone missing, MRI scans revealing no trace, symptoms vanishing, are all simply invitations to identify the human error that must have been involved in the original diagnosis. After all, if some people can experience mysterious healing - even to the extent of being revived after death - then, why can this not happen for everyone? My limited imagination demands that there should be justice in the mystery and equity in the remarkable.
So, my first question is the same as the Pharisees’: why this guy? What did he do to deserve to have his sight restored? Was he a sinner, redeemed? Did his parents - the potential sinful cause of his ailment - repent? How did this happen? And, why him?
Thankfully, Jesus offers an answer to that question: His disciples ask him, "Rabbi, who sinned? This man, or his parents, that he was born blind?"
As foolish as this question seems, I suppose that the core of it is universal: what is the source of this man's disability? It is deeply human, after all, to want a logical reason to understand something that seems random and arbitrary. This question is rooted in survival; if we can understand why a problem has arisen in one situation, then perhaps we can avoid the same pitfalls with our own path, right? (Right?!)
Jesus's answer, however direct, doesn't explain the initial source of the problem. This man's blindness had nothing to do with sinfulness. And the consequences of sinfulness are not always neatly correlated with our suffering. And knowing that I won't have to painfully pay for every sin is a relief. But the flip side of that coin troubles me.
Life would be so much easier if our suffering could be predicted, and thus, cautiously avoided. In truth, humanity's success as a species is predicated on the survival of the fittest, and the rest of us unfit people have subsequently developed excellent coping mechanisms to preserve our health and vitality through a variety of safety precautions. We wear seatbelts, helmets, and work gloves. We understand the value of medical science and the wisdom of vaccines. We look both ways before crossing the street, come to full and complete stops, and always use our turn signals.
Except, of course, we don't.
The randomness of suffering can sometimes be explained by human error, mechanical malfunction, long-time habits, or just sheer stupidity. Our very nature compels us to understand what went wrong so that we can continue to preserve life as we know it.
But any attempt we make to explain away suffering, disability, or death will only lead us down a dark path of unsatisfactory answers. The impulse to shout "Why me?!" in the face of unjust distributions of suffering is universal. The deafeningly silent response from the cosmos, "Why not you," is, too.
Jesus's answer to the disciples about this man's blindness is simple: "Neither this man, nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him."
Jesus's reply points to a long-standing bias which human history has maintained: that disability is equivalent to deficiency. There's no doubt that disability makes life more challenging, but only because our cultures have developed out of consideration and preference for able-bodied people. The man born blind in this story is a beggar because society around him is not equipped with ways to enable him to be valued as anything more than a worthless, blind man. And, obviously, a probable sinner to boot.
This has more to do with the deficiency in society than it does with the deficiency in his sight.
For me, the most compelling characters in the story are not the very earnest protagonist, or they very grouchy antagonists; it's not the disciples, and it's not even Jesus. It's the people who respond to the man after he has been healed - the community that is forced to cope with his radical change.
His neighbors, who first see him after he washes the mud off his eyes in the pool called Siloam debate among themselves if this able-bodied, fully-seeing person is the same man who used to sit at the gates and beg. He keeps saying, "I am the man," but they press him to explain how he was blind, but now can see.
His answer is direct and unimpressive. The verdict of his community? Unsatisfactory! So, his neighbors bring him to the experts, the Pharisees. Because this is the Sabbath day, the Pharisees quickly become less interested in the pharmaceutical ramifications of dirt and water and far more interested in their particular area of expertise: the law. If they can't explain how the laws of genetics could be bent, they would certainly figure out how the laws of their belief system are being violated.
But, gaining no traction with this conversational redirection, the Pharisees decide to ask the man's parents what happened. Perhaps they know something that the Pharisees do not - perhaps a pledge made to a sorcerer expired? Maybe some spell had been broken? True love's kiss?
The man's parents have nothing of help to say, and fearing for their own persecution, they remind the Pharisees that their son is an adult, who is fully able to speak for himself.
As the Pharisees return to the man to ask him once again about his mysterious healing, we notice something troubling in the text. Time and again, this man's identity is consistent: The Man Born Blind. His identity is sealed as one who is never more than his disability, even after he has been healed. Only one time does the author of John's Gospel refer to him as "The Man Who Had Formerly Been Blind." All other references to his identity are as "the man born blind" or "the blind man."
And because this man has no given formal name in the text, we are left with his identity-first description in its stead. This is the sin of ableism: that the man's transformation of one who was blind to one who can see doesn't shift how the rest of society views him. They reduce him to what he was: a blind beggar. His identity, once these details of his personhood are no longer accurate, doesn't shift in the eyes of his neighbors or the authorities.
The only character in this story who never refers to the man in terms of his disability is Jesus. Let's let that sink in for a minute.
It's not that Jesus disregards this man's personhood: Jesus sees the man, blind from birth, in verse 1. His disciples begin their line of questioning, and Jesus's response is to say, "This man was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him." Immediately, Jesus re-creates creation in his healing actions.
In the beginning, this man was formless and void, and darkness covered the face of the deep. As Jesus approached him, a wind from God swept over the face of the waters and he spat into the earth. God said, "Let there be light;" and Jesus echoed, "As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world." And the saliva mixed with the dry land, and God saw that it was good. The comingling of waters and dirt returned the elements to their primordial substance, which was filled with the power of miracles and potential. Jesus took the mud, spread it on the man's eyes, and said, "Go, wash in the pool of Siloam." The man washed and came back able to see; and God saw that the light was good.
This man was a new creation. His community was not.
If we simply take this as a miraculous healing story and nothing more, then two things will happen. Our faith in God will be deeply frustrated, and we will have missed the true miracle: God wants to recreate us!
The man himself says, "Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind" (v. 32). Miracles are wily and unpredictable, just like suffering and death. If we read this parable as a prescription for sufficient faith to heal all ailments, then we will transform this miracle of God's new creation into a condemnation of God's lack of response to our own prayers. I refuse to believe that this parable was recorded only to provide fodder for the insult as to why we aren't receiving the same blessing.
Rather, the blind being made to see isn't just about the man's experience of healing, but about the community's response to his identity in the process. Out of his healing, he receives faith, sight, and hope. Out of his healing, the community pushes back with doubt, blindness, and anger.
There are two miracles happening in this text: one that destroys faith through the vehicle of a remote God who doesn't care to relieve our suffering and another that recreates us when we allow God to help us see past our own privilege and presumption.
God's invitation to us, friends, is to understand with reborn eyes, how we could respond to the identities of those around us. To quote my very favorite modern-day philosopher, John Mulaney: "People change." If we refuse to acknowledge the changes people have made in their lives to mature, develop, and grow, then we reduce them to our diminished perspective of their humanity. If we insist on seeing people through our own tinted lenses of ability and bias, then we will never truly know how much our own sinfulness in blinding us.
We become just like the Pharisees, who overhear Jesus's conversation after they have driven the man out, "I have come into the world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind." "Surely, we are not blind, are we?" The Pharisees muse demurely, clutching their proverbial pearls.
Jesus's response to them upends our perception of ability and disability, sinfulness and righteousness. He retorts, "If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, 'We see,' your sin remains."
It's so simple. Those who can see are blind. Those who are blind can see. The great reversal of the Gospel's understanding of justice rings true. The man born blind cannot see with his eyes, but he can perceive the true value of kindness, compassion, effort, and most importantly, that Jesus is the Messiah. His lack of visual sight does not keep him from spiritually understanding that he is in the presence of God, and that in their encounter, he has become newly created.
Their final exchange shines with beautiful irony, as Jesus asks the man after he has been driven out of his own community, "Do you believe in the Son of Man?" The man replies, "And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him." Jesus says, "You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he." The man replied, "Lord, I believe." And he worshiped him, the firstborn of all creation, the first vision of his newly restored eyes. Imagine the beauty of this sight.
The man's confession, clear and true, does not shy away from what it means to see and believe. Jesus, who never reduced this man to one aspect of his personhood, restores his sight that God's glory might be revealed. The nature of blindness and sight cannot be reduced to a literal understanding. We are all impaired with blinders, hindrances, and myopia. We accept the hazy cataracts of our bias as an acceptable softening of the jagged edges of prejudice. We stare through lenses of privilege and miss the peripheral experiences of injustice, assuming everyone shares our same view.
We don't have to look for the prophet; the prophet has come to OUR pools, to OUR churches where we often function as beggars. But the prophet is determined to give us more than mere alms. Jesus will not stop coming to our Siloams until we, too, can see the light. Until we can see all of the love and beauty out of which each person is created! Until we can see the inequities, the injustices, and our own complicity in them. Until we can behold his glory, full of grace and truth. Until we are recreated. Until his Word becomes OUR flesh.
Rejoice, friends! God has given you sight to see the true beauty and love out of which each person is created.
Amen and Amen.