In elementary school, my friend John Gentz would take out his eye and show it to me on the playground. John’s real eyes were removed at age three during a surgery for cancer. I was equally horrified and fascinated by the glass eye and the hole it left in his face when he took it out. John had a braille typewriter that he used to punch holes in thick brown paper. I ran my fingers over the letters and wondered how anyone’s skin could be so sensitive as to distinguish all the dots. We went to the same church, and John’s dark sense of humor made us giggle through Sunday school classes and then youth group meetings in middle school and high school. Just before graduation, John’s cancer returned with an unexpected vengeance and he passed away. Standing beside the casket at the funeral home, I remembered an incident from eighth grade. A pastor at a nearby church encouraged the youth attending a rally to fast and pray that John’s blindness would be healed. He said, “What a great testimony to God’s power it would be if he could see again.” I thought about the glass eyes and wondered exactly how God would pull off that miracle, but the next day I went without breakfast and prayed for my friend John.
The healing of the man who was blind from birth in our gospel reading was pretty spectacular. Jesus made some mud with spit and rubbed it on the man’s eyes. When the man washed off the mud in a nearby pool, he was able to see for the first time. The difference in this man as a result of gaining his sight was so great that even his neighbors didn’t recognize him. He essentially had to show them his ID and kept insisting “Really! I’m the same man!” Maybe the people who had seen him begging every day had never look beyond the outstretched hand to see the face that was now filled with light. Or maybe they were so flummoxed by the idea of a blind man who now saw that their brains couldn’t make the obvious connection. He was a completely new and different person to them.
Like last week’s story of the woman at the well, the story of the healing of the blind man, or at least its aftermath, is so long that it is better summarized here than read verse by verse. This is what happened: The confused neighbors brought the man to see some religious leaders. They were concerned that this miracle had occurred on the Sabbath and was therefore an inappropriate kindness. An interrogation resulted, and the text says that the religious leaders, known as Pharisees, were divided. Some thought Jesus must be pretty powerful. Others said he was a fraud since he didn’t follow the Sabbath rules. The man’s parents were called in for questioning and they stopped talking when they realized it was a trap. They deferred to their son and said, “He’s old enough, ask him yourself.” The son was tired of all the attention and snapped back at the Pharisees, “I’ve already told you more than once. Why all the questions? Do you want to become his disciples, too?” It was the wrong thing to say, and the men lectured him for his disrespect before throwing him out of the room.
Later, Jesus found the man to make sure he was OK. Jesus answered some questions about God and said that he had come into the world so that the blind could see and so that those who thought they could see could would become blind. Some Pharisees listening nearby asked Jesus, “Surely we are not blind, are we?”
The first and only car accident I had was the result of a blind spot. At least that’s my story and I’m sticking to it! I remember checking the other lane before pulling into it, and the next thing I knew, my front bumper was lying in the middle of the street. Thirty years later I’m still obsessive about checking several times before changing lanes. Blind spots can get us into deep trouble.
I had a “peripheral vision test” not long ago, and it mapped out my vision and showed a spot where I don’t see so well in one direction. I could actually look at a chart and see my blind spot. Beyond physical blind spots, I would dare to say that we all have deficits of awareness about ourselves. How great it would be if we could have a chart showing us where they are. The nature of blind spots, of course, is that we are unaware of them even though others may see them clearly in us.
It’s hard not to look at the story of the healing of the blind man and not see the politicization of health care. Think about it. The man’s situation was pretty desperate. In his culture, blindness was an imperfection that alienated him from all of the systems of support that others enjoyed. Blindness was often seen as a curse, which is why the disciples asked Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” Talk about blaming the victim! What is remarkable to me is that when something really good happened to the man, it aroused all kinds of suspicions. In other words, the delivery of healing and health was of secondary importance to those nearby who were unaffected by the disability. What mattered to the neighbors and Pharisees was that the whole social and religious system they had carefully maintained remain unchallenged and undisturbed.
The Pharisees, who constituted a religious political party of sorts, were divided on the delivery of health care in this situation. They subpoenaed witnesses and they threatened those who were afraid of being put out of the temple. They pointed fingers at Jesus and let him know that no matter how successful he had been in restoring health, doing so on the Sabbath day constituted sin. They did not care about making sick people well. What they cared about was being right and maintaining their positions of power. They were completely blind to their own lack of compassion, and Jesus didn’t hesitate to point that out to them.
A photo has been floating around of twenty-eight men at our White House last week discussing policy changes affecting the health care of women. The ridiculousness and injustice of the situation was not lost on the public. Could caucus members recognize that for themselves, or were the blind spots too wide and too many? Ironically, the insistence on stripping health care basics from a bill to replace the Affordable Care Act assured that it would not be repealed. While many consider that very good news, it makes me wonder whether the quest for power and money is a disease that results in blindness and erodes compassion. Regardless of where we stand on the specifics of how health care is delivered in our county, the actual needs of people, not political self-interest, must be the force that shapes our policies. Time and again, the gospels tell us that Jesus was moved by compassion in his response to the sick and the demonized and the alienated. He didn’t stop to figure out what the fallout would be if he healed a blind man on the Sabbath. He just used all of his powers and did what was right. For those who see Jesus as a model for action, we need to ask ourselves if we will use our powers in the same way,
Jesus resisted those who stood in the way of compassionate care. Our United Church of Christ statement of faith says that God calls us to be servants in the service of the whole human family and to resist the powers of oppression. We are seeing what happens when people are willing to resist. When we do so as followers of Jesus, it is not rooted in a political ideology but in our understanding of how the message of both Jesus and the prophets who proceeded him relates to our world in 2017.
It’s easy to see how the blind spots in others result in what we believe are bad decisions. What’s not as simple is recognizing those in ourselves. Jesus had an interesting commentary on this in the Sermon on the Mount when he advised us not to worry about the speck in someone else’s eye. He said, “Take the plank out of your own eye so you can see to take the speck out of the eye of someone else.” Self-awareness is sometimes hard and painful work. Seeing ourselves clearly, though, is important in our desire to cure the blindness that exists in others.
Most people who are physically blind become blind in the course of their living because of an accident or a progressive disease. Very few are blind from birth the man in Jesus’ story. A well-known preacher named Barbara Brown Taylor tells the story in a recent book of a French man named Jacque Lussayran, as related in his own book titled “And There was Light.” Although he wasn’t born blind, he began to lose sight at an early age and then lost it completely after a schoolyard fight at age seven. He writes about how he learned early on that most people around him considered his blindness to be a complete disaster. Many assumed he would ultimately become a beggar. His parents, though, refused to place him in an institution. They fought to keep him in public school so he could learn to function in the seeing world. His mother learned Braille with him. They refused to pity him, and his father said to him, “Always tell us when you discover something new.”
Despite Jacque’s complete blindness, he writes about the first weeks after his accident in this way: “I could not see the light of the world anymore, yet the light was still there. Its source was not obliterated. I had only to receive it. I found again its movements and shades, its colors that I had loved so passionately a few weeks before.” He concludes, saying “The source of light is not in the outer world. We believe that it is only because of a common delusion. The light dwells where life also dwells: within ourselves.”
Jesus said here in John 9, “I am the Light of the World. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”
The light of the world inside of us is greater and is brighter than any darkness and is powerful in its ability to heal our blind spots, to release us from any delusion, to reveal new knowledge about God, and to increase our compassion for all who long to be whole again. Let that light shine for all to see! Amen.