Two weeks ago, I pointed out that the people in the passages for that Sunday were people for whom the system was working. They were well-respected men who had followed the rules and achieved a certain amount of security, status, and respect. And yet, there was still something pulling at them; some longing that drew them away from the established religion and respectable people and toward a fuller understanding of God’s vision for the world.
Today’s Gospel reading features a man who has never known respectable society. He’s been an outcast his whole life. His very existence made people so uncomfortable that they had to blame his circumstances on sin rather than believe that God in his goodness might allow such a person to exist. His longing is confined to his lot in life, because his blindness has rendered him effectively subhuman in his society.
I wonder what was worse: Was it his blindness or was it hearing over and over that he was being punished by God? I bet he thought it was the blindness. I bet he spent his days thinking, “If I could just see, my life would be so much better.” Or “I’d show them.” I wonder if he ever questioned the idea that his great suffering was a result of his or his parents’ great sin.
If it were me, there would have been at least a few moments when I wondered what my parents had done that condemned me to life as an outcast. Heck, I still blame my mother for not buying me the Levis cords I wanted in fifth grade. A piece of me still whispers that if I’d had those pants, I would have avoided innumerable humiliations from the mean girls at Cranston Calvert Elementary.
Think of the poisoning effect that would have on what were likely the only intimate relationships he had? Being blind is challenging, more so in a culture where most people work through farming and where anything perceived as damaged goods is unclean. Blindness was tantamount to ostracism, and while you can compensate for blindness by focusing more on your other senses, there’s no compensation for not having a friend in the world.
So what was it like for this blind man to encounter Jesus and get the one thing he’s been wanting for his whole life?
Well, to be totally honest, it kind of sucks for him. Imagine this guy, living his whole life, thinking, if only I could see, everything would be great. I wouldn’t have to hear the disappointment and fear in my parents voices when they are around. I wouldn’t have to beg. I would be one of the group. I could get a job. I could have a wife.
Then Jesus makes him see, and what he sees isn’t pretty. Some of his neighbors refuse to believe their own eyes. His parents won’t even tell the truth about him, because they don’t want to anger men in power. His own parents won’t back him up.
So then the Pharisees, who are playing the part of mean girls in this story, essentially tell our guy that nothing has changed. Effectively, they say, “You may be able to see now, but you’re the same scum you’ve always been. Don’t think this is going to change anything.”
And if you ask me, this is when the blind man sees. He sees his community for what it is, and he sees the Pharisees for the men they are: men clinging to their own power so hard that they can’t open their arms to embrace the miracle before them.
And now our once-blind man has to face the harshest truth of his life: The thing he’s been telling himself all along? That if only he could see, everything would be better? That his whole life would finally be good? That seeing would erase the pain, the ostracism, the neediness? It was all false.
Nothing is better. His parents won’t stand up with him. Everyone still thinks of him the same way they always have. And a bunch of religious guys “drove him out.” I’m not quite sure what that involves, but I’m fairly confident nobody was giving him a full body massage and pedicure as part of that deal.
The good news is that Jesus goes and finds him. And by the time they’re talking about the son of man, the erstwhile blind man has a very important piece of information: he has nothing left to lose. Which is a great gift that Jesus has given him. Because not only has Jesus given him his sight, but he’s allowed him to see his world as it really is. The blind man has his priorities straight.
I wonder what failings Jesus would take away from me to help me see things clearly. What stories am I telling myself about how my sinfulness is keeping me from living fully and abundantly in the world? I tell myself if only I had a little more time, I could get more done. Or if only I could lose some weight, people would take me more seriously. Or if only I were more disciplined with my work schedule, I could publish a book. Things would be different.
But I think what Jesus is saying here is that, yes, those things might be holding me back from what I want. If those things were fixed, things would be different. But only in ways that Jesus doesn’t care much about. The essentials would stay the same—the people who don’t give me the time of day because I don’t look right would still find reasons that I’m not worth their time. Getting more done wouldn’t really put a dent in how much needs to be done. Books are always going to be hard to publish.
We don’t really know what happens to the erstwhile blind man after this. We know he’s seeing things differently, and we know that only part of that new vision is coming from his eyes. But I wonder: does he find a different community? Does he become a disciple and follow Jesus? Does he take up painting? We don’t know.
By ending where it does, the story seems to be telling us that it doesn’t matter what happens next. What matters is the moment when our eyes are opened and we see the world and Jesus for what they truly are. I hope that the next time my eyes are opened in such a way, that I have the blind man’s courage to chose the truth over the lies I’ve told myself and the way things have always been, no matter where I end up.