Text: John 9:1-41
Every morning I have a familiar routine. One of the very first things I do after getting out of bed is walk to the countertop in the bathroom. I find this case, unscrew the lids, and put a round piece of plastic in each eye. Before I do this, the world is really blurry. I am badly nearsighted. I started wearing glasses in the 3rd grade and went to contacts sometime in middle school. If the numbers mean anything to you, my contact lens prescription is in the -7’s. This amounts to me being significantly handicapped when I don’t have my contacts in. I trip over stuff on the floor. I wouldn’t even think of driving.
If I didn’t have my contacts in right now, this would be a very different experience, mostly for me, but also for you. I’d have to hold my notes close to my face to read them…or get better at memorizing sermons. Looking across the congregation would be more for effect than actually seeing anyone. You all would be fuzzy blobs. I would be able to guess that Al and Kathy Bauman would be sitting right about there, and Julie and Phil Hart would be about here, but it would be a guess.
I’m so used to wearing corrective lenses that I don’t think of myself as having a disability. It’s strange to even say. But if it were not for these highly engineered pieces of plastic, or the glasses alternative, my experience of the world would be entirely different. My life would be different. My disability is easily hidden, to the point of making it functionally go away.
Those of us with bad eyes undergo a mini transformation each morning – so routine, we easily forget how vital it is to our functioning. We can’t see, very well, and then we can. Every morning. It’s a small dosage of what the blind man in John 9 got all at once. He’d spent his entire life unable to see, restricted, but one day Jesus walked his way and changed his world.
Rather than saline solution and contact lenses, Jesus mixes up a concoction of saliva and mud – spit + dirt – and smears it all over the man’s eyes. In traditional cultures, saliva and clay were both believed to have healing properties. Science has backed this up, although I’m guessing this mix is less than 100% effective in curing blindness. But this man who has never been able to see has an encounter with Jesus the wonder worker. He goes back to the pool of Siloam where Jesus tells him to wash. And, as John reports, “he came back able to see.”
His sight instantly changes his status in the community. Not surprisingly, he had been a beggar, unable to provide for himself. John writes: “The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, ‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?’ Some people were saying, ‘It is he.’ Others were saying, ‘No, but it is someone like him.’”
His place as a blind beggar had become so established, people had organized their mental neighborhood map so much around him being defined by his blindness and begging, that some folks are unable to recognize him even as the same person when he is no longer defined by those things. They literally don’t see him as someone who might have something to contribute to the community. As someone who, later in the story, becomes a full member in the discipleship community that Jesus is calling into being.
And this is where the story takes on another layer of depth.
This is our third week in a row with a story from John’s gospel and you may be recognizing a pattern. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus has lots of relatively brief encounters with many different people. John, on the other hand, will take an entire chapter, or most of a chapter, to tell of one encounter. Each of these stories, and others within John, start with a very physical, even biological kind of problem or situation. Being reborn by going back into your mother’s womb as an adult? Nicodemus the inquiring Pharisee – Chapter 3. Seeking a thirst-quenching drink of water from a well. The Samaritan woman – Chapter 4. A blind man’s eyes recreated through something as earthy as earth itself. Chapter 9. These scenarios all have multiples layers.
Most of this story with the man-born-blind-who-isn’t-blind-anymore turns out to be about the perceptions of those around this man. Can they see him for more than his disability? Can they welcome him as a full member in the beloved community? And, even more specifically, are they able to drop this persistent notion of sin — assigning moral failure to someone’s health deficiency?
In February we had a series on the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew, and one of the passages we didn’t cover says this: These are the words of Jesus: “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness.”
It’s a little strange for us to think of the eye as a lamp. We think of the eye as being a receptacle of light. Light bounces off the surface of surrounding objects, makes its way into our eye, which translates the image into electrical pulses it sends to the brain, which translates those pulses into an image which we “see.” Light travels towards us, and our eyes, to varying degrees of clearness, with various forms of corrective assistance, catch the light.
So, that’s amazing. And that’s how we see.
Jesus’ audience would have believed other things about the eye. The eye was not only a light receiver, it was a light projector. Plato, for example, taught this. He wrote:
“The pure fire which is within us…they made to flow through the eyes in a stream smooth and dense, compressing the whole eye, and especially the centre part, so that it kept out everything of a coarser nature, and allowed to pass only this pure element. When the light of day surrounds the stream of vision, then like falls upon like, and they coalesce, and one body is formed by natural affinity in the line of vision, wherever the light that falls from within meets with an external object. And the whole stream of vision, being similarly affected in virtue of similarity, diffuses the motions of what it touches or what touches it over the whole body, until they reach the soul, causing that perception which we call sight.” (From “The Project Gutenberg Etext of Timaeus,” Citation HERE)
That’s Plato on sight. I had to read that seven times before I got half of it, so if you got any, well done. The point is that the eyes cause us to see by emitting the light that is within us.
The eyes were, as Jesus says, a lamp. You have light, or darkness within you, and everywhere you look, you project that light. Your eyes are light emitters. Light moves from within us, out, and then mixes and coalesces with other light, and comes back into the soul, where the seeing really happens.
When you look at a thing, or a person, you see them in the light that you cast on them, and they are affected by the light, or darkness, you cast on them. The eye is the lamp of the body and we are constantly shining that light, and that’s how we see what we see. Or don’t see what we don’t see.
Long before psychologists taught us about projection, the ancients had it figured out. Kind of.
There’s a quote that fits this well, and nobody really knows who said it, but it’s a good one. It says, “We see the world not as it is, but as we are.” “We see the world not as it is, but as we are.”
I have a very recent example of this playing out. Ila will be entering kindergarten in the fall and we’ve been visiting the neighborhood and lottery schools within Columbus City Schools to get a sense of our options. We’ve also been comparing notes with friends doing the same thing. It turns out we have pretty different impressions of the schools, Abbie and myself included. Abbie was recently talking with a couple other women and they cracked the code. It seems each of us likes the school we’d most want to go to ourselves – or that fulfills some need we feel our own education was lacking. We saw the school as we are. It doesn’t exactly solve the dilemma that is school choice, but it sure helps to recognize what’s going on and why we see the same thing differently.
“We see the world not as it is, but as we are.” Sometimes the way we see exposes something deeper within us.
So it goes in John chapter 9. From the very beginning: “As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’” What is initially described as an objective reality – a man blind from birth, very quickly transforms into the subjective reality of the disciples. To whom should we assign moral responsibility for the characteristic that has come to define this man’s being – his blindness? Who sinned, this man or his parents?
The question itself narrows the entire field of perception down to choice A – this man sinned, or choice B, his parents sinned. How would you like to have that perception projected on you your whole life? The narrow framework persists all the way through the story, with the Pharisees soon picking up that role. Their ways of seeing also projects more darkness than light onto the situation. After being unable to get the answers they want from the man-who-can-now-see they say in exasperation, “You were born entirely in sin, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out. They excommunicate him because there is no space within their present way of seeing for him to fit.
And Jesus will have none of it. He reflects that lack of light right back on the Pharisees and says if they must assign sin to this situation, then it looks like sin is coming right out of them. He welcomes the man not because he can or can’t see, but because he acknowledges that God is at work here. Jesus chooses “none of the above” and tells the disciples that neither this man nor his parents sinned. The point of this man’s life, just like the point of any person’s life, is, to quote Jesus “so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”
Or, to quote Sarah Werner’s lovely devotional from Monday: “Of course we are all incapacitated in one way or another. Blind to many things while seeing clearly others. But blindness as a physical reality is only another way of being in the world, not chosen, but also not punishment. Nor is ongoing disability a failure of faith, or an object lesson, or an inspiration. There are many ways of being and moving through the world. We are each here so that God’s works may be revealed in each of us.”
The gospel invites us into a certain way of seeing, and this really matters. Having our vision corrected is an inward journey that directly impacts the kind of outward journey we take. Today people from around the nation are gathering in Columbus to march with workers from Immokalee Florida who pick tomatoes for fast food restaurants. How we see these folks has direct impact on our response to them. If we see them with suspicion and fear, it will produce one kind of response. If we see them as worthy of dignity, safe working conditions, and a living wage, it will create a different kind of reality.
The gospel invites us into a certain way of seeing. The light of Christ comes at us in front of our eyes, but also behind our eyes. It projects itself out of us. It casts light. It is a lamp. It sees people as beloved children of God before assigning them to a particular category of what they can and can’t do. This way of seeing is itself an act of healing. It believes that each person is another channel through which God’s works might be revealed.