An icon depicting the story of Jesus healing the blind man.
This past Sunday's Scriptures all dealt with the theme of blindness, both physical and (especially) spiritual. We read the entire ninth chapter of the Fourth Gospel, which is a bit tedious with all of its back-and-forth between the characters, but that length only hammers home the theme of blindness even more, and the tension is ratcheted up. See for yourself:
'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?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. 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 were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”
They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.”
The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”
So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.
Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”'
Did you notice how the tension built? I suspect that it is because, in their own way, each character in this little drama are suffering from a form of blindness (except Jesus, of course!).
Immediately we are told about a man who is born blind—the ancient church gave him the name Celidonius. His blindness is pretty obvious. But what of the other characters? We next hear Jesus’ disciples ask him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” It was common in the ancient world to associate pain with punishment—God is angry over something I did, so God caused me to go blind or took away a loved one. Several religions, including Judaism and Islam, believe that our souls exist before they enter our human bodies--in Jewish tradition souls reside in a place called the Room of Guff, and when that room is empty Messiah will come. Thus, it was actually possible for us to sin before we are ever even born, and the disciples' question isn't as crazy as it sounds Furthermore, it was widely believed then, as it is in some circles now, that the sins of the parents could be visited upon the children. Therefore, as far as the disciples are concerned, someone must have done something wrong for this poor soul to be born blind! But Jesus makes it clear to the disciples that, in this case, they are the blind ones because God does not work that way! God does not cause bad things to happen to good people, rather bad things just happen, but even when such bad things happen God’s grace can still be revealed. This was a difficult new teaching for the disciples, and they have a tough time with it, but to be fair it was hard for most people in Jesus' day.
Still, the ones that seem to suffer from the most severe case of blindness are the Pharisees, those guys who had a slavish devotion to the Law, so much so that they could not see how God could possibly function outside of it. It’s a sabbath day, and they see Jesus make mud by spitting on some clay—which constitutes work—and that means that he has violated the 4th Commandment. He’s a sinner! He has no regard for the Law, obviously. But some within the Pharisees' own circle begin to think twice about Jesus; after all, he cures a man who was born blind! The Pharisees, though, dig in their heels and say that it must not be the same man. They call in Celidonius, but when his responses are unsastifactory, they call in his parents to question them. They cooperate but are so afraid that the Pharisees will take out their frustrations on them, that they say, “Hey! He’s a man, take it up with him!” They throw their son under the bus, blind to the compassion that they should show him. The Pharisees then call Celidonius back in. They KNOW Jesus is a sinner, he violates the Law! He’s a false prophet who is performing miracles to get everyone to come over to his side, and then when the time is right he will destroy them all—as a footnote, Deuteronomy 13: 1-5 warned against such false prophets who produce false signs to lure people away from God, giving some validity to the Pharisees' fears. Celidonius counters them by saying that if this man were not from God he could do nothing—the Hebrew Testament is full of moments in the Psalms, Job, and the prophets where it’s clear that God does not hear the prayers of bad people, and the Pharisees knows this well. Nevertheless, the Pharisees continue in their blindness; they know what they know, and nothing else, not even facts, matters!
The veil of fundamentalism.
The blindness experienced by the Pharisees is the kind that is a by-product of fundamentalism. It’s like a veil that covers the eyes and is tied so tightly that it cannot ever be pulled away, and knowing that it cannot be pulled away, the user just accepts it and never so much as tries to remove it, and God-forbid anyone try to help remove it! Folks suffering from this kind of blindness say things like “We know!!” or “You’re one of them!” They refuse to entertain points of view that are not their own, and even when folks present them with proof that their view may not be the only one, they soundly refute it! You can’t argue with this kind of perspective. Celidonius gets nowhere when he tries to sway them, and even when Jesus calls them out on their blindness they exclaim, “Surely WE are not blind, are we?” They don't get it! First, they think he's talking about the kind of physical blindness Celidonius suffered from (which he's not!), and second they think that, because they've got it all figured out, they aren't blind in any way, shape or form! That's fundamentalism for you!
This kind of blindness still exists. Too often the ones who follow Jesus use him the same way the Pharisees used the Law. They interpret Jesus' saying in ways that he never intended and refuse any interpretation that is not theirs. They, like the Pharisees, say things like, They start putting words in Jesus’ mouth, they interpret his sayings in ways that he never intended, and they start saying things like, “We know the right way to live!” and “You’re wrong for not believing what we believe!” Like the Pharisees, they are spiritually blind, unable and unwilling to see any way that is not theirs.
But that’s not how Jesus operates. He gives us, as he gave the people in his day, the light of God’s love and mercy, so that they would no longer live in darkness—as Paul reminds the folks in Ephesus that they are now living in that light (Ephesians 5: 8-14). Jesus gives a light that helps us see things as God sees them, not just as we see them—it’s the same light that guided Samuel to choose David as king, even though his instincts told him the stronger, older sons of Jesse should have been chosen (I Samuel 16: 1-13). The light of Christ, which we Christians claim burns in each of us, is the light that is meant to scatter the darkness of close-mindedness and lift the veil of fundamentalism from our eyes, that we may see aright. When that veil is lifted, we see the world is a lot bigger than what we have made it to be, and that God is a whole lot bigger than we could ever imagine!
The Pharisees—and those who carry on their legacy today—may have their physical sight, but their spirits are blind. If we think about it, though, that blindness is kind of attractive. Things are easier when you think you have it all figured out. When the world exists in a series of absolutes—our way and their way—right and wrong seems pretty clear. But as Obi-Wan Kenobi reminds us:
Those who dwell in darkness deal in absolutes, but those who belong to the light are able to see the nuances, as Jesus did. They see the gray areas and are able to say to a brother or sister, "I know your perspective is different, but I hear you and respect you!" This is the Good News that is there for us in this super long gospel reading! If we belong to the light, if we embrace the light of Jesus, then our souls will not fall into blindness, the darkness will be scattered before us, the glory of God will be revealed in us, and we will truly be able to see. Thank you, Celidonius (and the Pharisees), for showing us what true blindness really is!