Blind Even Though We See

The following is adapted from my sermon this past Sunday. It is a reflection on the story of Jesus healing the man born blind (John 9).

Our sight is truly amazing.

Our eyes take in electromagnetic radiation reflected and refracted all around us, and capture this in receptor cells called rods and cones. Our optic nerves instantly transmit signals about this visible light to our brains, where these neural impulses are just as instantly processed, turned upside right and sorted through to make sense of it.

The result of all this is that we perceive a multi-dimensional, multi-coloured reality around us. We who can see take it for granted—until suddenly our vision is obscured or cut off.

And there are many things along the way that can go wrong. Our eyes might not be able to take in all the light they are supposed to, or we might not be able to focus our vision as well as we’d like, or our rods and cones might not work right. Our optic nerves might be unable to transmit nerve impulses as they should. Our brain might not be able to correctly process the information it receives.

And even if all this works properly, the fact is we still don’t see everything there is to see. Our vision only discerns a small segment of the whole spectrum of electromagnetic radiation. There is infrared and ultraviolet light and x-rays and gamma rays all around us, and we don’t see all this (thank goodness—what a busy world that would be!). Even with the range of visible light we do see, our brains don’t process everything to our consciousness—only that which our brain determines is necessary for us to know (which explains why I can never find the ketchup in the fridge even though it’s sitting right in front of me). And then there are those “blind spots”: small but potentially significant areas in our field of vision that our eyes simply cannot see.

All of us, then, even those with 20/20 vision, are in some way blind even though we see.

Rembrandt Blind ManWhen we turn to the story in John’s Gospel, we also find more blindness than meets the eye. There is, of course, the blindness of the man in the middle of the story, a man blind from birth. But as the story is told we discover that the man’s physical blindness isn’t necessarily the most tragic blindness one can have.

Not a moment after the blind man is introduced we hear this question from the disciples: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (9:2). It’s a persistent view still to this day: when bad things happen to someone, it must be something they’ve done wrong or a sign of God’s displeasure.

It’s a view that has some truth to it—indeed, you can find it in Scripture, summed up in proverbs like “You reap what you sow” (Gal 6:7-9). Our sin has consequences, not just for others but also for ourselves: if we continually harm others, we will only end up bringing harm upon ourselves.

But the converse is not necessarily true: it’s not true that every time we experience harm, it must be because we have sinned against others or God. And Jesus once and for all dismantles that claim: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (9:3).

When we sin there are consequences, both for others and ourselves. But not all suffering or hardship is the result of our sin—sometimes it just is, there’s no meaning to it, yet God can work through it to show himself to us.

So there’s the first non-physical blindness in the story: being blinded by traditions of sin and judgment, and so being blind to God’s ways in the world. But there’s more blindness still to see in the story.

The man is brought before the Pharisees, and not a moment after this happens we get this bit of extra information: “Now it was a Sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes” (9:14).

Ah, the Sabbath. It would have been much easier for Jesus if he’d just slept in on Saturday mornings.

The problem for Jesus was not the Sabbath itself. Jesus reinforced the idea of Sabbath-rest as a God-given blessing for humanity: “The Sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath,” he said (Mark 2:27). The problem was the Pharisees’ traditions of Sabbath and the way they viewed those traditions. The Pharisees of John’s Gospel didn’t stop at seeing Sabbath-rest as a divine gift; they strictly enforced Sabbath-rest as a human obligation. John’s Pharisees didn’t see Sabbath as a divine model for doing good in the world; they sought to curtail all unnecessary acts on the Sabbath, even acts of mercy.

Most of the Pharisees, it seems, were genuinely motivated by a desire for holiness. So was Jesus, but Jesus re-defined holiness in terms of love.

Holiness for Jesus was not about separation to protect oneself from stain and pollution, but about engaging others to draw them in to the holiness of God. Holiness for Jesus was not about maintaining moral and doctrinal purity at all costs, but about the purity of loving others at the cost of one’s own life. Holiness for Jesus was not about goodness and truth as swords to subdue others, but as salve to heal others.

And so Jesus deliberately healed on the Sabbath, and the Pharisees were furious.

The Pharisees, then, represent the second non-physical blindness in this story: being blinded by traditions of righteousness and holiness, and so being blind to God’s ways in the world. At the end of the story, we hear Jesus’ ominous pronouncement upon them: “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains” (9:41).

Blinded by traditions of sin and judgment, blinded by traditions of righteousness and holiness. Two thousand years later, we still have these same blind spots.

Maybe we’re like the disciples, convinced not just that sin can have harmful consequences, but that all suffering and hardship and tragedy must be the result of some sin in a person’s life, some evil in society. If so, we’re blind to Jesus, who suffered and died not because of his own sin, but to bear the sins of others and so glorify God.

Maybe we’re like the Pharisees, convinced that being righteous and holy means staying away from sinners and avoiding the world, maintaining our moral and doctrinal purity at all costs. If so, we’re blind to Jesus, who came into this sinful world and feasted with sinners, engaging the world with a purity of love, ultimately at the cost of his own life.

The reality is we’re all like the disciples. We’re all like the Pharisees. It’s so easy for us to become blinded by our traditions, the ways we’ve always done things, the ways we’ve always thought about things. It’s so easy for us to become blind to God’s purposes, the way God really works in the world, the way of Jesus. It’s so easy for us to be blind to God doing a new thing in the world, right here among us.

But may we also be like the man born blind. May Jesus surprise us in the midst of our ordinary, unexpectant lives. May Jesus heal us from our spiritual blindness, even in the most ordinary, unexpected ways. And then may the works of God be evident in us as we live out an expanded, arms-open-wide vision of who God is and what God wants to do in us and among us and through us.

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