The blind should see and those who see should become blind’
We listened to the reading later.
Another week, another lengthy few verses from the gospel according to John, only this time we do not encounter Jesus in the company of a nameless Samaritan woman but with a nameless blind man – at first anyway. I hope the length of the passage didn’t put some of you off for this is a remarkable one for a whole host of reasons, not least of all those bizarre, almost threatening words of Jesus at the end of the passage – ‘I came to this world to judge, so that the blind should see and those who see should become blind’. How do those words fit into our idea of the loving Lord, I wonder – that the blind should see and those who see should become blind?!
Personally, I approach my reflection on this passage, as I do with most preaching, with a sense fear and trepidation, for who am I to say a few words about a blind person getting healed, particularly in a congregation with a few members who are blind or visually impaired? I have as much understanding of, and right to speak about, being blind as I would of being female and I’m also aware that the passage itself can be challenging as many feel that these healing miracles both offer false hope to those who are disabled and encourage an attitude of charity towards them.
In the past, Simon has shared with me his experiences of well-meaning friends praying for the healing of his eyesight. Simon being Simon, he of course generously welcomed their prayers but admitted that the situation isn’t as clear cut for him as he understands his visual impairment as being a contributing factor for him concentrating on academic work rather than spending time on sport or other interests. In another world then, perhaps Simon would have been more familiar with Olympic podiums than church pulpits…we can’t know…but what we do know is that Simon understands his condition as a part of who he is. Simon is Simon, in part because of his vision. We cannot, then, speak of blindness in terms of deficiency – in terms of something gone wrong that needs correcting so what might we say?
Well John Hull, theologian and URC elder who went blind at the age of 48 suggests we think of being blind as being in a different world.
“The experience that a blind person has of the world is so significantly different from that of sighted people,” he explains, “that we can speak of it as a constructed world.”
In other words, John is suggesting that life can be so different between those who are blind and those who are sighted that we cannot simply compare the life of the other to our own with or without sight; they are so different that we need to listen and learn and love to even begin to understand and enter the world of the other. Does that make sense?
Let me put it another way, the great poet and polymath Maya Angelou expressed how she wished she could make every American an African American for a week so they could understand a bit better how the world is experienced from that perspective. The same could be said for gender, age, personality type, different abledness etc. You do not know what the world looks like to me just as I cannot see it through your eyes for each of our worlds is different. This isn’t a reason for division, of course, for we are united in our diversity. We are all the same for we are all different. But it does mean that we must try to stay clear of assumptions, judgments and impatience with one another. Instead of throwing around reckless accusations of selfish or sinfulness – as are wrongly assigned to the blind man, his parents, even Jesus in the passage – we must instead throw about reckless generosity, empathy and understanding.
More than this, when we understand the perspectives of those who are blind as being so different from those who are sighted that we talk of different worlds of experience, we perhaps get more understanding of what Jesus meant when he said ‘I came to this world to judge so that the blind may see and those who see may become blind’ for this reading enables us to see Jesus turn our understanding of the world on its head.
For example, we are told that the man in the passage was born blind. His whole experience, knowledge, living was of a world without vision. Others could see, of course, but for our man, he had come to experience the world, to make sense of it, get through it, with his other senses. The feel of his mother’s face; the clatter of soldiers approaching; the smell of the clear, fresh stream. He also experienced the prejudice, the pain and the loneliness of that world. He heard the accusations of sin, felt the disappointment of his parents, perhaps believed in the punishment of God.
And then Jesus comes along and brings the man into a brave new world. A world of colour and depth and light – of course – but so much more than this – it was a world of fresh possibilities and perspectives, a world of new relationships and expanding horizons, a world where he wasn’t to be defined as a deficient sinner cursed by God but as a much-loved human transformed by God. In this way, Jesus’ healing of the blind man was yet another part of his turning the world upside down.
In your world women shouldn’t be talked to? Jesus asks – Well in mine, they’re valued and listened to as well. In your world, children are to be kept away, you say? Well bring them here for my world belongs to them! In your world, only the purest, most religious get to spend time in God’s presence? Welcome to mine where God eats with tax-collectors and prostitutes, where he parties at weddings, talks of loving our enemies, heals gentiles and lepers and the blind and on a Sabbath to boot! And that’s only the beginning of the adventure. When Jesus comes to town, the blind will see, the forgotten will be named, the narrow-minded will have their minds blown, the disturbed will be comforted, the comfortable will be disturbed; the refugee will be welcomed, the hypocrite exposed, the lonely loved, the powerful humbled and the sighted? Well maybe they will go blind!
But perhaps that’s not the threat it first sounds. If, once again, we see things in terms of different worlds, then those who have experienced a world of sight might encounter the world of the blind. What might that mean? We return to John Hull and his thoughts on the subject. Ever the academic, as he was going blind and subsequently, John kept a sort of audio diary of his thoughts and experiences; a mapping out of the landscape of the new world in which he found himself living. These transcripts were turned into a film called ‘Notes on Blindness’ which came out last year and from which we’re going to watch a brief excerpt. In this clip, two actors lip-sync to the words of John and his wife, Marilyn, as he shares with her a spiritual experience he had in church…
A dark cloak. A sense of grace. A gift of blindness. I know that many who suffer from visual impairment would baulk at the idea of it being a gift but that was John’s understanding of it – a gift that he didn’t want. A gift that he didn’t want his children to have. But a gift nonetheless. Whether or not we can identify with that, John’s understanding was that he had been given, or shown or been taken to another world. And there was suffering and loneliness and challenge in that world for sure – ‘Who had the right to deprive me of the sight of my children at Christmas time?’ he asks – but it was also a world in which he loved and was loved, in which he experienced grace and encountered God.
Jacques Lusseyan, French author and political activist who survived the horrors of the Buchenwald concentration camp, writes about his experience of being blind in his autobiography ‘And There Was Light’. In this, Jacques notes that the world of the sighted can be shallow and speedy. Sight attends to the surface of things with a superficial ease as our eyes swiftly glance over scenes, making quick judgments and missing the bigger picture. “Since becoming blind,” he writes, “I have paid attention to a thousand things”. What if, alongside the difficulties that are undoubtedly there, the world of the blind might be one which brings greater depth of perception? What if it’s one which invites, compels us even, to be less self-reliant and more vulnerable; more attentive and less certain that my way of thinking is the only way, the right way?
After all, two thousand years ago, Jesus was put on a cross by religious zealots who thought they perceived everything perfectly and this week in London, many were injured and killed by a religious zealot who thought he too could see everything clearly. Those who think they can see are the guilty ones Jesus tells us. Whilst the Pharisees claimed perfect vision and saw Jesus as a sinner, it was the man born blind – the man who was still confused about his healing, who knew there was more to discover with God – who saw the Son of Man and believed.
Perhaps then, Jesus’ promise that the sighted will become blind is an invitation to let go of religious certainty; to turn away from judgment and instead embrace the otherness, the mystery, the wonder of God.
There’s still a lot I don’t understand about this passage, if I’m honest. But maybe that’s okay because as we journey with Jesus – our crucified brother and risen Saviour – there will always be more to learn and new worlds to explore, for the blind will see and those who see will be blind. Thanks be to God. Amen.