A reflection on the readings for Lent 4A: John 9:1-41 by the Rev. Margaret Rose
I love to travel. Perhaps it comes from growing up in a small town where the world beyond always seemed to invite me to something more and better. And even as a child it didn’t much matter where outside: a bus to Atlanta to visit a friend when I was six, or a drive to an even smaller town nearby—Villa Rica which my mother reminded me meant “Village of the Rich” in another exotic language or so she said. That love of travel had to do with a desire to experience something new, visit another place and to see something I had not seen before. Now “traveling” has become a metaphor for seeing things anew, suspending belief and starting with a clean slate experiencing lives and sights that do not have my history or baggage. Traveling to far off places or to new neighborhoods allows me to let go assumptions or labels or judgments, generalities, or stereotypes.
Traveling has become a state of mind which is about heightened senses and paying attention to surroundings, getting away from the routine in order to get at the heart and soul of a place, a culture, a person. Some days even walking to work is like traveling, if I have allowed my mind to be uncluttered by the worries of the day and can simply observe the life around me. Taking notice of the environment, of who and what is there. It may be a “green raincoat day” or a “dog walking day”, or one where it seems everyone needs help crossing the street. Patterns emerge I had not seen before. No doubt they are not real patterns but part of everyday, but with open eyes I somehow see what I had long ignored.
This may be a simplistic way to think about the story of the Man Born Blind in John’s gospel. Certainly, it is one of the “miracle stories” but the real truth of the text is in the whole story and the movement from those whose eyes may see but who are spiritually blind to the truth that sight does not rest in the eyes only. ( This is no doubt why the RCL has included all 41 verses of the story.) The lead up offers one more example of Jesus turning the social structure on its head—healing on the Sabbath, and the discussion of whose fault it is that the man is blind and Jesus’ retort that this is not about sin but the need for healing. Neither his parents’ guilt nor his own is the culprit. (Something we would do well to remember.) The deep lesson of the text comes in the dialog between the blind man and those who hear about or witness the miracle. The man born blind becomes increasingly insightful even as the religious leaders are more blind to the identity of Jesus and the meaning of the miracle.
The dialog plays out like a comedy street scene: the beggar is healed by Jesus using what might be a folk way of mud and saliva and prayer. The onlookers do not believe it is really the same man or that he can really see so they deny it among themselves: This wasn’t really the blind beggar was it? No, just someone like him is the reply. Others respond to the blind man’s proclamation that he can now see by whispers of denial among themselves: He wasn’t really blind in the first place. Still others go to his parents to confirm his identity and his infirmity.
Clearly , the Pharisees did not want to have their eyes opened to Jesus. To accept that the healing was of God would call into question their set rules, would have forced them to give up some very precious and long held understandings about life codes and ways of worship. Their privilege as religious leaders might be called into question. They had a lot to lose by listening to the words of the outcast better, a blind man, a lot to lose if they began to explore the possibility that this healing was of God, or that Jesus might possibly be the prophet or a foretold messiah. In short, a lot to lose by having their eyes opened. Those physically able to see became spiritually blind, unable as they were to risk the loss of comfort, power and long held assumptions of their faith.
The blind man, however had nothing to lose. He knew his infirmity, his blindness, and knew that Jesus had opened his eyes. As he told the story, becoming aware of Jesus’ identity, he is able to proclaim it. The poor blind beggar is open to grace and to Jesus as the Christ. The one who was blind is able in the end to see most clearly physically and spiritually.
What about us? What helps us to see most clearly the healing that God offers us? Perhaps first it has to do with recognizing the places where we too suffer from spiritual blindness, examining what we hold most closely and imagining that others may hold opposite views just as faithfully. In a parish I served, we decided one year to have a program called “Controversial Issues and How to Talk about Them” As one might expect, the series included such topics as sexuality, economics, abortion. There were those who were clear about what the moral or Christian response to each dilemma was to be. But the group agreed that the ground rule for the work would be “sacred listening”, acknowledging that each of us may have some blindness within ourselves. The ensuing conversations were not easy. But the transformation made possible by the commitment to listening created bonds of community which would not be broken across lines of disagreement.
A few years later, the youth director of that same parish had twins, born prematurely, and as it turned out one is completely blind and the other with significant visual impairment. I recently visited them back in that same small town where I grew up. The boys are now about 2, and though there are ongoing issues, they are healthy. As Luke and Jack romped and tumbled and climbed over each other, their mother and me, as they ran around the house shouting and laughing, I could not help but think of the text for today. When this young couple discovered they were pregnant, their joyful expectation of parenthood did not anticipate so great a challenge. Some of the ready made plans had to be forgotten. No doubt this Sunday, these parents will be listening to the text and wondering if Jesus might come by to spit on the ground and hold healing mud on the eyes of their two boys.
But it may be that the healing mud has already come. The eyes of the parents are open to the deep life of God’s spirit working within them and their boys. And they have become a gift to the community they serve. Would I want their eyes to be repaired? Of course. But the ability to see does not depend on it. Thanks be to God.