A man, blind from birth, begging by the side of the road… has a chance encounter with Jesus of Nazareth… and is healed and given eyesight for the very first time in his life. It is a cause for celebration… a moment of great joy. Yet today’s Gospel story reads like a classic Greek tragedy… because as the man, blind from birth, steps forward into light… all those around him fall desperately into darkness.
There are three groups who confront the man who is given sight. The first are his neighbors… those who saw him begging every day. Every day they watched him there, by the side of the road… begging. But on this day, they are approached by that same man, now with sight… and while some recognize him as the blind beggar, others do not. Who’s blind now?
The second group are the members of the church, the Pharisees. They were not happy that Jesus violated one of the sacred laws of their community…. healing on the Sabbath. As they confronted the man, blind from birth, they said that Jesus could not possibly be from God because he didn’t keep the Sabbath. And so, who’s blind now?
Finally, the man’s parents are called to the scene. They are asked to identify their son, which they did, but… they were afraid to say how he was healed because they were terrified of losing their status in the community. Since it was commonly held that being afflicted in this way was the result of some sin, they must have somehow successfully established that it was their son’s sin that caused his blindness, not their own. That’s probably how they earned their place in the community. But perhaps their place in the community was tenuous at best and perhaps they wanted to protect it at all costs… even if it meant basically throwing their own son under the bus. Fear can make you do all sorts of crazy things. And so, who’s blind now?
Each time the man is confronted, he is asked who healed him. The first time he describes the one who healed him as “that man they call Jesus.” The second time he describes him as “a prophet”. And finally, he describes him as “from God”. He understands Jesus to be “that man”… then “a prophet”… then “from God”. In the course of a just a couple of lines in today’s Gospel, the man gains his physical sight. But over the course of the entire rest of the story, he gains something much more important. Understanding. Wisdom. Truth. And ultimately… salvation.
It’s a transformation. At the beginning of the story, he is a beggar. At the end of the story, it is he who is teaching the Pharisees.
But… it’s also a tragedy. A tragedy for his neighbors… who don’t recognize who he is. For his church community… who refuse to acknowledge the true identity of the healer. And for his parents… who choose not to save their own son because of fear.
A man, blind from birth is saved. Everyone else in this story… also, in a way, blind from birth, gain no sight. Find no understanding. Obtain no wisdom. Discover no truth. Achieve no salvation.
They were all blind from birth. Just like… all of us are.
Are you and I like the neighbors, staring right into the miracle of Jesus healing power all around us… but don’t recognize it?
Or… are you and I like the Pharisees, so certain of something… so absolutely certain… that we don’t recognize that the opposite of what we believe in is actually the truth? Does our certainty make us blind?
Or… are you and I like the parents, terrified of something… like maybe losing our place in our communities, whether that community is our school, our jobs, our friends, our family, even our church… are we so afraid that we deny what we believe in so deeply? Does our fear make us blind?
Or does something else make us blind?
Did you see the “Boston Globe” this past Tuesday… the front-page article about the changing religious identity of the US? One line really caught my attention. It was: “Americans are not only changing jobs, changing locations, changing spouses, but they’re also changing religions on a regular basis,” said Luis E. Lugo, the director of the Pew Forum, which conducted the study. “We have nearly half the American public telling us they’re something different today than they were as a child, and that’s a staggering number.”
Mr. Lugo has a point. In our society… we, in his words, change jobs, change locations, change spouses… and now change religions on a ‘regular basis’. Why? What is it we looking for? What are we searching for? Maybe this is another form of blindness. Intense restlessness, dissatisfaction and a devaluing of what we already have. Is it a form of blindness to be constantly striving for something more, something new?
In this same newspaper… there are endless stories about the sub-prime lending crisis in our country. Forclosures galore. Loans defaulting everywhere. A financial system imploding because, simply put, we spend more money than we have… all because of this unyielding pursuit of… something more, something new.
And so it seems that blindness is all around us. You could say that there is blindness… everywhere you look. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes me blind. What makes you blind? In Lent, we are called to go inside, maybe way inside, and to think about all those things that make us blind. And then, we are called to look ahead at the only one who can open our eyes.
We began this season of Lent with a black stain swiped across our foreheads and we’ll end it at the Easter Vigil when a single candle emerges in through the back door of this darkened church. And we encounter Jesus of Nazareth, ourselves like a blind beggar on the side of the road. We seek his understanding. His wisdom. And his truth. And when we do so, our eyes are opened. The light shines brightly upon us. And we too… are healed!