Part of me wishes that Jesus hadn’t opened the eyes of the man born blind. Because this “healing” feeds i to the assumption that having eyesight is better than not having eyesight. Many folks in the disability community would say that actually, the problem or the deficit is not with the person who is blind but with a society that is only designed to work for those who see. I don’t think that the literal opening of the man’s eyes is the point of this story. I believe Jesus’ real aim was to challenge and change the people around the man, those who rejected and oppressed him, who treated him like a non-person, simply because he had been born without eyesight.
In the first century, people believed that disabilities and illnesses were a sign of sin, that they came as a punishment from God. This theology makes an obvious and immediate appearance at the opening of today’s story: “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?’” Of course, this understanding developed, in part, because folks had no access to modern scientific explanations. But the other reason people believed this bad theology, this offensive lie, was that they yearned for a world that was fair, that made sense. In those days, people who were blind could not work or marry. They were forced to beg to survive. It would be terribly unjust to treat a whole group of people this way, unless they had done something to deserve it.
Jesus’ answer to his disciples’ introductory question reveals that he does not agree with the prevailing theology. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.” This surprising statement sets the tone for resistance and redefinition. “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” We could read this statement to mean that God made the man blind so that Jesus could restore his sight. But I don’t believe that God is control of things like that. Personally, I believe in chance, in science, and in human freedom. And I believe in a God who is creation’s partner not our puppeteer. “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” What I hear Jesus saying is that this man who happened to be born without eyesight was made in God’s image like everyone else. Jesus’ restoration of the man’s physical sight was not necessary for the man to be fully human, fully himself, fully loved and affirmed by God.
Quakers believe that in each person there is an inner light, and that light is the presence of God. In her book, Walking in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor recounts how her understanding of this inner light grew upon reading the memoir of Jacques Lusseyran, who lost his sight in an accident at the age of seven. Lusseyran made an amazing discovery after his accident. He writes:
I could not see the light of the world anymore. Yet the light was still there. . . . This was something entirely new, you understand, all the more so since it contradicted everything that those who have eyes believe. The source of light is not in the outer world. We believe that it is only because of a common delusion. The light dwells where life also dwells: within ourselves. (Against the Pollution of the I)
Barbara Brown Taylor recalls her reaction to reading these words:
At first I thought he was speaking metaphorically—or perhaps theologically—but as I continued to read, it became clear that he was also speaking literally of an experience of light that had nothing to do with his eyes. With practice, he learned to attend so carefully to the world around him that he confounded his friends by describing things he could not see. He could tell trees apart by the sounds of their shadows. He could tell how tall or wide a wall was by the pressure it exerted on his body.
The problem with seeing the regular way, Lusseyran wrote, is that sight naturally prefers outer appearances. It attends to the surface of things, which makes it an essentially superficial sense. We let our eyes skid over trees, furniture, traffic, faces, too often mistaking sight for perception—which is easy to do when our eyes work so well to help us orient ourselves in space. Speed is another problem. Our eyes glide so quickly over things that we do not properly attend to them. Fingers do not glide, Lusseyran points out. To feel a table is a much more intimate activity than seeing it.
If we could learn to be attentive every moment of our lives, Lusseyran said, we would discover the world anew. We would discover that the world is completely different from what we had believed it to be. Because blindness taught him that, he listened with disbelief as the most earnest people he knew spoke about the terrible “night” into which his blindness had pushed him. “The seeing do not believe in the blind,” he concluded, which may help explain why there are so many stories in the Bible about blind people begging to be healed. Whoever wrote those stories could see. . . . At the very least it makes me wonder how seeing has made me blind—by giving me cheap confidence that one quick glance at things can tell me what they are, by distracting me from learning how the light inside me works, by fooling me into thinking that I have a clear view of how things really are, of where the road leads, of who can see rightly and who cannot. I am not asking to become blind, but I have become a believer. There is a light that shines in the darkness, which is only visible there.
Our inner light allows us to see the world as it really is—alive with divine presence—even though our ordinary sense of sight often fails to perceive this. Jesus and the man born blind, through their encounter with each other, become partners in communicating that essential truth to the people around them, and to us. Remember, Jesus put spit and mud on the man’s eyes, and then told him “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.” Well, I’d want to wash that mess off too. Yuck. There’s a parenthetical note though, that’s easy to miss. “Go wash in the pool of Siloam (which means sent). Clearly the Gospel writer included that detail because it is important! I believe this is John’s way of signaling that the man’s agency is a central theme in this story. Again and again, in this narrative, the man is questioned, disbelieved, second-guessed, discounted, and ridiculed. And yet, contrary to the view of everyone around him, Jesus declares that he is “sent.” His life has purpose. He is a co-collaborator in revealing the works of God.
It’s also extremely significant that this encounter between Jesus and the man takes place on the Sabbath. The religious leaders often criticized Jesus for violating Sabbath rules. On the surface of things, their objection was that healing is work and work is not allowed on the Sabbath. However, it seems their real issue with Jesus was that he allied himself with the man born blind—honoring the divine light in him, calling him into agency. Jesus directly defied their authority by contradicting their dismissal of the man as a “sinner.” So they branded Jesus a “sinner” too. The final scene of the story portrays Jesus and the man standing together in solidarity outside the place of worship, having been ejected by the authorities. Of course we know, and deep down I think the religious leaders knew, that the reason for the rules, for saying “yes” or “no” to particular activities on the Sabbath, is never to reinforce exclusion and oppression. The purpose of Sabbath is liberation.
Jesus and the man born blind offer us a world renewed by the inner light of divine wisdom. In this story, disability and sickness are not signs of sin. Nor is ability or health an indication of righteousness. Instead, sin is surface level seeing. Sin is the failure to have insight, to perceive what is really true. Sin is a system that marginalizes and oppresses the creation God loves, including parts of our ourselves. And punishment is just not God’s way. God is a healer. Our healer offers illumination. Our healer kindles the inner light that guides us. Our healer binds us together in communities of support, communities of sabbath that encourage the agency, dignity, and liberation of all people. Amen.