I Once Was Blind

What was it like to be able to see for a man born blind. He is of age, ask him! — a sermon for Lent 4a 2011

SJF • Lent 4a 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.+

Today’s Gospel tells the powerful story of how a man who had never seen came to see. He was not just a person who lost his sight at some point early in life, but one who had been born without that faculty. He was a man who went through infancy, childhood, adolescence and into adulthood never having seen anything at all. His condition was so unusual that he became something of a test case in his neighborhood, as people wondered at his affliction, and how and why it had befallen him.

You see, in those days people strongly associated all disability or illness with sin. If you fell ill, or a disaster befell you, then you must have done something to displease God, and you were being punished. It is an idea with considerable sticking power, no doubt fueled by those cases in which a person’s sinful actions do indeed result in some affliction or disaster. Even today it’s easy to think of God’s justice being worked out in this life — come on, admit it — you feel a certain sense of rightness and vindication when you watch a film or TV show and the villain, who thought he was cleverly escaping, falls down an elevator shaft instead.

We may well feel that this is God’s justice at work — but then we have to face the troubling reality of so many of the illnesses and accidents that happen in our own lives and the lives of those we love, things befalling people whom we know are good, or at least not so bad as to deserve what has befallen them.

For as the Book of Job and the teaching of Jesus show — as if we needed any further evidence than the daily news — the good and the innocent suffer illness and injury as well as the wicked and the guilty. Job’s wife seemed to think God was being unfair to have so afflicted her husband, and advised him to be bold enough to “Curse God and die!” (God help us if we follow that advice.) Job’s friends advised him to search his mind and realize he must have done wrong, and to ‘fess up and repent. But Job knew that was not true, as he had sought with all his might to live righteously — as God himself says at the beginning of the Book, “Have you ever seen anyone like my servant Job, upright and blameless.” And so Job suffers terribly, not because he deserves it, but so that the glory of God might be revealed.

None of us dare presume to such perfection and blamelessness as Job, God’s servant. Still we recognize the disproportion of suffering endured by people who are at least making the effort towards perfection.

We can, of course, chalk this all up to Original Sin — but while that may identify and name the condition — the human condition of mortality — it doesn’t really offer a very satisfying explanation. It gives the human condition a name, but it does not offer a treatment for the ailment. Being told that mortality is a result of original sin is a bit like telling the man with a cold sore that he is suffering from aphthous stomatitis. It diagnoses the ailment but does not treat it.

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So what does this Gospel offer us as a better way to treat this conflict between our hopes and our fears? I would like to suggest to you that it is the same answer given in the Book of Job — it is not the illness or the suffering that is the point of the incident, but the revelation of God’s glory: that bad things do from time to time happen to good people, and inevitably to all people, but that it is all, all under the grace of God who, as we heard a few weeks ago, takes notice of a sparrow’s fall and the wilting of the grass and the flowers.

In the case of this blind man, people wondered whose sin was at the base of his blindness: obviously it’s hard to pin the fault on the man himself since he was blind from birth and scarcely had a chance to sin. So some suggest his parents are being punished through him. But Jesus counters these anxious questions with his assertion that “this man was born blind so that the work of God might be revealed in him.” He is, after all, more like Job than any other figure in the Scripture, except Jesus himself: a man afflicted not because of anything he has done, but so that God’s glory might be revealed.

In the long run it is not his disability that defines him, but his spirit — and his healing. He is no longer “the man born blind” but the” the man who was formerly blind,” or “the blind man healed!” He is a witness, and more than that an eyewitness who testifies again and again — much to the annoyance of the prosecution — testifying to that simple and evident fact: I once was blind, and now I see. It is not his malady that defines him, but his healing; he is not defined by darkness, but by light; not by sickness, but by salvation: which means “healing.”

In all of this, Jesus shows himself forth as Savior, as Healer, as the one who is the bringer of light and life. And the blind man in this account tells us how we are to act towards our Lord and Healer — with heartfelt thanks. It is not our illnesses or maladies that should shape our lives, or even end our lives: rather it is the hope that is in us that should point us towards salvation, the healing of all that is wrong or broken or torn, through the power and the glory of God, revealed in Christ.

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I would like to end this sermon with a poem I wrote a few years ago. I was inspired to write it by a walk along Fifth Avenue, as I was heading to Mount Sinai hospital to visit our sister Ms Ira Butler. I thought of all of the infirmities that come our way in the course of life, and was reminded about this man who came into life already stricken with infirmity — and how when he finally came to see he might understand or express his new-found sight. And so I imagined him speaking to someone who asked him what it was like to gain his sight. And this is my imagined account of his testimony. As the Scripture says, “He is of age; ask him!”

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Because I was born blind I didn’t know
I was until they told me I was blind.

I used to sit beside my father in
the synagogue, pressed close against his side,
his arm around my shoulder. Once he let
me touch the velvet-covered Torah as
it passed, guiding my hand in his.

I never made bar mitzvah — couldn’t read,
and didn’t have the heart to memorize.

Still, how I loved the synagogue, especially
the prophets’ words. A few years back I heard
a man read from Isaiah and — I swear —
I thought the words would come true then and there:
“sight to the blind,” he said. Well, one can hope.

When I grew up, I earned my bread by sit-
ting on the corner, holding out my hand.
They knew me in the neighborhood. It wasn’t
a bad living; once a rich young ruler
even put a gold coin in my hand — a small one, but so heavy next to coppers.

From time to time discussions would take place
about my blindness and its possible cause.
All above my head — in every sense!

Then, of course, one day that man called Jesus
happened by. He said that he was light.
He put mud on my eyes and sent me to
the pool to wash it off. And then I saw.

What was it like to see at first? It looked
like trumpets sound on New Year’s Day, ram’s horn
and brass; it looked like gold feels in the hand —
I think I told you that I felt it once;
like smiles feel on my fingertips. It looked
like velvet felt that time my father, my
small hand in his, pressed it against the Torah,
and the jingling silver sounded round
my ears. A bit like that.

Funny, though,
that when I got back to the street, though I
could see, the neighbors didn’t recognize me.
Scholars grilled me, called my parents, wouldn’t
take my word. And finally they kicked
me out.

Do I miss the synagogue?
I miss the New Year’s trumpets; miss the Torah
scroll, its velvet cover and the silver
bells. I miss the prophets’ words. I miss
my parents.

But I do not miss the end-
less questions on my blindness; I
don’t miss the corner of the street or my
old “friends” and neighbors; I don’t miss the heat
and street-smells and the ache of outstretched arm
and empty hand.

Besides, I saw that man —
the one that said that he was light? He was,
you know. He was the one who gave me sight,
just like the prophet said. He is my Torah now, my New Year’s Day, my gold, my light,
my father and my God.+