Sight Unseen

Having the wrong theory can prevent you seeing what is right in front of you...

SJF • Lent 4a • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
For the Lord does not see as mortals see...

This Sunday the designers of the Lectionary — the scripture readings we hear week by week — have interrupted our exploration of Paul’s Letter to the Romans by inserting a reading from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians instead. But Paul’s theme continues: that God has come to us to us to find us, not because we are worthy, but because we are lost. Today’s readings all present this “lostness” as blindness, real or metaphorical.

For Samuel this takes the form of a quest: looking for something important, but not being able to find it, not recognizing it when it is right in front of him. Samuel is sent in search of a new king for Israel. The old king, Saul, has lost favor with God. Saul has disobeyed God, and God withdraws his favor, and the royalty drains out of Saul like a slow leak from a punctured tire, leaving him driving on the rim. Samuel grieves over this loss as much as poor deflated Saul.

Finally God tells Samuel, “Quit your moping, and get on down to Bethlehem, down to Jesse’s house — you know, Ruth’s grandson. I’ve taken a mind to make one of his boys king.” So Samuel heads down to Bethlehem with his oil-horn full, and he starts looking for majesty. And this is where his eyesight fails.

Have you ever seen a friend coming up the street, gone up to say hello and then discovered that it wasn’t who you thought it was? Or have you ever experienced the opposite, having what seems a total stranger come up to you with a cheery hello, and then suddenly you recognize them?

This is what happens to Samuel. Prophet though he is, his vision is not always clear. When he sees Jesse’s oldest son, the first son, big, strong son Eliab, he thinks, “Why, he’s just like Saul — a strong warrior — surely he must be our new king.” But God says, “Hold your horses. Yes he looks like a king, but there’s more to kingship than strength, as experience with Saul should have taught you! Learn to look at the inside.”

One after another the candidates pass by, and God surveys them with divine X-ray vision, like the quality control at the assembly line. The defective would-be kings pile up at the end of the conveyor belt at the end of the line, and Inspector Number One keeps shaking his head. Imagine how frustrating this must be for Samuel, and how embarrassing for poor Jesse — especially after the big buildup and swelling pride that one of his sons is going to be king!

Then just when Jesse seems to have run out of sons, he remembers David, the one nobody thought was even in the running, the one nobody thought even needed to be called to come. And I suspect that even when God says, “This is the one,” Samuel’s heart must sink for a moment, reflecting doubts a later prophet would have about himself, “He’s only a boy!”

But when that anointing oil touches that boy’s head, there is no mistake. The presence of God’s Spirit is manifest, and all of their eyes are opened. What was inside David, all along, sight unseen, the potential for love, obedience and courage, suddenly becomes visible on the outside; and the shepherd boy becomes the king.

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Having your eyes opened is a gift, but it is a gift not everyone receives. We see that most clearly in our Gospel account of the man born blind. This man doesn’t ask to be healed. He’s just minding his business, begging by the roadside. Unlike blind Bartimaeus of Jericho, who made such a fuss that Jesus had to stop, this unnamed blind man doesn’t yell out to be healed. You see, he’s been blind from birth, and no one blind from birth has ever been healed, so why waste the healer’s time. He’s just happy to sit and beg; he doesn’t expect anything; if he gets a coin he’ll be happy. This blind man regards himself as a hopeless case; he and everybody else knows it.

And no doubt the blind man has heard the debate about what caused his blindness many times. Rabbis have stood around him with their students, arguing about whose sin caused this blindness. And you’ll notice that the disciples want to pull Jesus into just such an argument, right at the beginning of our gospel. You can imagine the kinds of conversations the rabbi would have with his students, as the rabbi would ask: “Was the blindness of this man caused by the sin of this man or his parents — he is blind from birth? Surely he could not have sinned before he was born, could he? So it must be the parents!” Then one bright young student would say, “But does not the prophet Ezekiel say that ‘Only the one who sins shall suffer’?” “Ah,” says another, “but does not Moses say that ‘God visits punishment to the third and fourth generation’?” And all the while the poor blind man sits patiently, literally like a patient at Einstein, surrounded by doctors and med students discussing his incurable case as if he wasn’t even there.

I don’t want to put too much blame on physicians, as I value them too much, but the rabbis and the man’s neighbors are another story, with their own sort of blindness. They don’t see a human being; they don’t care enough even to ask his name; he’s just, you know, “The Man Born Blind.” Every city has people like him, the Man who Begs on the Corner of 183rd Street; the Woman who Sits Outside Penn Station — thousands of people pass them by every day; no one asks their names. They are landmarks, fixtures of the cityscape, so familiar as to be passed by sight unseen. After this blind man is healed, some of his neighbors don’t even recognize him any more. Without his defining blindness, they can’t see him as the same man any more.

And of course, he isn’t the same man any more. Not only is he no longer outwardly blind, but his inner vision is amazingly clear. He doesn’t offer speculation as fact. He isn’t clouded by preconceptions or prejudices. He is an ideal witness, which infuriates the lawyers, who desperately want to convict Jesus of Sabbath-breaking — that’s what they want. The healed man sticks to the facts as he clearly sees them: he was blind, now he sees. He will not be cornered into theorizing about Jesus being a sinner, as he himself had been theorized over from his childhood on.

The Pharisees in their own blindness can’t see a work of grace has been done, the unheard-of miracle that a man born blind now can see. They are completely caught up with theories about the Sabbath, theories that block the vision of grace at work, the grace that alone gives meaning to the Sabbath.

The irony is that this is exactly the opposite of what a theory should do. The word theory means “a way of seeing.” It is a way of seeing that makes sense of everything, that covers all of the evidence, that pulls things together so that finally you can understand what it is you are looking at. And the ultimate theory that God gives us, the ultimate way of seeing, is supposed to be about grace and forgiveness, not sin.

But just as all they see in the man born blind is a sinner, all those Pharisees see in Jesus is a Sabbath-breaker. Their theory is about sin, not about grace. They look at the world through sin-colored glasses. They expect to see sin everywhere, and so that’s all they see.

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All of us have suffered from some kind of spiritual vision impairments in our lives. One could argue that our blindness results from sinful unwillingness to see things from other people’s point of view. One could argue that we are all “blind from birth” due to the corrupting influence of original sin. But I don’t want to fall into the trap the Pharisees’ fell into with their theory a bout sin. I don’t want to spend my time debating why we are spiritually blind. Rather, I want to rejoice that whatever our past condition, though we were blind, yet now we see. Amazing grace has been poured out upon us and is being poured out still.

Our big brother calls us at the last minute from the sheep-fold, and a wild old man pours oil on our head, and suddenly we feel the power of God flow into us and through us; power to take responsibility, power to deliver others from the domination of injustice and tyranny, the royal power of God to be who and what we were always meant to be.

While we sit begging in the street, dull and oblivious to the pointless voices arguing about how bad we are, and why we are so bad, a man comes by — a man we don’t even know, a man we didn’t ask for, a man we cannot see. And he touches us, and says, Go, wash. And we go and wash, and our eyes are opened.

And after the religious authorities have driven us out of the synagogue because they can’t accept this miracle of grace, someone asks us, Do you believe in the Son of man? We hesitate; how can we know him? Who is he? Like Samuel, our thoughts run, What would such a man look like? We remember past disappointments, when we’ve put our trust in people who turned out not to be what they seemed, or what we hoped.

And the one who asks us knows this. He is patient. He smiles, and says, “You have seen him.” He pauses as our thoughts race in excitement. When? Where? Our eyes have only just been opened and yet we’ve already seen so much and so many! And then the man before us says to us, “I am he, the one who talks with you now.” And, as Saint Paul told the Ephesians, we who once were darkness are now light.

Sight unseen the Lord has been with us all this time, and we did not know it. But the blindness has been lifted from our eyes, and we see in this man before us — even as he is nailed to a cross and dies for us — we see all the power and the majesty of God — the power to love with the strongest love which isn’t afraid to be thought of as weak, the purest love which does not fear to be called names by the blind and ignorant, the greatest love that gave itself to the world for the sake of the world, that all might see, and believe, and be saved. To him be the royal glory, henceforth and for evermore.