March 26, 2017
Isaac S. Villegas
“Surely we are not blind, are we?” (John 9:40). That’s what the Pharisees, the city leaders, ask at the end of the story, after they’ve spent a long chapter questioning a young man whose sight has been healed—the leaders questioning everyone who has anything to do with him, blaming the man’s parents, condemning Jesus, accusing the young man now healed, the religious leaders charging all of them with sin, pronouncing them guilty. “You were born entirely in sins,” the leaders tell the healed man—and they banish him, it says (9:34). They drive him out of town because he has somehow become a threat to their authority, their power, their control over society, their control over people, over who belongs where, over whose bodies can do what. The young man, restored to health, is a problem for the city leaders. What has happened to him isn’t supposed to happen. His life, his body, challenges their grasp of the world—their sense for how people are supposed to function and how society is supposed to be organized; their beliefs about what a body is allowed to be, and what God can and cannot do.
This has always been our world. This story is our story. It’s the drama acted out all around us, in our workplaces and households, in public places and intimate relationships, in laws, in morals, in politics, in theologies. We are always being confronted by new revelations, exposing what our rules blind us from, people we’ve ignored, realities we haven’t seen. We are always being surprised by God—the way God interrupts our attempts at organizing our world, the shock of experiences that break open our categories, the way we classify people, putting someone here and not there, in this group and not that.
The gospel has a way of exposing our desires for being masters of our lives, masters of the world. I think this is at the heart of what sin is all about—this inkling inside all of us for mastery, of ourselves and others, so that we never have to experience ourselves as vulnerable, as needy, as at the mercy of another. Sin as what we need to do to ourselves and the world so that we control the risk of being affected by another—ultimately, that other being God, the one who blindsides us with inexplicable realities, with truth beyond our comprehension.
Sin as the refusal of God’s mysteries, the refusal to let others experience what God is doing. That’s what the religious leaders do in the story. They not only refuse to acknowledge the healed man, they force the healed man to leave the city so that people can’t see what Jesus has done. They enforce a kind of social blindness, an unseeing. They silence his body language—what his walking and talking and existing now communicates to everyone around him. They censor the message his life proclaims, the good news revealed in him, through him, the gospel displayed in his healed body.
The city leaders set themselves up as masters of the world, regulating the interaction between people, between this young man and his neighbors. They can’t let him remain in the city, because his body bears witness to a reality that they can’t manage, a truth that doesn’t fit in the order that they are trying to maintain. They have to get rid of him, and they do, casting him outside, beyond social interactions. They refuse to let him affect their lives and the lives of the people around them.
If you are a woman, if your life doesn’t fit within the gender categories of religious leaders, this story has everything to do with you—the way Christians in the past and some in the present have refused to let you stand in a pulpit and offer your gifts to a congregation, the way religious leaders have censored your life. Their sin has been to name your gifts as a sin, to blind us from who you are, to position you as a threat, as dangerous.[i]
What we do here, as a church, through our worship, is to let God heal our eyes, to restore our vision, so that we can begin to see each other as gifts, to receive one another as revelations from God, as bearers of good news, as mysteries of God’s life in our flesh—and not only to see ourselves, but to see the world anew, to receive our neighbors as ambassadors of God, as messengers, as our means of grace.
After the leaders kick the healed man out of town, Jesus searches for him. And when Jesus finds him, we discover that several of the city leaders are there, following Jesus, maybe because they are curious, intrigued, fascinated, or maybe they’re keeping tabs on the two outlaws, Jesus and the young man, the leaders there to monitor them, to keep an eye on the situation. And they overhear Jesus speaking to the healed young man, Jesus telling him the purpose of his ministry, the purpose of the gospel. “I came into this world for judgment,” Jesus says, “so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind” (9:39). And the religious leaders speak up, saying to Jesus: “Surely we are not blind, are we?” (9:40).
The meaning of this verse hinges on the tone of voice—the posture of the leaders, their body language, their gestures, the tilt of their heads. They could be acting like a bunch of smart-alecks, their words full of sarcasm, because they think they know everything about anything. “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Or their question could hint at the seeds of self-reflection growing in their lives, seeds of humility, the beginning of their desire to learn about this new world Jesus is offering. “Surely we are not blind, are we?”
The ambiguity of the verse requires for us to sound it out, like I just did, but for you to sound it out with your life, to find your voice in their words, to get to know your tone as you ask that question of yourself: “I am not blind, am I?”—to ask that question, again and again, and to notice your tone, to notice your posture, your disposition to the world, to the people around you, to the face of the one before you. Have you been blind to them, blind to the mysteries of who they are, the way that they exceed your categories, the way that your mastery of the world, of yourself and others, would fall apart if you let yourself glimpse the wonder of who they are.
Surely I am not blind to you, am I?
Am I blind to you? Are you blind to me? What of our lives do we let each other see? What blinds us from one another?[ii]
And here is where this story reaches inside each of us, into the hidden places, because the truth of the matter is that we are constantly troubled by being human, by the fact that we are so easily wounded by each other, troubled by how quickly we discover that we depend on one another for joy, for hope, for love. We’d rather be like how we imagine God is, our illusions about God’s nature—as if God were a self-assured master, a lord, beyond vulnerability, beyond wounds. We’d rather be masters, deluded in our sense of freedom from others, because being a human is so risky, so risky because we can’t help but be affected by another. We are permeable creatures, passing through each other, spirits and souls mingled, living by the mercy we receive from another, all of us longing to be known and loved—and so worried that if we are known, if we are truly known, our selves laid bare, then we will be rejected, banished from the relationships that we need to survive, driven away like the healed man in the story. We fear the words of condemnation that he heard, the demeaning rebuke: “You were born entirely in sin, and you are trying to teach us?” The cruel sarcasm, words that hurt (9:34).[iii]
We have learned, over the years, how to protect ourselves from people who don’t deserve to know us, the kinds of people who refuse to let us be who God created us to be. We are always struggling to free ourselves from their gaze, from their judgment, from all the ways that their words still, once in a while, echo in our heads, whispering condemnations.
And yet, what we have committed ourselves to here, as a church, as a people, as a body, is the gospel, a truth—the truth about God and ourselves, that our lives speak the wonders of God, mysteries of God’s love revealed in us, in what we do and say, in our care for one another, in our struggle for Christ’s peace in this world.
Here, we stand before one another, like the blind man in the story, awaiting a word of mercy, of healing.
Here we are sent to the pools of Siloam, where we wash each other with grace.
[i] I’m indebted to Lisa Guenther’s Levinasian insight: “The body ‘is not posited; it is a position’” (Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives [University of Minnesota Press, 2013], 209). The seed of oppression begins when someone appropriates the role of “positing” the meaning of a body/life/person rather than recognizing that a body/life/person is always already a “position” in our world, regardless of the willingness of the powerful to posit subjectivity to that body/life/person. In other words, the Levinasian point is that the meaning of a person is beyond adjudication.
[ii] Guenther: “For Levinas, we question ourselves, and ultimately we question being, because we have been put in question by an other, because we have been called to justify ourselves to one whose vulnerability is exposed to the potential violence of our arbitrary freedom” (Solitary Confinement, 234).
[iii] This paragraph is a mashup of insights from Lisa Guenther and Judith Butler. Guenther, Solitary Confinement: “we need everyday corporeal relations with others in order to be ourselves, not just because we define our particular social and psychological identities in relation to one another but also because we have a constitutive desire for the bodily presence of others” (213); “I can only bear the weight of my own existence thanks to an opening or escape that the bodily presence of others opens up for me by drawing the instant of my solitude into relations with a future that is not my own, but a time of Being-for-others, or infinite responsibility. We find the meaning of our lives, but also the strength to bear the weight of our own ontological solitude, in affective, intercorporeal and ethical relations with others. That is how the light gets in” (214). Butler: “It just seems to me that there are ways in which we have to accept something like our own permeability to other people. We are affected by others.” (The Believer, May 2003: http://www.believermag.com/issues/200305/?read=interview_butler).