I want you to close your eyes for a minute… and keep them closed. Please note that this does not apply to those of you who are driving! 🙂
It’s been noted that when we lose one of our senses, the others often become more acute. Sensory compensation, it’s called. With your eyes closed, I wonder if you become more aware of the smells around you: food smells… pet smells… people smells, the smell of houseplants and clean and dirty laundry, scented candles and old newspapers… and perhaps even the oddly comforting smells of cleaners and disinfectants. And if you listen very carefully, underneath the sounds of cars passing on the street, and the noises inherent in a working household… the kids, the animals and the appliances that make our lives so much more comfortable and efficient, you might just hear the sound of insects and birds, or the wind as it rustles through the branches of trees and shrubs and against the side of your house. You might notice the sound of creaking wood, or the rustle of your cushions and blankie as you change position on your couch or chair. When we’re not “taking in data” with our eyes, we might become more conscious of how it feels to sit… of the little aches and pains in our back and legs… some neck stiffness, perhaps… the way it feels when we breathe in and out… or the beating of our hearts. What other of our senses come to the forefront when we are not distracted by physical seeing, I wonder?
I want you to keep your eyes closed for just a couple more minutes as we change our venue just a bit. I want you to join me on a short pilgrimage to a different place and time… say, Jerusalem, in around 38 AD, nearly two thousand years ago. A man, who had been blind from birth, we’ll call him Elias, is sitting in the shade of the City wall beside one of the gates. His hand is outstretched for alms. He has no other means of support… he lives in the home of his parents, but they rely on the money he receives through begging to buy his food. It’s a meager existence. Folks have become accustomed to seeing Elias sitting outside this gate with his hand out, all day, every day for years. It’s what he does. He hears the incessant hustle and bustle of the people and carts as they go about their business: the thud of hooves, the creak and squeak of harness and wheels, and occasionally little snatches of conversation about personal matters, local politics and the like. None of it really concerns him. Elias lives in a different world… a world of sometimes-inexplicable noise and meaningless conversation accompanied by the persistent smell of sweat and dung. He leans back against the cool stone, eyes closed, swatting at the occasional fly as it tickles his skin, waiting for the feel of the next coin in his palm.
Suddenly, Elias senses a nearby presence and extends his hand a little further. One asks a question… and another answers… and the man realizes that the second speaker must be the itinerant Rabbi, Jesus (his name had been coming up in a lot of conversations recently), and that the topic was blindness, Elias’ blindness in particular… and sin. And, as usual, Elias’ first inclination was to simply tune out the exchange with its references to work and light… and day and night. What was any of that to him, after all? But then, he heard a rustle of fabric and the sound of someone stooping… and spitting… and spitting again… and then, gentle fingers were touching his face… spreading a gritty paste over his eyelids. Elias was surprised that he didn’t feel the need to pull away. A passing breeze brought a sense of coolness and relief to Elias’ defective eyes as the man called Jesus spoke directly to him, telling him what he must do. And he did. And his whole world changed from a place of darkness and despair to one of infinite light and possibility.
You can open your eyes now.
There’s so much food for thought in this Gospel passage. We could talk about the healing itself. We could talk about the relationship between sin and infirmity… but Jesus has already told us that the blind man’s condition was not punishment for his or anyone else’s sin. That kind of “de-links” physical illness and infirmity from God’s wrath, doesn’t it? Jesus said it, and I’m good with it… how about you? Or we could talk about what constitutes appropriate Sabbath behavior. But we’ve been over that ground a few times before, haven’t we? Earlier in John’s Gospel Jesus was taking a lot of heat for healing a lame man on the Sabbath—that was the “Stand up, take your mat and walk” story, remember?—and Jesus responded, “My Father is still working, and I also am working” (John 5:17). And on another day, after some Pharisees had been kvetching about Jesus’ disciples plucking grain to eat as they walked through a field one Sabbath, Jesus reminded them of a time in antiquity when the great King David and his friends had done something very similar and had been rewarded for it by God. Jesus schooled the Pharisees sternly, admonishing them that, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath; so the Son of man is lord even of the sabbath (Mark 2:27-28). Y’all remember, right?
So, there’s a lot we could talk about. But what I think we need to talk about today is our own propensity towards “spiritual blindness.” The sort of blindness that has less to do with our eyes than it does with our hearts. You see, the man in our Gospel story today, the one I called Elias, was not only physically blind, he was blind to all of the possibilities around him. He saw himself as broken and limited and unable to change his circumstances. And he had plenty of reason to be despondent: he was an invalid, after all… he would never be able to support himself… he would never have a wife and children. He would live lonely and alone all his days and die in like manner. And, in accordance with religious teachings of the time, either he or his parents somehow deserved this punishment. But Jesus reached out and touched him and healed him, relieved him of his burden of guilt and shame and gave him new life. Unexpectedly, Elias’ physical blindness became an entrée to a world of light and life lived in Jesus Messiah. And just as, when we closed our eyes a few minutes ago, and found ourselves drawn into closer dependence on our other physical senses: hearing, smell, touch… I wonder if when we close our inward, spiritual eyes, the “eyes of our heart,” we find ourselves captivated by temptations revealed by our inward senses: the corrupt scent of power and money… the brazen cacophony of temporal fame and celebrity… the yearning for feelings of security, and comfort… and pride of position. These are all idols that we worship at our peril.
Jesus said, “I came into this world… so that those who do not see may see….” What if we turned from our idolatry of things temporal and opened the eyes of our hearts to see and hear Jesus speaking to us and telling us how we can become more fully-human… the creatures that God intends us to be? What if we could bring ourselves to trust and give in to the healing grace he offers—the peace that passes understanding—rather than relying on the “stuff” of this world to see us through the tough times? Sensory compensation is a two-edged sword, isn’t it? Though the eyes of our hearts may be shut tight, we think we have a handle on what’s going on around us, and in our lives… until we find ourselves in over our heads, confronted by an eventuality we never expected. And then we’re stuck. Kind of like the Pharisees in today’s Gospel story. Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see… and those who do see may become blind.” “Surely, we are not blind, are we?” asked the Pharisees. And Jesus responded bluntly: “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” What did Jesus mean by that? How about this?
Jesus often spoke in metaphors, and used figures of speech to get his point across. You see it in his parables… you see it in the Sermon on the Mount. And Jesus used Elias’ blindness, and his subsequent healing, to illustrate the connection between physical and spiritual blindness. In Elias’ case, physical blindness was his natural state. But Jesus reached out and offered Elias’ a way out… a way of hope, and Elias’ embraced grace and salvation and was saved. The Pharisees, on the other hand, were in full possession of their physical eyesight… but the eyes of their hearts were squeezed tightly shut, forcing them to rely on other inward senses that were leading them astray. And they were good with that. And what’s more, they were good with teaching other folks that that was OK. Jesus gave them every chance to repent of their stubbornness and unbelief and embrace the truth of his teaching, to no avail. The Pharisees were being willfully blind, and Jesus let them be wrong. If their blindness had been imposed on them, like it had been on Elias’, if they hadn’t known any better, they’d have had some plausible deniability… an “out” if you will. But having the truth standing right there in front of them while they kept the eyes of their hearts tightly shut? It was all on them. As author and sometime philosopher Richard Bach once put it, “Argue for your limitations, and sure enough they’re yours.”
So, that’s my take. Jesus let the Pharisees be wrong… and he’ll let us be wrong too, if that’s the way we’re determined to play it. Jesus will never force grace and salvation on anyone. So, we have a choice to make. Will we be like the Pharisees and cling to our dogmas and blindness for dear life? Or will we take our cue from Elias and allow the eyes of our hearts to be opened by the one who can relieve us of our burdens of stubbornness and unbelief and give us new life?
Open the eyes of our hearts, Lord.