August 01, 2008

What Do You See?

by Jessie Shuman Larkins
“Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” -- John 9:40-41

When I was in seminary, one of the questions that we were instructed to ask ourselves in any ministerial context was: “Where and who are the invisible people?” This question was intended to help us to find those people in every community that are out of sight and out of mind to so many in the church and to ask the crucial questions about why they had been relegated to the margins and pushed “out of sight.” I was in a meeting recently when someone critiqued this language of invisibility. Invisibility, she argued, indicates that there is something inherent to the person or group of people that makes them unseen. The real issue is not that they are invisible, but that we are blind to them. These people and communities exist, materially and concretely, in plain sight—but those of us who inhabit our middle class, mostly Anglo, mainline society are able to live our lives comfortably pretending as if those on the margins do not exist.

I thought of this when I read the gospel lectionary text for this 4th Sunday in Lent. It is the story of Jesus healing the man born blind and then engaging in a wonderfully multi-layered conversation with the Jewish religious leaders about blindness and sight. Every character that Jesus encounters in this story—the blind man, the disciples, the parents, and the religious authorities—are challenged to explore what they see and don’t see. Blindness becomes more than physical blindness, but an inability to recognize the messianic identity of Jesus, the one who is able to give not only physical sight to the blind but a new way of seeing the world to those who formerly lived in sin. The tragedy of this story is that those who claim to represent God’s saving purposes in the world, the Pharisees and other religious leaders, refuse (or are unable) to see God’s liberating and healing purposes working in the world. Jesus, who rarely beats around the bush, names this blindness for what it is: it is sin and nothing less.

Nobody in the Church wants to identify themselves with these religious leaders, but perhaps as we journey through this season of self-examination and repentance, placing ourselves in their shoes is exactly what we most need to do. This text calls those of us “who claim to represent God’s saving purposes in the world” to look for our blind spots and for the places in the world where we sinfully choose not to look. To whom and to what in your community have you chosen to be blind? Certainly for those who trust in the reconciling and liberating purposes of Christ, moving from blindness to sight offers the possibility that “God’s works might be revealed” in you.

(Originally published Friday, February 29, 2008)

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