Imagine the gift of being able to see for the first time. Imagine the experience of emerging from years and years of darkness into light, of being able to see things for the first time as they really are, not just as you had imagined them to be in your blindness. Imagine the gift of being able to look at people you have known and loved but never actually seen. You have carried a picture in your mind, perhaps, of what they might look like, but now you can actually observe them as they are, not just as you imagined them to be. Now you can look around and see for yourself what the world looks like, rather than relying solely on what others had told you it was like.
What a gift it was that Jesus was able to give to this blind man – and what a gift it is that he is able to give to us!
You recognize, of course, that the story speaks of the recovery of sight in two ways. First, there is the physical restoration of sight to a man who has been blind since birth. His eyes are opened by Jesus and he sees for the first time in his life. But even more important than the gift of physical sight offered to this man is the recovery of sight offered to everyone in the story, and to us as well. Jesus offers to lead them and us out of darkness into light; he promises to release us from our blindness and restore our sight. He offers us all the chance to see things as they really are, not just as we have imagined them to be, or as we have been told that they are.
In what ways are we blind? What prevents us from seeing our world and the people who inhabit it as they really are rather than as we have imagined them to be? Several things, I think.
First, we must recognize that all of us are blinded by prejudice. We have been taught to see things in a way that conforms to our particular world view. When we look at others, we see them in terms of categories and labels. We project upon them our prejudices and stereotypes. We see them through the filter that we have adopted to make sense of our world. In our blindness we rarely see them as they really are.
Imagine a young child who is cared for by an old, disfigured nursemaid. He crawls into her lap and feels at home because he is able to respond to her love apart from her physical characteristics. He is free from the labels that will later become part of his world. He does not notice whether she is black or white, whether she is beautiful or disfigured, whether she is young or old. He has no categories for these things. He responds to the love that she offers him, free from prejudice and judgment.
Where do these prejudices come from? Many of them are passed on to us by others, but they are kept in place by our own desires and fears. We become so attached to our particular world view, so bound by our way of seeing things that we often cannot recognize them apart from the categories and labels we have created for ourselves. We are blind – incapable of seeing things as they really are. We see them not as they are but as we are.
Why do the Pharisees have such difficulty accepting this miracle? Why are they unable to recognize the Messiah even when he is in their midst? It is their system of belief, held in place by their desires and their fears, that gets in their way. They cannot imagine that someone who possesses the power of God to heal would exercise that power on the sabbath! They cannot see the power of God at work in the action of Jesus because it violates their understanding of who God is, and of what is right and proper and good. They are blind to what has just taken place before them, and reject the one who has performed this miracle. “This man is not from God,” they conclude, “because he does not observe the Sabbath” (v.16). They do not see what is real; they see only what their minds allow them to see.
This story challenges our own willful resistance to seeing things as they truly are. It reveals a human capacity that refuses to acknowledge that our visit is distorted and clouded, that we have been wrong in our way of perceiving things, that our sight has been obscured by our beliefs, our prejudices, our tendency to categorize and judge others in ways that reinforce our preconceived notions of how things are or should be.
The Pharisees dare not admit they are blind because it would mean the collapse of an entire system based on privilege and exclusion. They are driven by their attachment to privilege and power and by their fear of losing it. So they see selectively, admitting only what reinforces their ‘take’ on things, and excluding any possibility or suggestion that contradicts it. Theirs is a stubbornness that refuses to see things as they really are; they see only what their limited sight allows them to see.
Jesus comes into the world bearing God’s light. He comes bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind; he comes to let the oppressed go free (cf. Lk.4:18). He opens our eyes to see as God sees, to see our world and the people who inhabit it as they really are, not as they have been covered over or distorted by our fear and projections, but in their truth. “With you is the well of life,” proclaims the psalmist, “and in your light we see light” (Ps.36:9). God is the light in which we see light. God is the sight by which we come to see.
The ability to see things as they really are rather than as we have projected them to be is a skill that is sorely needed in today’s world. We need to be freed from our blindness, the blindness that categorizes and labels others in ways that protect our self-interests and keep our fears at bay. How can we learn to see again?
What is needed is something more than tolerance. We can exercise tolerance towards others while still insisting that we are right and they are wrong. This sort of tolerance masks a spirit of condescension that fosters feelings of superiority on our part and leads to resentment on the part of those whom we refuse to see as they really are. It leads to division rather than unity. It further separates us from one another.
What is needed is something more than tolerance; what is needed is a clear way of seeing that acknowledges the mystery of the other and the mystery of truth. This way of seeing requires a deep humility, a willingness to look deeply into ourselves and to examine carefully our reactions to certain people and situations, an openness to the possibility that we are not seeing clearly, that we have been blinded by our own self-interests. It requires an uncompromising honesty with ourselves, the uncovering of our prejudices, a ruthless examination of our preconceived ideas. It requires great courage.
How often are we able to view people or situations apart from our own self interests? How often are we able to see them as they really are, without distorting them to conform to our preferences and priorities? It requires courageous self-examination to see with this light, to search deeply for our own biases towards a person or situation, to open our eyes to see them as they really are, rather than as we would like to believe they are. It takes a heart that is willing to divest itself of self-interest, a heart that has nothing to protect, a heart that is always ready to accept new evidence and to change its view.
In Christ all these things are possible. The light he offers has the power to release us from our blindness and enable us to see anew.
The well-known 20th century contemplative monk Thomas Merton left a wonderful description of how other people appeared to him when his own vision awoke. Standing on a street corner in Louisville his eyes were opened and he experienced a way of seeing he had never known:
Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths where neither sin nor desire can reach, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way there would be no reason for war, for hatred, for cruelty…we would fall down and worship each other.i
St. Paul is another who was freed from blindness and enabled to see others in ways he had never seen them before. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female,” he tells the Galatians, “for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal.3:28). Freed from his prejudices, liberated from his categories of inclusion and exclusion, illumined by the light of Christ, he now sees people in their beauty and in their oneness.
How open are we to receiving this gift of restored vision? How willing are we to begin to see as God sees? Will we open our eyes and our hearts and our minds to see the world and those who inhabit it as they really are, free from our biases and prejudices and categories, detached from our desires and our fears? Or will we, like the Pharisees, stubbornly resist any challenge to our views, saying ‘Surely, we are not blind, are we?’
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