One of my brothers sees in a way that I don’t. He walks into a room and immediately senses things in others and in me to which I’m oblivious. Sometimes he says: “Don’t you see?” and I reply: “No, you’ve got to tell me. I can’t see.” That’s hard to say, to realize we’re in the dark while another can clearly see. To realize a limitation, one we didn’t even know about, in light of another’s ability.
In today’s gospel story, Jesus walks along and sees a person who is blind. The man doesn’t ask for help. Jesus doesn’t ask what he wants. Jesus goes to him, makes mud, puts it on the man’s eyes and tells him to go wash. The man does and returns healed, able to see.In response, a flurry of questions by the neighbors and the religious leaders: How did this happen? Was he really blind before? Who is this man? They ask his parents: Is this your son? How can he now see? Who did this? Who is this Jesus? They struggle. They interrogate. Question upon question, rejecting answers, some refusing to answer, arguing and accusing, reprimanding and then rejecting. It’s as if this religious community is stumbling, groping in the dark to escape the stark truth: a man born blind now sees because Jesus touched him.
As the community struggles and stumbles, this individual grows to see even more. He is honest about his limits: “I don’t know where Jesus is. I don’t know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”
He also comes to know Jesus. First, he says “the man called Jesus” touched me. Then “he is a prophet.” A bit later “If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” Finally, again face to face “Lord, I believe.” First he receives literal sight, and second he receives spiritual insight, awakened to Jesus.
All of this is unexpected, unrequested and undeserved. Jesus saw the man and came to him. When Jesus heard that the religious leaders had driven this man out, Jesus looked until he found him. Jesus sees needy people and goes looking for rejected people, freely giving himself, shining his light. This is grace.
Jesus comes as Light of the World and Good Physician: I came to heal not those who think they are well but those who know they are sick. “I have come not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (1) The man knew he was blind.
In contrast the struggling, stumbling religious leaders say: “We know Jesus is a sinner. We know God spoke to Moses.” They are so self-confident, serious, and secure. So sure they can see, so sure they are right, so sure they are well, that they refuse the plain truth that they are sick, that they are blind.
That’s the difference. Accepting our limitations, admitting we need help. The man in this story is every person. We are all born blind. None of us can see until Jesus, the Light of the World, shines on us. By his light we live and grow. But the spiritual life is not about growing self-sufficiency or ability. Rather, it’s a constant cycle of death and resurrection, from a seedbed of need. There is freedom, as Martin Luther said, knowing we are both righteous and sinners. Sinners and saints all the time.
The world focuses on ability and climbing ladders. We’re taught to focus on gifts and cover weakness. Complacently comfortable, satisfyingly satiated, caught up in rules, barriers, splinters in others’ eyes, we’re excited about our abilities, supposed success and rightful responsibility. Instead of being stable, we struggle and stumble, denying that we can’t see, that we’re not well, and we need help.
In another story, Jesus corrects his followers from being so excited by all that they had accomplished. Then he prays, thanking God: “because you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” (2) Put another way: you have hidden things from those who think they know it all and revealed them to newcomers, to beginners. (3) Hidden from people who refuse to acknowledge their need and instead revealed to blind beggars, tax collectors and other strangers.
Here in the monastery, we say the beginning stage of becoming a brother, the novitiate, is actually life-long. We are all beginners, all returning to basics. Most basic is that we must keep dying to ourselves. Over and over, we return to our need. The power at work in us is God’s grace. As we Brothers say about our vow of poverty: “The knowledge and acceptance of our fragility preserves us from complacency and illusion, continually throwing us back on the mercy and compassion of God.” (4)
God loves us sinners and saints, both the really fresh and just healed and those long on the journey, including those given religious responsibility, who acknowledge we still need the basics. We still must die. “We will be continually taught, humbled, surprised, and stretched” (5) particularly by our poverty, weakness and imperfection. That’s where God breaks through to meet us powerfully. We are here by grace alone. The maturing keep this in mind.
Sometimes my brother says to me, “Don’t you see?” and we burst out laughing for we know and accept the truth together. That’s a wonderful gift. Being lovingly reminded, witnessed and companioned in our weakness. In the fact that we can’t see, and trusting it is in that very place where God’s grace will shine on us further. For knowing we are blind, by God we can see.
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