BLINDED BY THE LIGHT
Sudden exposure to the light is a painful but often necessary therapy.
Sometimes it’s possible to read your Bible over and over again and yet miss something staring you straight in the face. This story of the man born blind who is then healed by Jesus in John 9 is a fine example of this for me. The story starts with a question to Jesus: rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’
Stop for a moment and take that in. The disciples are asking if the man was born blind because he had sinned. This can only mean that they are asking if this man had been reincarnated. That he had sinned in a previous life and was paying the penalty for it now. Apparently the Greek community of Palestine at the time was familiar with Indian reincarnation, and so this must have been how the disciples picked up the question. A few years ago Glenn Hoddle was sacked as manager of the England football team because he raised just the same question about disabled people. Thankfully Jesus resisted the temptation to dismiss his disciples who had yet to experience and understand what the resurrection would mean for the human race. There is no endless cycle of suffering in this world, but the hope of a decisive break from it as Jesus starts a new humanity in his resurrection.
The disciples raise a more Jewish idea in the second part of their question. They ask if this man was born blind because his parents had sinned. It was believed that the sins of the fathers would be visited on the children to the third and fourth generation and so this man must be paying for his parents’ sins, if not his ancestors. That might disgust you, but it remains a powerful idea in some parts of the world. I have a friend with disabled children who was told by one church that it must have been her sin that meant her children were disabled. To learn to adjust to the disability of a child is a considerable undertaking, as you may know personally. You need the active support of the networks you live in. You need understanding. The last thing you need is a callous, complacent and ignorant judgment on your situation.
As it happens, scripture itself underwent something of a transformation on this idea that the sins of the fathers would be visited on the children. By the time of the prophet Jeremiah, Israel’s best spiritual minds were saying that the individual alone must account for their sins, and no-one else. This is how we look at things today. And yet the sins of the fathers are still visited on the children to the third and fourth generation. If you doubt me, think about climate change. It is our grandchildren and great grandchildren who will inherit the world we have polluted in the cause of personal wealth. We are relational people capable of blessing and cursing others by our behaviour.
The thing that most strikes me about this story of the healing of the man born blind is the lack of respect he is shown as a victim. The disciples see a blind man and immediately they turn his predicament into a theological debate – right in front of him. It’s typical of the way some able-bodied people still treat disabled people. They talk about them in front of them as if they weren’t there. Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? is a religious world’s equivalent of the does he take sugar? attitude we see around today.
Suffering poses such a problem for the human race. It all seems so random and fearful that we feel we have to find a way of making sense of it. Sadly some people deal with the randomness of suffering by trying to distinguish between themselves and others on the grounds of virtue: that the other person might have brought it on themselves in some way which they can protect themselves from. He never exercised, you know, they say, or she wouldn’t be told about walking home alone in the dark, they exclaim. As if by doing such things we can inoculate ourselves against life’s injustices.
Jesus settled the argument about who is to blame for the disability by saying that neither the man nor his parents are responsible, and so he dismisses belief in reincarnation. He heals the man, and yet the man continues to be the object of unsympathetic attention. The Pharisees interrogate him sharply, rather than sharing in his joy, because the healing happened on the Sabbath. When his parents are brought in, they turn their backs on their son because they are afraid of what might happen to them. When the man gives answers the Pharisees don’t like they round on him as bullies. It makes unpleasant reading and confirms the suspicion that victims in this world are prone to be picked on by others who have contempt for their weakness.
And yet through it all the narrator John makes some eloquent points about human life. Taking the theme of darkness and light he shows that things aren’t what they seem. The man knew he was blind all along, until Jesus gave him his sight, whereas the Pharisees claimed all along that they could see when in reality they were blind.
Every Christmas we are warmed and comforted by St. John’s idea of the light shining in the darkness and the darkness not overcoming it. In fact it is a rather painful analogy. Sudden light in a darkened room is disturbing, and makes us want to lash out, rather like the Pharisees. Sometimes people describe faith as being like a leap in the dark. In fact it is more of a leap into the light, which is harder still because it exposes our life for what it is. Yet only by doing this can God bring out the colour in our lives, helping us to see ourselves and our world in a new light – a light that will never fade.
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