The Fourth Gospel 9:1-41
Stories Seldom Heard
210th Edition, January 2017
Welcome to Stories Seldom Heard and blessings for a peace-filled new year. I would especially like to welcome the members of St Ignatius Parish, Antioch, CA, and St Patrick’s Parish, Larkspur, CA.
“The very act of lighting a candle is a prayer.” This is one of Brother David Steindl-Rast’s reflections on the power of light. Brother David, a Benedictine monk, was born in Vienna, Austria. He is internationally known for his active participation in interfaith dialogue and his insights on the interaction between spirituality and science. The simple practice of lighting a candle with intention can help us focus on the Light of Hope instead of despair, the Light of Compassion that replaces isolation, the Light of Mercy that opens our eyes to the presence of grace in our lives. “The very act of lighting a candle” witnesses our commitment to resist the darkness of conflict, violence and poverty that covers so many places in our world. “The very act of lighting a candle” is a sign of our desire, like the man born blind, to see clearly.
The story of the man born blind is more than a story of his blindness. The story also reveals the blindness of Jesus’ disciples, the community, and the temple priests. The man’s blindness is a state of being not an ethical statement about his sinful behavior. Because of that, it is our story too, since blindness is a part of the human condition. The passage is quite long and has many ironical twists. The blind man never asks to be healed, but Jesus heals him. Before he receives his sight, his life is difficult, but he is rather inconspicuous. Once he becomes sighted, his life becomes complex. He finds himself and his family at the center of a harsh temple dispute. Those who claim to have sight are blind. The story is filled with questions and judgments. These are not just for us to observe, but also for us to answer and to resolve within ourselves.
The community’s blindness is curious. Some neighbors aren’t even sure if the cured man is the same man “who used to sit and beg.” He lives in their town, but socially he lives on the periphery of society. Is it because of his lack of social status that his neighbors do not recognize him? No doubt he is wearing the same clothing after his cure that he had always worn. Could they not recognize him because they only identify him by his disability? Is his only identity that of a sinner: someone quite different from themselves? Since he begs they must have given him some coins, but it makes us wonder if they ever took the time to really see him? It seems that their sight is not as clear as they think. Often, those who think they have sight deceive themselves. Perhaps here, we should stop and ask ourselves how well we see those who live on the periphery of our lives? Do we ever take time to notice them or speak to them? How good is our sight when it comes to seeing as Jesus sees the blind man that day?
The neighborhood people are not the only ones living in darkness. The disciples and the temple priests share a long tradition. Illness and misfortune were considered signs of God’s disfavor and punishment. We hear this attitude expressed when the disciples question Jesus. “Rabbi, who has sinned this man or his parents…?” We hear it again boldly stated in the harsh judgment of the temple priests. But that is not the only time we hear this attitude expressed. Sometimes, even today, when bad things happen to good people some people question: “Why is God punishing me? I go to church. I say my daily prayers. I serve at the soup kitchen in our parish. What have I done wrong?” Yet, we know that prayer and good works are not magic potions that protect us from personal or communal pain and darkness.
The blindness of the priests is particularly troubling. They are supposed to be the wise ones in their religious tradition. They are the ones who through prayer, fasting and desire for wholeness are the watch persons of the Promised One. What is behind their lack of insight? The newly sighted man’s dialogue with the priests and his questioning of them are bold. He invites the priests to engage Jesus in a conversation to find out who he is and from where he comes. Why do the priests not listen? Why do they not seek Jesus out to question him? Is it fear that holds them back? Do they fear losing their authority or the drastic changes belief in Jesus would cause in their lives? They have the power to forgive sins and to release people from their social and religious stigma. Are they, like the parents of the man, afraid they will be ostracized from their temple community and their families? Is the cost of sight, believing in Jesus, too great to pay? Even for us blindness has its advantages. Often seeking the truth in difficult situations, whether it concerns world events or making decisions in our own personal lives, can be painful. The truth might set us free to be more authentic, but are we willing to pay the cost?
The story of the man born blind is also about discipleship: listening and responding. As we listen to the story we begin to understand along with the blind man how important it is to listen carefully to Jesus and trust his words. Without knowing who Jesus is, the man allows this stranger to touch him and put mud on his eyes. When Jesus tells him to go to the pool of Siloam, he goes. Perhaps it is because he is in great need, but his docility is courageous. As he goes through the cleansing of the mud, the opening of his eyes, the harsh conversations with the community and priests, his integrity shines. He speaks only the truth he knows. Step by step small revelations lead him to the One who is the Truth. As we listen to his story, we hear the voice of a true disciple and we can question ourselves. Where or whom do we need to see more clearly?
In a way, this story is one of the saddest cures in the bible. The unnamed man receives his sight, but it is a bitter sweet experience. At a moment when everyone should be rejoicing, he finds himself alone and alienated from his former life. His whole life has changed. No longer can he support himself by begging for his daily bread. No longer will his parent take responsibility for him. No longer can he claim blindness as a reason for inaction. In the midst of this confusing and isolating situation he stands alone. “They drove him away (from the temple).” It is then that Jesus seeks him out and finds him. “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” His answer is clear, “’Lord, I believe’ … “and worshiped him.”
“Eyes see only light, ears hear only sound, but a listening heart perceives meaning.” (1)
As we ponder this story we might want to ask ourselves a few more questions. What is the experience of being born blind? What is it like to live in a world that most people will never experience? What is it like to be born into a situation that we believe can never change?
“The very act of lighting the candle is prayer.” As we light our candles during this winter season, we might want to pray for insight and a listening heart.
- Brother David Steindl-Rast
Special thanks to Mary Ellen Green and Maria Hetherton who have helped in editing this article.
“Stories Seldom Heard” is a monthly article written by Sister Patricia Bruno, O.P. Sister is a Dominican Sister of San Rafael, California. This service is offered to the Christian community to enrich one’s personal and spiritual life. The articles can be used for individual or group reflection. If you would like “Stories Seldom Heard” sent to a friend, please send a note to “email@example.com.” Thank you.