The disciples of Jesus in the gospel today start out with a pretty conventional idea about God. They see the beggar who has been blind since his birth, and they look for some moral logic in his situation. It could not be that such a thing happened to him for no reason. It must be because this man committed some terrible sin while he was still in utero, or his parents had.
There is an idea about God underlying this logic. There are rules, and if you break the rules, God is there to see to it that you pay. The mercy of God, in such a religion, is in making it known what the rules are. And our best hope as human beings is to follow the rules. Faith is faith in the rules as being the right ones, the God-given rules, and the faith that God, who is invisible and unknowable, will nevertheless hold up His end of the bargain. If we do what is expected of us, God will bless us with prosperity and long life and good health and so on.
This kind of religion offers a tidy explanation of the man’s blindness—it is divine punishment. The case, we might say, is open-and-shut. But Jesus breaks it wide open again—"Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him.” Instead of looking backward for the cause that made the man blind, he points forward to a new possibility. Blindness is not God’s punishment, but an opportunity for God’s real work of illumination. The medium through which God works is not the rules contained in codes of law—it is the person of Jesus, sent into the world by the invisible and unknowable God to make the light of love and freedom active and known.
I recently came across these words in an article by the noted art critic John Berger about the late Haitian-American painter Jean-Michel Basquiat:
“What distinguishes the blind…from those who have sight is that the blind accept that a large part of what exists is indescribable. Familiar, sustaining, hateful, or lovable, essential, but nevertheless indescribable because, to them, invisible.
As a painter, facing the world he faced, Basquiat was intensely aware, like a blind person, that a large part of the real is indescribable. For him the hoped-for purpose, the sacred task, of painting was to tune in to the invisible—rather in the same manner an anatomical diagram tunes into the invisible functioning of a living body. And why did he want to do this? Because the invisible cannot be lied about.”
I quote this because it reminds us that any religious system that tries to tell us with precision and predictability how God works is a lie. This explains why the Pharisees and religious leaders in the gospel story are so touchy about the fact that a man blind from birth now sees. It pokes a big hole in their supposedly airtight story. And so they do what the powerful always do when an event calls the official version of reality into question—they conduct an investigation. Only, as is usually the case, the purpose of the investigation is not to bring the truth to light. Rather it is to try to twist the inconvenient facts back into a shape somewhat resembling, if you don’t look too closely, the official story. And to do that, of course, they have to lean on the witnesses.
The other thing this quote about Basquiat shows us is why John the Evangelist uses the kind of language he does. It is because he is tuning into the invisible. “I am the light of the world” is a saying that tunes into the indescribable mystery of a living and personal reality, not a set of rules. Its power is not so much that it describes that reality as that it reveals it to us. If we accept it faithfully, taking it in in a way that leaves it free and open and full of wonder, it illuminates us. But the light that comes with it is the real light, not the word about the light, and that depends on the living person whose grace, as it were, breathes through the word.
The man in the gospel story knows only one thing: he was blind and now he can see. Sometimes I think our situation as Christians in today’s world is like that. The popular perception is that ours is a religion of rules, and that we believe in God the enforcer, who deals out rewards and punishments. And maybe that’s really the way some Christians think—it must be, or the stereotype wouldn’t be so widespread. But some of us are Christians because one day we just woke up.
It happened for me when I was eight years old, at a little bible-thumping church on the wrong side of the tracks of our town in Indiana. I’d gone as the guest of a school friend and I found the place odd and a little threatening. The preacher didn’t say anything especially stirring or profound that day—nothing that I remember, anyway, just a lot about Jesus, but at some point during the sermon I was suddenly overcome by the sense of being loved. I was aware of being the object of an infinitely wise and compassionate subject who knew everything about me and was not ashamed of me, but in fact intended my life to unfold in exactly that way that it had, for my own well-being and the fulfillment of my true purpose.
It was a moment out of time, but it was over in about a minute, and the first thought that occurred to me when I returned to myself was “what does Jesus have to do with this?” What came to me was that Jesus was the key I would have to learn to use to make this experience something more than a fleeting emotion. I saw that I had no idea how to use this key, and that it would take a long time to learn it, maybe the rest of my life. So when my friend who had brought me to church told me the next day at school that he’d seen the tears on my cheeks and knew I’d been “born again,” I really didn’t know what to say. The more he told me about the implications of being “saved” the less it felt like something I wanted to be.
And yet I also knew that even though I went right back to sleep I had seen a light. I now knew I was blind, and yet I also knew what it meant to see. And I knew the name of a person, “the man called Jesus,” who had something to do with opening my eyes, and could maybe do it again.
That was a long time ago, and yet I am still reluctant to say “Jesus is the light of the world.” Not because it isn’t true, but because of the way it’s true. It’s his line, something each of us has to hear from his own lips, as it were, and learn by way of a process of deepening love and trust how it’s true. I’m not ashamed to bear witness to that light—the hard part is finding a language to do it in that tunes in to the invisible. But there is a way of witnessing that begins where we all begin—in blindness. “ I was blind, but now I see.”
And what do I see? Well not the light itself, not in its essential splendor--not often, anyway. But, as the letter to the Ephesians says, ”everything that becomes visible is light.” God’s amazing grace grows in us the eyes of love, eyes to see ourselves, our neighbors, our enemies, all creation in the light of Christ. These eyes expose the works of darkness, but have no part in them—instead they look for the fruit of the light in all that is good and right and true. They are eyes that know how to weep. But they do not dwell on sin, its cause or its punishment, but look ahead, always ahead, beyond, to where the new dawn of resurrection slowly, softly, surely paints the horizon.