The comedian Trevor Noah was born in South Africa under the rule of Apartheid. In his memoir, Born a Crime, he describes how, since his mother was black and he was “colored,” or mixed race, they could not safely walk down the street together. When his white father was along, it was even more complicated. In order to go to the park with her son, her mother devised a plan. She enlisted the help of a “colored” woman in their building, who would walk to the park with them. Trevor would walk next to this woman who looked like him, but was not his mother, while his real mother would walk behind, in the place of a servant. His father would walk on the other side of the street. And people accepted this. Because they saw what they expected to see, a colored woman with a colored child; a black servant; a white stranger; they were fine with it.
We see what we expect to see.
Two weeks ago, we met Nicodemus. An insider, a Pharisee, a religious authority, he came to Jesus at night, certain of who Jesus was. “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God.” But Nicodemus would not or could not understand what Jesus said, and he left as much in the dark as he came.
Last week, we met an outsider, with at least three strikes against her. The wrong race and religion, the wrong gender, shamed in marriage not once but five times, the Samaritan woman at the well met Jesus in full daylight, at noon. And somehow, this outsider, this completely wrong person became the first evangelist, preaching to the people of her town, and bringing new disciples to Jesus using his own words, “Come and see!”
This week, we meet insiders and outsiders, all struggling with blindness turned to sight, with darkness turned to light; all struggling to reconcile the way that they thought the world worked, they way that they thought God worked, with this man from Galilee, who seems to be turning it all on its head.
The disciples set the stage: “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” It would have been the common wisdom of the day. If someone is born blind, either God is visiting the iniquities of the parents upon the children to the third and fourth generation (as it says in Exodus). Or, following Ezekiel, who says, “a child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent,” they reason that the man himself must have sinned, perhaps even in the womb. And throughout the story, you can see this assumption lurking behind people’s words. The Pharisees even tell him, “you were born entirely in sins.” In any case, they know how God works; they know how the world works.
But you can see their dilemma – if this blindness is caused by sinning, then it could not be cured by sinning. Yet the man born blind claims that Jesus made mud on the Sabbath and used that to cure him. And making mud is work, which is forbidden on the Sabbath, so it’s sinful. How can Jesus do something sinful, and then use that sinful work to remove the sin that caused the blindness? It just doesn’t make sense!
The Pharisees aren’t being obstinate. They’re not being difficult. They just cannot understand how this could be, because it flies in the face of everything that they believe about sin, about judgment, about who is in and who is out. The fact that this man who was blind now can see has turned their world upside down. No wonder they keep hassling him to tell the story again. So much so that the man born blind even mocks them – “Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” Finally, in frustration, they drive the man out of the synagogue. They may not have answers, but they have their certainty. If this man’s sight calls their certainty into question – well, something’s gotta give. They would rather believe the evidence of their certainty than the evidence of their eyes. Who’s blind now?
We see what we want to see. We place labels before we know the truth. Thugs, hooligans, terrorists. We clutch our purse tighter. We cross to the other side of the street. We demand to know where someone is from. Only to find out that, though their skin is dark, though they do not fit our stereotype of “American,” their family has been here longer than ours. They are more “American,” whatever that means, than we.
We see what we want to see. We assume motivations and intentions, without asking. We take one person’s word over another’s, because it suits our assumptions. We break relationships rather than challenge our preconceived notions or what is real, who is in, who is out. We open our hearts, our tables, our doors to those who fit our idea of “Christian,” of “moral,” or “proper,” and risk missing out. Who’s blind now?
We have the same dilemma that the Pharisees had.
Either God works the way we want God to work – that is, the sinners are on the outside, like the blind man and the Samaritan woman at the well, and the saints are on the inside, like the Pharisees and Nicodemus – we understand how God works, and we maybe even have some control over how God works.
OR God is something wholly unexpected –blind men can see and sighted people grope about in the dark – God is doing the unexpected – reaching out to the outsiders and drawing them in.
In the gospel of John, this is what God is up to. In today’s story, Jesus shows up again at the end. After all the interrogations, after the name-calling and consternation, after the blind man is finally cast out of the synagogue for nothing more than stating the truth – “though I was blind, now I see” – Jesus comes and finds him. I picture him sitting in an alley, unsure what to do, having gained his sight but having lost his synagogue and his family and his friends. He’s leaning up against a wall, trying to understand everything that’s happened to him in the last couple days, and Jesus comes and finds him.
Because that’s what this story really tells us about. It’s not about whether we know how God works, or whether we are prepared to accept God’s miracles. It’s not about how we are insiders needing to reach out to outsiders, or we are outsiders who need acceptance by the insiders. It’s not about what we see.
It’s about God. God who comes to us – whether we are in the light or the dark; whether we are on the inside or the outside. Because really we’re both. We’re sinners and saints at the same time – constantly forgiven and constantly needing forgiveness.
Two weeks ago, we met Nicodemus – a sinner and a saint, who discovered just how much God loved the world. Last week, we met the Samaritan woman – a sinner and a saint, who encountered Jesus at a well, who was set free by Jesus’ love. This week, we meet a man born blind, who receives sight, and we meet Pharisees whose certainty becomes blindness – sinners and saints that Jesus finds, sinners and saints on whom Jesus shines his light.
Sinners and saints – that’s us – living constantly in the light and constantly in the dark. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.