Have you ever been in a situation where other people were talking about you, as if you weren’t standing right there in there in the room? Have you ever been in a situation where others were discussing your life or your experiences or your wellbeing or your identity, as if you weren’t standing right there, and as if you weren’t more than capable of offering your own thoughts?
A couple of examples of this come quickly to mind. You’re a patient in the hospital for some reason, and as you lay there in the hospital bed, the doctor is talking across the bed to your spouse or another family member. They are talking about you, or your treatment, or your prognosis. Of course that’s not supposed to happen in a society that apparently respects our autonomy and self-determination, but we also know that it happens all the time.
Or another example, two grown children are having a conversation about whether mom should move out of the house, into an apartment – or whether dad should perhaps be moving into a seniors’ residence. And mom or dad, who is standing right there, is saying: “Hello. I’m right here. Maybe you should talk to me. I have some ideas about this.”
There are all kinds of situations in our society in which we talk over people, or talk past people, or talk about people – ignoring the ones we are actually discussing. And there are all kinds of reasons (intentional or unintentional) that we do this – that we ignore the presence and opinions of those who have become the object of our discussions and our decision-making.
In a way, we have an example of this in our story for today from John’s gospel, chapter 9. Now when we read John’s gospel, we should realize it isn’t written as a straightforward telling of events in the way that Matthew, Mark, and Luke are written as a straightforward telling. John’s gospel is full of rich symbolism and imagery – the stories are crafted much more to make a theological point about who Jesus is and what it means to believe in him and follow him. And so we take the story of John chapter 9 just as it is offered to us – precisely as a carefully crafted story.
One of the interesting things about the story of the healing of the blind man, is that Jesus is actually absent for much of the story. Of course the part Jesus plays in the narrative is fundamental, but in fact Jesus appears only at the beginning of the story, and then at the end of the story. The bulk of the narrative is taken up with everything that happens to the man who is healed – and everything that happens around him.
And as I’ve suggested, what we discover about this man is that he often becomes the object of other people’s conversations – he often becomes the object of their questions or deliberations. We can even go so far as to say that in much of the story he is not taken seriously as someone with his own voice, with his own thoughts, with his own experiences, or with his own convictions. And it all starts with the disciples themselves.
We read in the narrative: “As he walked along, Jesus saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Right at the outset, for the disciples, this is not a man to meet with or talk with or enter into relationship with – rather, this man is a kind of theological and philosophical curiosity. He is one to be talked about, rather than talked with. He is one to be looked at, rather than encountered. “What do you think, Jesus? Was he born that way because of his parents? Or is he blind because of his own screw-ups in life?”
This tendency to overlook the man – to forget that he has own voice and opinions and experiences – continues a little later in the story, after he returns from the pool of Siloam. Jesus had instructed him to go there and wash, and when he comes back healed, we again see tendency to overlook the man himself. We read in the narrative: “His neighbours and those who had seem him before as a beggar, began to ask: ‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg? Some were saying, ‘It is he.’ Others were saying, ‘No’.”
With the disciples, it was a theological or philosophical curiosity about the man’s blindness. Now with his neighbours and others who know him, it’s curiosity about his sight and his identity. In both cases he isn’t someone to be engaged with. Rather, he’s someone to be talked about. “What do you think? Is that him? Kind of looks like him. I’m not sure.”
The man who has been healed hears them talking about him, and he keeps on saying to them: “Hello, it’s me. I’m the man”. At that point the people do stop to ask the man how his eyes were opened. But even with that question you get the feeling they’re less interested in the man and his experiences and more interested in him as a continuing curiosity.
One commentator points out that nowhere in this long story does anyone say: “Wow, you’ve been healed. Can we celebrate with you?” Nowhere in this long story does anyone say to the man: “What’s it like? Is it amazing?” Nowhere in this long story does anyone say: “What are you going to do now? So many different possibilities.”
After he is healed, the man is also called before the Pharisees to be interrogated. They ask him all kinds of questions about how this happened; about how he was healed; and about who Jesus is. But even as the Pharisees question the man, they aren’t convinced he’s worth their time – they don’t believe him. And so they call his parents in and with the man standing right there, they ask his parents: “Is this your son. Was he born blind? How then does he see, now? How has this happened?” The parents give their answer to the questions.
And there we have it – the parents and the religious leaders having a conversation about this man – about who he is and about what has happened to him – while he is left standing their silently. To the parents’ credit, they eventually say: “He’s of age – he’s an adult – talk to him.”
What do we do with this story? What do we do with the fact that this man so quickly and easily becomes an object of curiosity – an object to be examined and discussed and ignored by those who are around him… There are some theologians who take this story as an opportunity to think through questions related to disability. In fact there are disabled theologians who have used this story as a basis for reflection on their own faith and lives.
And perhaps a decisive point for many of us in this narrative is to recognize our own tendency to objectify, and exclude from conversation, and to disengage from those who have some disability. Perhaps a key point of this story is to help us recognize the many ways in which our own discomfort, our own fears, and our own insecurities, and our own judgments so quickly turn another person into an object to be held at a distance and objectified – certainly not someone to be encountered.
At the CIVA conference I attended last year in Chicago, one of the speakers was Riva Lehrer. She is an artist and activist and scholar. In her writing and in her artwork she explores notions of beauty and difference and disability in our culture. Riva Lehrer herself has spina bifida.
One of her painting projects has involved painting portraits of individuals who themselves have various disabilities and who are also engaged in the arts or in an academic context – and who in their own sphere are working to redefine disability for our culture and within our culture.
Here is one of portraits in the series. It is a painting of Rebecca Maskos who is a scholar and activist working to create a more vibrant disability culture in Germany. Rebecca Maskos, who has osteogenesis imperfecta, was a Fulbright scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago at the time of this portrait in 2001.
And alongside this portrait we can reflect on these words written by Riva Lehrer, the artist. Words that push us to consider how we meet and see and relate to others who are in some sense different from us…
The body is the first story; our text of first meeting. I see you, you see me, skin, bone, eyes, hair: assumptions pour forth like a rip in a dam. See the thousand imprints of sex, nation, money, clues to the familiar and exotic. We read and decide in eyeblink time. When bone and blood show an unfamiliar shape, the judgments freeze into a first, rigid wall between you and I.
So paint the story of surface and bone explicit, unavoidable,
and ask what did you fear then
and what do you think now.
Lehrer’s words represent a challenge to get beyond our initial, often problematic responses to those who are different – specifically, to those who have some disability – whether spina bifida or osteogenesis imperfecta or blindness. Only through engagement can we discover why we have reacted in the way we have reacted. Only through engagement, with ourselves and with the other, can we get beyond our silencing of this person we have perceived as different.
Toward the end of our story in John’s gospel, we hear the voice of the blind man – toward the end of the story it becomes obvious that this man has his own voice, his own point of view, his own strength. In the earlier parts of the narrative he has offered such brief statements: “I am he.” Or “He is a prophet.” Or, “I don’t know.”
But at the end of the story, when the Pharisees bring him back for second interrogation, he finds his voice. It’s not that he didn’t have a voice as a blind man. It’s not that he didn’t have his own strong identity as one who begged for alms. It’s just that no one was prepared to listen to an impoverished, blind man. It’s just that almost no one was prepared to give him space for conversation and encounter. But in his second interrogation by the Pharisees we hear the voice he always had.
The Pharisees accuse Jesus of being a sinner, and the man replies: “I don’t know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”
The Pharisees ask him again, how his eyes were opened, and the man replies: “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to be his disciples, also?”
Then the Pharisees reviled him. They hated him. They wanted him out of their sight. This time it not simply because he is a person of the land, a sinner – this time it’s not just because he’s a cursed blind man. Now they revile him because he is in some sense identified with Jesus, who they also believe to be a sinner of the first order. The formerly blind man replies to them: “Here is an astonishing thing! You don’t know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the beginning of the world has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”
He has always had a voice. He has always had thoughts and opinions. He never was one who could or should be dismissed and ignored. That much is now obvious.
But the Pharisees continue to object that this man is just another sinner. And they drive him out…
At the end of the story, the two sinners find each other. Jesus hears that this man has been cast out, and he goes in search of him. After Jesus finds him, we read the following: “Jesus asked him: ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ He answered, ‘And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.’ The man said, ‘Lord, I believe.’ And he worshipped him.”
Jesus lives his life on the margins of society – he does not live at the centre of power, whether civil or religious. He does not live among the wealthy or among the self-assured managers of human society. Yes, Jesus shares and embodies the renewal of God for humanity. But he shares and embodies that renewal among those who are sidelined by the culture – those who are ignored; those whose voices are silenced; those who make us uncomfortable; those we’d rather not waste our personal time with. As this story reveals, of course, these are women and men who very often have their own voice, their own strength, their own sense of self, their own ideas about life and goodness. We just often fail to pay attention, or worse.
To reverse things a little bit this morning, we can say not only that Jesus goes to the margins in order to encounter this man. We could also say that the blind man’s whole experience of life on the margins was the perfect preparation for life with Jesus. He and Jesus are both outcasts – they have both been sent away, marginalized, banished from the place of influence and esteem and significance. In that ancient culture, as so often in our own, there is very little patience for Jesus, or for those who put their faith in him.
And so here is the picture we are left with in the end – a picture of two people in conversation. There is Jesus, God with us in a form no one would recognize – ultimately put to death on a tree – a servant of love and compassion. And there with him is the healed man – orienting his voice and his heart and his strong self toward life on the way with Jesus. A picture of faith and hope and love.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
In this sermon I have followed interpretive paths laid out by Carl Gregg here; and also a paper by Kerry H. Wynn entitled “Johannine healings and the otherness of disability,” (Perspectives in Religious Studies, March 2007).