4 Lent – March 19, 2023
I’ve asked Betty to hand out a picture for you to look at.
What do you see — one vase or two faces? That is the optical illusion made famous by the Danish psychologist Edgar Rubin (1886–1951), who specialized in “figure-ground perception.” When shown a simple picture of his Rubin Vase, as it’s known, some people see a black vase on a white background. Other people see two white faces on a black background.
What you see doesn’t depend on the image. You can choose to see the “other” image by reversing the object in the foreground and its background. How the brain processes vision is dynamic and malleable. The Rubin Vase is interesting because it demonstrates how different people looking at the same object can see different things.
In our readings today from 1 Samuel and John’s gospel, people look at the same thing, but they see it differently. So, the lectionary is challenging us to see the world like God does, rather than from a normal human perspective. To see things like God does is an essential part of being God’s people in the world. You might say that we want to be careful not to confuse the vase and the face.
In our reading from Samuel, Samuel anointed David as Israel’s new king only after looking at his seven brawny brothers and hearing God dismiss every one of them. That’s because “the Lord does not look at the things that mortals look at. They look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” David was the youngest and most unlikely political prospect, but God chose him as the new king of Israel, and so “from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David.”
Our gospel story recounts the healing of a man born blind. But the miracle is only a small part of the story. Most of our story revolves around the disputes that the miracle provoked and how different people drew different conclusions even though they saw the same thing.
They refused to believe eye-witness accounts of the miracle. They were more concerned with maintaining ritual righteousness about Sabbath-keeping than loving another human being and rejoicing in his wholeness. They scapegoated the victim and “hurled insults” at him. They condescendingly claimed a spiritual elitism that intentionally humiliated the man born blind. They demonized him as a “sinner.” As they threw him out of the synagogue, their rage exploded, “How dare you lecture us!” And with that, their own tragic blindness was confirmed, and we learn that it was their spiritual blindness, and not the physical blindness of the beggar, that forms the central plot of the story.
There is a poem by Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, entitled “The Place Where We are Right” . It closely captures the heart of the Gospel’s message. It goes like this:
From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.
But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.
“From the place where we are right,” the poet says, “flowers will never grow in the spring.” In other words, one of the most barren and desolate places we can occupy is a place of smugness; of rightness; of certainty. The more convinced we are that we have full insight, comprehension and knowledge, the less we will see and experience God.
Again this week, Jesus sees, really sees this man born blind. A man whom no one else really pays attention to. They don’t see him as a fellow human being. It’s a failure of humanity. It’s a failure of our connection with one another.
Which is why, when the man’s sight is restored by Jesus, his own townspeople — the people he has lived and worshipped with for years — don’t recognize him. They don’t know how to see him without his disability. To do so would be to recognize a common humanity, a bond, a kinship. And that would be intolerable.
The community responds with contempt. It seems that the need to preserve its own sense of righteousness is more important than celebrating a fellow human being’s restoration to life. “The place where you are right,” the poem says, is “hard and trampled like a yard.” In other words, hard and cynical. Hard and suspicious. Hard and stingy.
As my friend Debi shares: This suggests to me that vulnerability, softness, curiosity, and openness are essential to real seeing. The Gospels tell us that Jesus’s true identity eludes just about everyone until after his Resurrection. Even his disciples struggle to understand who and what their Teacher is. Most of the people who encounter Jesus are too busy seeing what they want to see — a magician, a heretic, a political and military leader, a carpenter’s son, a wise man, a phony, a clerical threat — to notice what the blind man, free of all such filters, discerns by the end of the story. The blind man alone sees Jesus as the Son of Man and calls him, “Lord.”
We might say, then, that this is one of the rare and beautiful moments in the Gospels when Jesus himself is truly seen. Last week the woman at the well saw Jesus clearly. The blind man sees Jesus as wholly and purely as Jesus sees him; the gaze and the recognition in this story are mutual. Because the healed man has no preconceptions, because the spiritual ground he stands on is soft and supple, he is able to see God as God is. “Doubts and loves dig up the world, like a mole, like a plow.” They allow the whispers of God’s Spirit to bring forth new life.
Let’s acknowledge that it is difficult to see the world and ourselves like God does. Old habits die hard. Our field of vision is distorted by past choices. Healthy people befriend their blindness and make their peace with it. Spiritually-sighted people recognize that acknowledging their blindness is an act of liberation. It’s not a confession of bondage. It brings freedom. The journey toward the light begins when we acknowledge our darkness. And that’s partly what we do at Lent, we make peace with our imperfections.
Jesus enlightens our darkness. He heals our blindness. During this Lenten season, may we, too, confess our blindness and receive sight. May we also praise the one who kneels in the dirt and gets his hands dirty in order to heal us. May we also soften and prepare the ground we stand on, so that when new life appears in whatever surprising ways God chooses, we will embrace, cherish, celebrate, and share the good news, too.
Lord, in your mercy, open our eyes! Amen.