Scripture can be found here...
There are moments in the gospel of Mark that feel so raw and unfinished—you might even say, unedited—that they immediately pull you in. Everything happens fast. Jesus and his disciples come to a town, Bethsaida. The locals bring a man to him, and the only thing we know about this man is that he is blind, and they want Jesus to touch him. And Jesus does touch him. Jesus takes the man by the hand to lead him out of the village… why? Does he want privacy for the man? For himself, as he attempts to heal him?
And it is an attempt. First, Jesus puts saliva on the man’s eyes, and then he lays his hands on him. And he asks, hopefully, “Can you see anything?” And the man has this wonderful, almost giddy answer… “I see people, but they look like trees walking!” I think these words tell us that the blind man was sighted once, because he can interpret what he sees with two visual reference points—people, and trees.
So Jesus tries again. He lays hands on the man, again. The man then looks intently, and his sight is restored… he can see again!
Jesus tells him to go straight home, and not to the village. Jesus is guarding his identity closely in this gospel, and he doesn’t want the man to go blabbing to the community. That’s the thing with people you heal… they always blab.
And that’s it! A man who had lost his sight has had it restored—after one false start, perfect sight.
And that should be it: a miracle, a sign of God’s power working in and through Jesus, pure and simple. A man who had been walking in the darkness can once again walk in the light. No one has to lead him anywhere, ever again.
And that would be it, if the story weren’t located where it is in Mark’s gospel: immediately after two stories about people who can’t see who Jesus really is, and immediately before a story about Jesus’ disciples refusing to see what his mission is, that he is on the road to the cross.
The story about the blind man may well be a true story about a miraculous healing. But its location in the midst of people doubting and disagreeing with Jesus can’t help reminding us: blindness always functions symbolically in scripture. It is always used to contrast those who understand with those who don’t; those who are spiritually wise with those who are spiritually foolish; those who live in the metaphorical light with those who walk in the metaphorical darkness.
For people who are actually, physically blind, blindness is no metaphor. And those of us who have our sight often fail to understand how heavily we rely on it, until something threatens its smooth functioning.
Scientists estimate that 70% of our sense receptors are in our eyes. When our eyes are working, they can allow the other senses to sit back and relax… they can shoulder the burden of taking in most necessary information. But have you noticed that we close our eyes to think? We close our eyes to kiss. Some of you tell me that you close your eyes so that you can listen to my sermons without distraction, and I believe you. But seeing is not a particularly intimate sense. Seeing allows us to stay at a distance. Astronauts can see Paris from outer space, because it really is the City of Light. The other senses insist on greater intimacy. You can’t smell the freshly laundered shirt on your little boy from outer space. You can’t even smell it from the next room. You have to be close for that. The same goes for hearing. We can yell and make ourselves heard, especially in an environment with good acoustics, like a canyon or a sanctuary. But your beloved generally doesn’t want you screaming what you love about her; she’d rather you whispered, and to whisper, you must be close.
You have to be close to touch, too. This is a sense that insists on proximity… along with taste, the most intimate of the senses. Did you notice that Jesus heals in a very intimate way? With saliva, with touch. And that is what the friends of the blind man asked. They asked for touch.
To be blind in Jesus’ era was a catastrophe. It was to be relegated to outsider, outcast status. Even in this country, as recently as the last century, if a blind person couldn’t do certain kinds of work… caning chairs, for example, or playing an instrument… their best hope was thought to be institutionalization. In fact, blindness still carries with it the kind of stigma that makes seeing people uncomfortable, or afraid. If we have sight we tend to assume that it is a catastrophe for those who lose it. But blind people tell us otherwise. Those who have surgery to restore their sight often find that the world is has become uncomfortably large. They may prefer to close their eyes, especially when they are at home, so that they can return to their familiar ways of being.
This is almost impossible for us to comprehend, unless we have been blind ourselves, or perhaps are close to someone who is blind. In 1986 a German journalist name Andreas Heinecke was working for a broadcasting company. He was assigned to organize training for a colleague who had lost his vision in a car accident. At first Heinecke felt awkward. He pitied his colleague. But by working closely with this man, he learned “that his pity was misplaced. He discovered being blind is another [way of living] with lots of capabilities. To his surprise it was the blind colleague who showed him how to cope with fundamental changes in life, forcing him to question what makes a truly valuable life.” He became fascinated by the challenges and abilities of the blind, and he was astonished at the level of discrimination they endured.[i]
Heinecke came up with an idea. What if he could create an experience for seeing people that would give them a real sense of the challenges of going without sight? And what if this experience were to include a role reversal—those who see becoming blind, and the blind becoming their guides? A traveling exhibit called “Dialogue with the Dark” was born, and the project was guided by a quotation from the German theologian Marin Buber: “The only way to learn is through encounter.”
Here’s a description (from their website) of what those who participate in “Dialogue in the Dark” encounter:
As you travel through Dialogue in the Dark… an invisible landscape emerges, composed… of sounds, scents, wind and textures. In tours that can last up to 1.5 hours you explore a park, a city, embark on a boat ride and enjoy coffee & appetizers in a café.
The experience allows you to… discover:
- How to find orientation and move in the dark
- How to identify the world through the remaining senses
- How to interact and communicate by relying on other senses
- How to generate trust and cope with the unknown[ii]
The poet Wendell Berry wrote,
To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.[iii]
Jesus healed the blind man, and restored sight to his eyes. And in doing so, he used other senses… touch, and hearing… and he connected with the man in ways 20/20 vision can never accomplish on its own.
Once we make an effort to understand the experience of those without physical sight, we will learn, with Berry, that the darkness offers its own mysterious beauty for our consideration; it blooms and sings.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Wikipedia contributors. "Dialogue in the Dark." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 31 Dec. 2017. Web. 14 Mar. 2018.
[iii] Wendell Berry, “To Know the Dark.”