Out from the shadows
Text: John 9 (selected verses)
As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. The neighbors and those who had seen 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, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am he.” But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”
They brought to the religious leaders the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a Sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the religious leaders began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see. Some of them said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the Sabbath.” Others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided.
So, they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered, “We know that this is our son and that he was born blind, but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the religious leaders for they had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus[c]to be God’s Promised Child would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”
So for the second time the religious leaders called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.
Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him he said, “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.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment, so that those who do not see may see and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the religious leaders who were with him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.
The painter walks into the room with brushes in hand. Before him stands a huge blank canvas awaiting its first strokes of color. Soon paint has covered the canvas, but there is no hint of color, no soft pastels, only the subdued shadows of black and grey.
It is not long before a beggar in the marketplace is added to the canvas. He is depicted mostly in shadows that obscure his face. And yet he looks as natural there as the long row of fruit and vegetables being sold at the table beside him in this busy public market.
The artist’s brush next adds several figures in the upper right side of the painting, with each figure fully obscured by shadows. At a closer look, it is clear that these figures are those who have been following Jesus. They are standing above the beggar who looks as though he may be blind. The look on the disciples’ faces, though, leaves no need for interpretation. Theirs is the look of self-righteous judgment, the look of those who know that the beggar is blind and that someone has to be at fault. Their look comes with a built-in question: “Who is to blame for his blindness, the beggar or his parents?”
This harsh question is not an uncommon one, then or now. It comes from those who have no patience with mystery. Everything has to have a clear-cut reason, a discernable cause. It comes from those who believe that people with problems are most often the reason for their problems. It is the familiar look of those who love to blame the victim. There is no confusion or ambiguity in disciples’ eyes and even less compassion in their question.
No wonder the artist casts all the faces of the disciples in shadows. On this canvas there are none of the later artistic images with the disciples depicted as saints, adorned in bright colors with a heavenly aura surrounding them. No, not in this painting. This painter catches our eye and invites us to gaze again at the beggar and the disciples and to ask ourselves, “Who is truly blind on this canvas?”
The next figure added to the painting is Jesus. He is shown bending over the blind beggar and putting a cake of mud in his eyes. As the beggar stoops to rinse off the mud, we see the first hints of color around his face. The painter wants us to know that this blind beggar is no longer blind.
At this point, we anticipate the painter will add splashes of the bright color to the canvas. After all, a man who was blind can now see. We look for the warm colors of a Norman Rockwell family reunion as his parents rush to embrace their newly sighted son. We look for joyful colors to erase the shadows that have obscured the faces of those surrounding the once blind beggar, a man who now sees his family and friends for the first time. That is what we look for, what we anticipate, what we expect.
Yet, this painter has a different story to tell. The hints of color surrounding the now sighted beggar are soon shaded by the subdued colors of disbelief and cynicism. Faces on a canvas cannot speak but these faces do not need to do so. These are not the faces of those who are celebrating the miraculous, rejoicing in the goodness of God and the compassion of Jesus.
There is no joy to be seen on this canvas, no gratitude, no words of thanksgiving. There is only quarreling and other questions to be asked: “Who did this?” “How did he do it?” “Surely we have been tricked. The blind man must have had an identical twin who could see.” At this point in what should be a colorful scene of celebration, the canvas grows darker as the figures in the painting do not know what to do with a blind man who is no longer blind.
The clergy appear next on the canvas. Like the disciples earlier, the clergy surround this beggar with fingers wagging. “What has this Jesus done?” They have authorized no healing here. The look on their faces is what the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard would call that of “super-imposed ignorance.” They would not see the miraculous love of Jesus at work if it did an Irish jig before their eyes.
Surely the painter will go wild with color when the beggar’s parents arrive. They will dance onto the canvas carrying balloons and champagne and shouting for anyone and everyone to hear. “Our son who has been blind since birth can now see. Thanks be to God! Hallelujah! Amen!”
That is what we might expect but that is not what we see. Instead, these parents are covered in a shroud of fear and refuse to emerge from the shadows. You can look at their body language and know exactly what they are saying: “Don’t involve us.” “He’s old enough to speak for himself.” “He was always a troubled child. We can no longer take responsibility for him.” Looking at them does not make you want to celebrate. It makes you want to weep.
Now, though many want to know “how,” the once blind beggar cannot answer that question. All he can do is to state the simple and obvious truth, “All I know is that I was blind and now I see.” Despite these amazing words, the newly sighted beggar stands alone, cast in the disturbing hues of loneliness. There is no one with whom to share the simple joy of newfound sight, only obscured faces turned aside in the shadows.
This painting is over 2,000 years old and yet the faces in the shadows still surround us, and sadly, occasionally are us. They are found in the great canvas of life, faces unable or unwilling to rejoice, faces distorted by fear and anger. The alcoholic stops drinking, starts attending A.A. regularly and the faces surrounding do not shout, “Amen Alleluia,” but they ask themselves, “How long it will last this time?” A friend announces that the cancer is in remission and the faces surrounding do not sing, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow,” but instead they think to themselves, “It’s only a matter of time before it’ll be back.” There is no color of joy and excitement and celebration in these faces. None at all.
Even when the painter introduces Jesus, he does not cast the entire face of Jesus in a streak of bright color. Yes, we see part of Jesus is clear, warm color. But the other part of his face is cast in shadows. It resembles the face of a Greek mask. On one side of the mask is the warm color of gladness, gladness in rescuing an outcast child from the darkness of no physical sight, gladness in giving this beggar another way to survive other than to beg, gladness in guiding this man out from the shadows into a whole new life.
On the other side of the mask of Jesus are the dark, cold colors of sadness, sadness over those who choose to walk in darkness and live in the shadows, sadness over those who see the light and close their eyes, preferring to live in the land of half-truths and outright lies.
The artist puts down his brush. The painting has told the story well. Upon looking closely at it, Fred Craddock concludes: “Light comes to those who recognize that life is blindness without Christ; darkness comes to those who without Christ claim to see.”
In the week ahead or months or years, the painter leaves it to you and to me to finish this painting. So, it for us to pay attention to where we find ourselves in this painting and what it might mean for us to come out from the shadows of fear and anger and disbelief, despite all the forces seeking to keep us there.
Maybe when we do, we will find ourselves singing with John Newton from his 18th century hymn, Amazing Grace: When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’d first begun.
Maybe as we sing, we will finally add the bright colors of thanksgiving and gratitude for the amazing grace of God in our lives. Maybe as we sing, we will finally find the courage to come out from the shadows.