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"Learning To Unsee"

Thanks to Jesus, the man born blind is able to see the light of the sun, but is also guided in the process of coming to know and believe in Jesus as the light of the world. His story contrasts with that of Jesus’ opponents, who willfully insist on not seeing the meaning of this sign. We need to remain in the light that is Jesus.

A person must learn to see; it doesn’t “just come naturally.” But someone also has to make an effort not to see.

The gospel account about Jesus giving sight to a man born blind raises several interesting questions. (The man isn’t named in the gospel, but I’ll call him “Simon” to avoid repetition of “the man.”) How could Jesus give the power of sight to someone just by putting some mud on his eyes and telling him to go and wash it off? Why do people so often, like Jesus’ disciples, assume that a disability like blindness must be due to someone’s sin? And did God cause Simon to be born blind so that, years later, “God’s works might be revealed in him”?

A sermon could be devoted to any of those questions, but that would miss the point of this story in John’s gospel, the gospel that at its very beginning tells us, “The light of all people ... shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”1 And from that point on, there are a number of references to light and darkness, which also suggest the ideas of being able to see as well as not being able to see. We’re told that those who are illumined by that light, Jesus Christ, are brought to know the true God and to have fullness of life.

Thus, in the third chapter of the Gospel of John, there is a conversation between Nicodemus, a Jewish leader, and Jesus.2 We’re told that Nicodemus came to Jesus “by night,” which might seem to be a minor detail. But John’s gospel often operates on two levels. There’s the obvious meaning of the text and a deeper “spiritual” meaning. Nicodemus may have come to Jesus after the sun had set, but he also comes as a person with some lack of spiritual insight. He just doesn’t get what Jesus is about. This is shown by the fact that when Jesus speaks of the need to be born “anew,”3 Nicodemus is puzzled, thinking that he’s talking about being born for a second time in the usual biological way. Jesus is referring to being born of God’s Spirit. But Nicodemus is beginning to be enlightened through this conversation, as we hear later in the gospel.4

In our text from the ninth chapter of John, we begin with sight being restored to a man who had never seen before. That’s the obvious meaning of the story. But there’s a point that’s usually overlooked.5

There are cases in which sight has been restored to a person who was blind from birth — for example, by removal of cataracts. We might think that the person would immediately leap with joy, shouting, “This is fantastic! I can see! It’s beautiful!” But it’s not that simple. What does this completely new sensation even mean to such people? How can they judge distances or relate previous sense experiences of objects to new visual input? It can be very confusing. Some might get adjusted fairly quickly, while others have a much harder time with it.

And this isn’t entirely different from the way it’s been for every one of us. We all started out as babies, and the vision of newborn infants is quite undeveloped and takes years to mature fully. All of us must literally learn to see.

That is also true of Simon, in two different ways. He must, like a new baby or any other adult whose sight has been restored, learn to use his eyes and understand this new ability and what it tells him about his world. But while he can now see the light of the sun, there is also another light that he may see: the One who said to his disciples before performing this sign, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” Will this man who was previously blind see this light and come to it?

Simon has not been trained in the law of Moses, or at least not the extent the Pharisees are, and when he’s examined by some Pharisees who are trying to find a violation of that law by Jesus, he can’t debate with them. But when they ask him what he thinks about Jesus, he uses the best category he knows from the Jewish tradition. Jesus, he says, is a prophet. That was a big deal at that time, because the general belief was that prophecy in Israel had ceased centuries before.

When Simon is called in for questioning a second time, the pressure on him to say something against Jesus is increased. Again, he’s not a sophisticated theologian, but he is still a better one than those who are now harassing him. Refusing to be bullied by them, he insists that the remarkable thing that Jesus has done — something no one had ever heard of before — counts for more than legal questions about healing on the Sabbath. Jesus, he says, must be “from God.”

When spiritual sight is restored, God doesn’t just leave us on our own to learn how to use it. After Simon is expelled from the synagogue by his angry interrogators, Jesus seeks him out. He asks him if he believes in the Son of Man, but Simon doesn’t know who that is. When Jesus identifies himself as the Son of Man, Simon might have expressed doubts about the man standing before him being that heavenly figure in Jewish tradition.6 But instead he believes and worships Jesus. He has seen the light.

We can learn to see, but we can also learn not to see. People will sometimes refuse to look at pictures or documents that might force them to reconsider their views of things. That’s maybe more obvious with our sense of hearing, as when children cover their ears and say “Blah, blah, blah, I can’t hear you!” to avoid orders or information. Herman Goering, the chief Nazi on trial at Nuremberg, would take off his headphones to avoid hearing evidence the prosecutors presented about concentration camps or his own guilt for specific crimes when it started hitting home.

The Pharisees who have been questioning Simon and his parents in hopes of proving that Jesus had broken the Sabbath rules were not completely without light. They knew, of course, about the whole history of God’s dealings with the people of Israel. A long and heated conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees in the previous chapter of the gospel had begun when Jesus declared, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”7 So they certainly knew what Jesus was claiming to be.

And even though they’d been criticizing Jesus and disputing with him, his act of giving sight to a blind person could have caused them to rethink the matter. “He really has opened the eyes of the blind,” they could have said. “Maybe we’ve been wrong about this Jesus.”

But they didn’t. They continued to insist that they were right, and that they had all the light they needed. And as Jesus says when they confront him at the end of the story, not being able to see is made much worse by insisting that that their spiritual sight is fine.

That is bad news for those who stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the One who is the light of the world. But that need not be a permanent condition because Christ can continue to take the initiative, even with a hardened opponent. He did that with Saul of Tarsus, a zealous persecutor of the young Christian movement. On the way to Damascus to arrest believers, Saul was knocked to the ground by a light from heaven, and by this encounter with the risen Christ he became the great missionary apostle of the early church.8

And for those who have been given the gift of spiritual sight and led to the light of the world, there is a reminder: The world takes on new meanings when seen in this light. But the important thing is to remain in the light yourself.

[1] John 1:4-5.

2 John 3:1-21.

3 NRSV has “born from above,” with “anew” as an alternative in the margin. But Nicodemus’ response shows that he understood Jesus’ words in the latter way.

4 John 7:50 and 19:39.

6 E.g., Daniel 7:13-14, with NRSV’s marginal reading “a son of man” rather than “a human being.”

7 John 8:12.

8 Acts 9:1-17.


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