March 2020

Social and Godly Constructs

4th Sunday of Lent, March 22, 2020
1st Samuel 16:1-13, John 9:1-41

– The Reverend Dr. Arnold Isidore Thomas –

Every time I read this story of the blind man receiving sight at the hands of Jesus, I enter it in several ways. Sometimes it’s through the eyes of the Pharisees, steeped in a tradition that attempted to make the way of God relative to the personal experiences of the people of God who lived and worked and struggled daily to make sense of their faith in the ongoing challenges of life; whose focus was more the local synagogue where rabbis and residents interacted than the temple in Jerusalem, where clergy seemed more removed and aloof from the lives of their congregants. It was, in fact, the synagogue in Nazareth where Jesus was religiously reared. However, as so often is the case of religious leaders, they lose sight of the importance of balancing faith with the context of the lives in which it is lived. And by failing to do so, the Pharisees of this community became blind to the blind man.

As a member of the clergy, but more so as a person of faith, I try to guard against becoming such a cleric whose spiritual beliefs seem and feel so archaic that they fail to speak to the reality we encounter. I pray not to get so caught up with the ritual and traditional trappings of faith that I find myself clinging more to what I’m use to than what I believe is true.

The other way by which I enter this story is through the parents of the blind man, who are torn between their desire to maintain membership among friends and neighbors of their local synagogue and their love for their son. These are individuals who quietly tolerate the offenses of faith communities for fear if they say too much or make too many waves, they will be rejected and lose the love of members with whom they find support and security. For this very reason, my father, who was an alcoholic, hid his addiction from his church, whose doctrine at the time condemned both the addict and the addiction.

The question raised by the disciples as to whether the blind man or his parents were punished by God for his condition indicated an intimidating religious environment unable to respond to adversity with compassion. It was a similar environment that responded to the AIDS epidemic with condemnation toward the LGBTQ community. And lest we assume life has evolved from such base impulses, recent history reminds us of the religious and social bigotry toward Muslims following the destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, or toward migrants and asylum seekers from Mexico and Central America perceived as criminals or, more recently, toward people of Chinese and Asian decent as presumed carriers of the coronavirus.

Now we rightly wonder if such behavior is a product of religion or culture. Well, the answer is both. Religion and culture are social constructs created from a sense of how we as a society understand and deport ourselves. As social constructs, both religion and culture inform and influence one another creating laws and moral dictates that regulate the behavior of its members for the purpose of preserving their existence. But such behavior becomes dangerous when social and moral dictates are devised from the vantage point of politically and financially powerful elites who refuse to include the more important and numerous perspectives of the less fortunate, who must live by these dictates, making the blind man and his parents victims of this callous behavior.

On the other hand, both religion and culture become godly constructs when they are able to look beyond outward appearances and dictates of race, culture, religion, national and political boundaries; when they are able to see with the eyes of God, “who looks on the heart.” (1st Samuel 16:7)

It is during this pandemic, when we are extremely mindful of physical hygiene, that the story calls us to see with the sight of God at the repulsive point where Christ mixes his spit with the dirt and, placing the mud on our eyes enables us to see and be cleansed.

It is at this very point in the story we also enter the life of the blind man and wonder what course our life might have taken if Christ had not entered it. This is less a story about physical blindness than it is about spiritual blindness

Theologian Roger Nam shared one of his most unforgettable dining experiences which occurred at a place called the Blackout Restaurant in Tel Aviv, Israel, completely owned and operated by the visually impaired. The restaurant is run in pitch darkness, allowing those who see the experience of eating and drinking without sight, and discovering that without the sense of sight, “textures, flavors, temperatures, and nodes of taste are enlightened.”1  

Jesus offers us the bread of life that blinds us to the priorities of this world that we may see with spiritual insight the priorities of God’s realm. Mark Twain said that “Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”

O taste and see that the Lord is good,” said the psalmist, “and happy are those who take refuge in the Lord.” (Psalm 34:8) Amen

1Commentary on 1st Samuel 16:1-13, March 30, 2014