In the 6th century BC, the Greek philosopher Plato famously described an allegory of a cave. In the allegory a group of people have been chained inside a cave, and they’ve been in a kept in a position facing a wall for their entire lives. At a distance behind them is a fire, and these prisoners spend their time staring at the shadows on the wall of different things passing by the fire behind them. They even develop names for certain shadows that appear with more regularity. And then, one day, one of the prisoners is freed. He turns around for the first time and sees the fire, which he finds too bright and blinding, and he tries to return and face the wall with the rest of his friends. But instead he’s dragged outside the cave, where he’s exposed to the sun. The pain of the brightness is unbearable. But gradually his eyes adjust, and he sees objects in their reality for the first time. He’s amazed at the world he’s now experiencing. He wants to go back into the cave to share his amazement with his friends who’ve spent their whole lives simply looking at shadows on the wall as if that’s the real thing. So back into the depths of the cave he goes, but his eyes can’t adjust to the darkness. He staggers about blindly and finally finds his friends, but they’re startled that he’s having trouble seeing. They’re convinced that the journey out of the cave has severely harmed him. They want nothing to do with leaving the cave, and even go to forceful lengths to prevent anyone who desires to leave. The freed prisoner is now faced with a dilemma: should he stay in the cave until he’s able to convince his friends that they’re blind to reality? Or does he forfeit their company and exit the cave forever, leaving his friends behind in their ignorance?
This well-known allegory came to mind over the past week as I contemplated today’s Gospel. It’s a story about optical blindness, for sure: the man born blind never had the use of his eyes. But the story is also about a more comprehensive and sinister form of blindness—a blindness of spiritual arrogance, of superiority, of self-reliance, of suspicion and judgmentalism. In this story Jesus interacts with a blind man and also with a bunch of Pharisees who are turn out to be not only detractors of Jesus but also of the blind man after his sight is restored. Do you identify with any of these characters? No matter how we might find ourselves in this story, in the end we’re all challenged to consider our susceptibility to blindness of one kind or another.
Many of the Pharisees in the story are examples of spiritual blindness. They question whether the man should have been given his sight in the first place because healings, such as this, should never take place on the Sabbath. These Pharisees are so preoccupied with maintaining their own protocols and standards that they can’t bring themselves to celebrate something truly wonderful. Even more, they proceed to interrogate the man who now sees, and then they drive him out of the city because he stands up to them. The Pharisees shamelessly display their blindness of spiritual arrogance and self-deception. “Surely, we aren’t blind, are we?” And how does Jesus respond? “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” In other words, at the root of sin is the deadly illusion that you’ve “arrived”—that you’ve got all the answers figured out for yourself and everyone else; it’s the assumption that you have no blindness from which to recover. And the only thing Jesus can say to people like this is, “your sin remains.” Spiritual arrogance does not open doors of hope. It keeps one in chains looking at shadows on a cave wall, never to experience the freedom of seeing reality in its fullness.
My sense is that no one here is eager to identify with the Pharisees or with those who doubt the wonders that God accomplishes. That’s probably because we really do want to believe that God does wondrous things. We strive to resist spiritual arrogance and judgmentalism, even when these pop up from time to time in our lives. So where else might we situate ourselves in today’s Gospel?
Perhaps we might identify with the man born blind. In that case, I think we can learn at least three things. The first is that he wasn’t in denial. Just about every other figure in today’s Gospel is in denial—denial of their own blindness, whether it’s blindness to their unbelief, blindness to their callousness, blindness to their spiritual emptiness. But the man born blind is not in denial because he knows his blindness is so obvious to himself and to everyone around him. That sort of acknowledgment of one’s frailty is the first step that can open us up to the miracle of divine grace. In fact, that is what Lent is all about: to reflect on our mortality, our blindness, and to prepare ourselves for the gift of new creation, in the world and in our own lives.
A second thing we can learn from the man born blind is that God’s grace is manifested in unexpected forms. Dirty mud was smeared on his eyes. God’s grace is not a jolt from a realm beyond us. It rather emerges from the dirt and mud that we walk on, from the dust of the earth. Grace and wonder happen in the realm of the ordinary. At the beginning of Lent, on Ash Wednesday, we were reminded that we are dust and to dust we shall return. But God can use even that very dust to transform us.
A third lesson of the man born blind is that receiving God’s grace does not always ensure stability and comfort. The man received the divine gift of sight, but he also experienced the high cost of receiving that gift, which meant ostracism and estrangement from those unable to acknowledge their own internal blindness. And yet even in his loneliness of being driven from the city, Jesus seeks him out again to open his eyes, his whole person, to a deeper reality. “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” “Who is he?” the man asks. “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” The man responds, “Lord, I believe.” The man has finally exited the cave of blindness for good. What matters for him now is the new reality into which he’s been drawn, a reality in which he has encountered God incarnate.
If we are the man born blind, then we can trust that God will work in our lives in unpredictable counter-intuitive ways. But we must be open to it—open to God transforming our blindness through the ordinariness of our humanity; open to God working in our darkest moments to free us from the cave—to see not the shadows on the wall, but to see ourselves and all things as God has really intended them to be.