A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
April 2, 2017
Blindness is a popular image in scripture. The psalmist tells us:
The LORD opens the eyes of the blind.
The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down;
the LORD loves the righteous.
And Isaiah is fond of using blindness as a metaphor:
We grope like the blind along a wall,
groping like those who have no eyes;
we stumble at noon as in the twilight,
among the vigorous as though we were dead.
Jesus often uses blindness to describe people who may have sight, but clearly have no vision, no comprehension, about who Jesus is or understanding of what God is doing in the world. They have the tools to recognize the Messiah, yet they don’t understand. In Matthew he says,
You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!
I understand why it is such a popular metaphor in scripture. We still use blindness and the verb “to see” metaphorically. When something is made clear for us, we say, “Oh, I see.” How strange must that sound to new English speakers when they hear someone say, “I see” over the phone.
The other day I sat next to a man born blind on a plane. I helped him get his seat back TV to the right channel because he said he wanted to watch a basketball game while we flew. He also told the flight attendant that he didn’t need an extra safety briefing they offer to visually impaired people because he had seen the video they played when we took off.
I was struck by how much sighted language this unsighted man used. It permeates our language in ways we rarely notice.
I have a difficult time approaching these “blindness” texts only metaphorically.
Because I know about real blindness. My father went blind when I was a little girl. He had multiple detachments of both of his retinas. He still has some vision, but is legally blind. When he lost his sight, things changed for our family.
And so as we use blindness in a metaphorical way, I invite us to remember literal blindness and how risky it is to use people’s lived realities as object lesson and metaphor. We say “you’re so blind” to someone who doesn’t see their car keys on the kitchen counter, but that’s not the same thing as actual blindness that keeps people from seeing the beauty of a sunset or the details of their loved ones’ faces.
This whole passage includes language about vision. It begins with Jesus saying to his disciples, “See, we are going to Jerusalem”. Jesus calls us to focus our gaze on what is yet to come.
He wants us to look toward the location of the mocking, abuse, trial, and death of Jesus.
The disciples can’t see it. They do not understand. Or they can only see what they want to see. Or they see only what they think they know.
Like this. (Please watch the video. It’s very short).
How often is our vision like that? So focused on one thing that we miss the thing that was beyond our imagination?
It doesn’t make us “bad people” when we can’t see what we can’t see. When you miss the moonwalking bear it doesn’t mean you’re a worse sinner than the person who saw it.
And it’s tricky business responding to people who don’t see things as we do. The crowds in this text saw Zacchaeus and the Blind Man one way. They saw Jesus another way.
Sometimes we just miss things—perhaps because we’re looking in one direction and miss the moonwalking bear. Sometimes we don’t want to see things—they may be too difficult, or beyond our imagination’s boundaries. And sometimes we refuse to see things with willful disregard for the facts.
No matter our intention, people can be harmed when we don’t see, when we don’t understand.
It’s a reminder to both be generous with other people’s faults when they don’t see what they should see AND to continue to clarify our own vision, seeing people with grace, continually looking for what Jesus needs us to see.
None of us have perfect vision where God is concerned.
We are on a journey.
And it’s important that the disciples, that we, understand Jerusalem. Jesus has turned his face that way, which means his vision is focused that direction. They are marching toward the cross. And they need to focus their sight on what he’s showing them, no matter how hard it is to comprehend.
As they walk toward Jerusalem, they meet a blind man on the side of the road. He couldn’t see Jerusalem if you showed it to him on a map. But he sees who Jesus is. ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’
People grumble because the man is bothering Jesus. They don’t see why he needs to harass this nice man walking through their town. And then Jesus wants to see this man for himself. When they bring the blind man to Jesus, Jesus asks him, “what do you want me to do for you?”
“Lord, let me see again”.
Jesus tells him his faith has saved him and:
Immediately he regained his sight and followed him, glorifying God; and all the people, when they saw it, praised God.
Often, Jesus’ healings are welcomed with grumbling. This is one of the rare miracles where people praise God and celebrate. When they saw it, they got it.
Personally, I like the stories where Jesus fixes other people’s blindness, and not mine. I’m happy with my contact lenses of self-righteousness, my glasses of quick judgment, that allow me to see what I want to see.
I know what I would have seen when I saw Zacchaeus.
I would have seen a tax collector, someone who made money by taking money from his fellow Palestinians to pay Rome their tributes. And while Rome expected a certain amount of money per person, they didn’t dictate how much a tax collector could collect. We’re told that Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector and was very rich. Which means that he collected more from his people than he was turning over to Rome. Zacchaeus was getting rich at the expense of his neighbors.
If I’d been on the side of the road waiting to see Jesus and a tax collector wanted to get in front of me, I doubt I would have let him by. “Go climb a tree, Zach. I’m not going to help someone like you.”
I see clearly, how the rich are getting richer at the expense of the poor and how much that angers God. I see clearly that tax collectors and wall street bankers are helping the rich get richer at the expense of the poor.
And then Jesus invites himself over to Zacchaeus’ house for dinner. I clearly need to get my Jesus’ vision checked.
It must have killed Luke to include this story in his gospel. He’s spent the whole book talking about how God is coming to bring JUSTICE and to restore EQUITY and to LIFT UP the poor and to BRING DOWN the rich.
And even Luke can’t control Jesus.
We want Jesus to eat dinner with the people whose homes are being foreclosed, not with the people who invented subprime loans! We want Jesus to eat with the unemployed, not with the corporate execs who sent jobs overseas!
“He has gone to be a guest of one who is a sinner,” the crowd mumbles.
And we agree.
Luke must have been horrified by Jesus’ behavior! But the story still made it in the Bible, which shows that even Gospel writers have their vision corrected when Jesus is around. This great reversal unleashed in the person of Jesus of Nazareth is not limited to the song Mary sang when she was pregnant with Jesus. Remember that?
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty. (1:52)
This reversal, apparently, also has room for Jesus to publicly announce that he’s eating dinner with Zacchaeus.
Whenever I think I can see clearly what Jesus will do, with whom he will associate, it turns out my vision was cloudy, or I was looking in the wrong direction and missed the moonwalking bear. Rather than the rich person being sent away empty, he’s having dinner with Jesus.
And Zacchaeus recognizes this for the Good News it is. “So he hurried down and was happy to welcome Jesus.”
How often is joy and excitement what we feel when we think about faith? So many voices in American christianity, claiming to be voices for Jesus, seem to only talk about judgment, “perfect living”, rule following, and condemnation.
The crowd, ostensibly “good” Jericho Jews, grumble and complain about who Jesus eats with, much like the crowd had with the blind man. Yet the outsider, the guy who had to climb a tree to see Jesus, only has joy. He doesn’t say, “Jesus, I’m glad you’ve recognized that I’m better than all of these other people.”
Zacchaeus doesn’t call down condemnation on them. He just celebrates that Jesus is going to his house.
Zacchaeus knows about condemnation. He knows what it feels like to be judged by the crowd and to be isolated from his community. He knows what it is to be seen in particular ways. Whether it is justified or not, he’s experienced other people’s views of him.
And so when Jesus announces “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a Son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost,” Zacchaeus understands you don’t respond to Good News by hoarding it for yourself or excluding toward others.
When you are seen with grace, you respond to Good News with joy.
The blind man and Zacchaeus are both people Jesus encountered right after he told his disciples, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished”.
The granting of sight, the restoration of vision, the joy of salvation—those are all parts of the journey, things we should see as we consider who Jesus is and what his kingdom is about.
“Look, we are going up to Jerusalem” Jesus tells us. As we approach Holy Week and Easter, may we seek Divine vision that helps us see who Jesus is, who he is calling us to love and welcome, and how we can participate in the grace-filled kingdom of God.
May we have eyes to see.