I haven’t read a whole lot of Plato – that’s a whole in my education that I don’t feel too badly about – but I’m passingly familiar with his Allegory of the Cave, in which he has placed a group of people in a cave, bound by chains and facing a blank wall, for their whole lives. “These captives can see nothing but flickering images on a wall—shadows, appearances, illusions—which they take for reality. One prisoner, liberated from the chains, makes the arduous crawl upward to the world of the shining sun.
When he returns to the cave with his tales of the new-found source of light and the life and warmth it gives, the prisoners think him crazy. They simply deny his experience. It just can’t be. The chains and the amusing images on the wall are reality.” And being so, their liberated fellow is ridiculed and ostracized; his invitation to join him in seeing the Sun is rejected. The prisoners chose to remain blind to the outside world, blind to the truth that was within reach, but outside of their grasp.
“The ability to see is one-part a physical phenomenon but also one-part a mental exercise. Functioning as a sighted person requires having access to a long backlog of visual experience. That’s why blind people who surgically receive the ability to see cannot instantly begin to act like all other seeing persons. Without having had any prior experience with things like depth perception, the formerly blind find themselves reaching for objects that are actually well out-of-reach even as they may knock over a glass of water which is closer than they thought. As neurologist Oliver Sacks points out, for once-blind people to function, they need to have not just their optic hardware repaired but they need to get the necessary mental software installed, too.”
Which makes today’s story about the man born blind all the more amazing. Jesus came across a beggar, blind since birth – this can’t be the only such beggar Jesus had come across, but for some reason Jesus has pity upon this particular man. Jesus spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva (an earthy, substantial, and somewhat gross detail that I just adore) and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, and said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam,” which was within grope-and-stumbling distance from where the man was sitting. Jesus must have immediately gone off to get a cup of coffee, because when the man walked back to thank Him, Jesus was nowhere to be found. But there it is: the man just walked back, he didn’t stumble back, inadvertently knocking over people and tripping over stray dogs. He looked for all the world like a man who could see perfectly, because he was.
The Pharisees weren’t at all happy about this; perhaps they were upset because they had no power to perform such a miracle or perhaps they were mad because they had never cared enough to try. They questioned the man, who told them that the rabbi Jesus had healed him, but they did not believe. They couldn’t grasp the thing, that God would somehow be present in the backwater homeless rabbi they had already decided to reject. They couldn’t grasp it, so they couldn’t grasp Him; they couldn’t even lay clear eyes on Him. The man born blind could see the light of the world, but the Pharisees chose to remain blind to Him.
The grand majority of the time we all choose to see only what we wish to see. We choose to remain blind to the plight of the poor even as they move among us; the kid who hasn’t had a decent breakfast since Christmas 2003 or the guy who sleeps on the floor of his apartment with no power or heat, they are easier to ignore than the homeless blind beggar on the street, but we ignore him most of the time too. We choose to remain blind to our prejudices, just accepting that the historically white parishes in Bordentown never mix with the historically black parishes. We choose to remain blind to the struggles of this life because if we opened our eyes and saw them clearly, those troubles might be too much for us to handle. Sadder still is that we choose to remain blind to the blessings of this life as well. We scoff at those who have seen the Sun with their own eyes, preferring instead the blank cave wall and its transient shadows. The cave is easier, isn’t it? We prefer its cool isolation to the warm embrace of the Sun, fearing that the Sun might set and leave us without even dancing shadows to keep us entertained.
Plato’s liberated captive opened his eyes and beheld a star, a celestial orb, a gift of God certainly, but just a star. When the man born blind had his eyes opened, he beheld a Person, the very person who set that star in its course. His was not a comfortable awakening; the former blind man’s first activity as a Christian was to be dragged in front of a bunch of frowning Pharisees. But still, he could see, and he sought only to see the face of the Lord who made him whole.
Lent is a season for opening our eyes to the realities of this world and the reality of our God. We are encouraged to acknowledge our own failings, yes, but I equally encourage you to acknowledge the blessings of this life, and to set clear eyes on the God who makes us whole.
1 Scott Hozee, This Week