Is “Not Seeing” an Option?
Have you ever done something good for a neighbor only to be reprimanded for not doing it in a manner approved by law? Ultimately, the greater issue it would seem is not the good that you may have done, but the apparently even greater good that is civil order and unquestioning obedience that you carelessly but willingly chose to ignore instead. Sounds crazy, but it happens.
In November 2012 in Clayton County GA, a rental home owner went to clean up one of his properties after the previous tenants were busted for possession of meth. When he and his wife discovered 8 bags of meth stashed in the walls, they contacted the local police, and were promptly arrested for tampering with evidence because apparently, finding evidence and immediately handing it over to the authorities was a form of tampering. Prosecutors eventually dropped the charges, but not before the couple had to pay $5000 each to post bail and were also threatened with social services into taking their 9-year-old son away.
About a month ago, Arnold Abbott of Fort Lauderdale FL died at the age of 94. He was a widely known, much loved, and reviled advocate of the homeless, defying local authorities repeatedly by feeding the homeless contrary to local ordinances. At the age of 90 he was arrested and threatened with a $500 fine or 60 days in jail for dishing out food in public, because the local ordinance required food distributors to provide toilets if restrooms weren’t available. A former mayor said he didn’t question Mr. Abbott’s desire to help the less fortunate, but not his willingness to break the law. “If he’s going to feed, [do it] in a sanitary, safe location. And preferably, do it indoors at a church or a kitchen.” Mr. Abbott was not afraid to say he would do it again.
In 2006, a man in China encountered an elderly lady who had fallen and broken her leg after getting off a city bus. He took her to the hospital. But the woman sued him for causing her fall, and demanded he pay her medical bills. The court decided in her favor and held the man liable for damages, reasoning that despite the lack of concrete evidence, “no one would in good conscience help someone unless they felt guilty.” In October 2017, China enacted the Good Samaritan law only after much debate especially after an incident in 2011 when a toddler was run over by 2 vehicles and died while 18 eyewitnesses refused to help for fear they might get into trouble themselves.
The examples sound extreme. But we probably have all encountered similar cluelessness to even greater realities that otherwise reasonable people don’t seem to get. The Pharisees were learned scholars and teachers of the Law. But clearly Jesus rubbed them the wrong way. It was unacceptable to them that he gave sight to a man blind from birth because they failed to understand him and his mission, plus he did it on a Sabbath, and insisted that sinners like the blind man were not permitted to teach them about things that were clearly within their field of expertise.
Is it their fault that they failed to see what to everyone else was so obvious? Did they really not see? Or did they just choose not to acknowledge what they probably did see, clearly and literally turning a blind eye? We probably can’t say since we don’t know who saw what, and whether what is obvious to us today was as obvious to them then. We do know that a physically blind man was given physical sight. A deeper reading of the story tells us he was also given insight, or spiritual sight. And although those who had physical sight did not literally go physically blind, Jesus seems to be saying they had lost their ability to see spiritually, that spiritual blindness was worse.
God sent the prophet Samuel to Bethlehem to anoint a new king for Israel from among the sons of Jesse. We hear the conversation between God and the prophet inside the prophet’s head, and how he would spot who he thought would be perfect for the job but whom God would otherwise reject. Clearly even in the best of circumstances, even for prophets, human ways are not God’s ways, human thoughts not God’s thoughts.
We are inclined to think that no one would ever choose to be blind. But that’s because we can see. We can hear, so we don’t think anyone would choose to go deaf either. We can travel unrestricted, watch whatever TV shows we want, eat or drink whatever we like, say whatever is on our mind, and worship God as we please. So we can’t imagine why anyone would choose differently. For us, there’s just no excuse for people who choose what is clearly harmful or destructive to themselves or others.
So would God hold us accountable for coming to knowledge and understanding and still choosing instead to not see? If people we know and love were unapologetic racists, who took advantage of the poor and the vulnerable, who stole, cheated, and lied, hurting and killing their enemies and innocent people to gain advantage, wealth, and power, and treating others without compassion or respect, while claiming to be Christians who love God and their neighbor, can we still pretend not to see, and give them a pass because it was a different time and place? Isn’t that choosing to be blind?
A blind man was sitting in the temple courtyard begging and generally minding his own business. One day Jesus came along, rubbed mud and saliva in his eyes and sent him to wash. And just like that, his whole life turned upside-down. If he had known what receiving sight would do to him, he probably would have preferred to stay blind. Unlike the Samaritan woman at the well last weekend, the blind man in today’s gospel was not given a choice. Jesus did not ask if he wanted to see.
Sometimes we might prefer not to know or understand or be responsible. Life is simpler when you’re young or uninformed or blind, so we think. But when Jesus gave sight to the blind man, he didn’t ask the blind man what he preferred. By giving him physical sight, Jesus took away his option to not see with his physical eyes. But he still had the option to remain spiritually blind. The Pharisees in contrast were physically able to see, yet they chose to remain spiritually blind. Maybe they knew their lives would be turned upside-down if they acknowledged the obvious.
“Live as children of light,” St. Paul urges us. But when you see things, you can’t just sit there and do nothing. Are we prepared for our lives to be turned upside-down? Or would we rather be happy as clams at high tide, safe, comfortable, but clueless and blind?
Rolo B Castillo © 2019