by Kathleen D. Billman
John H. Tietjen Professor of Pastoral Ministry: Pastoral Theology, Director of the Master of Divinity Program
Today’s texts from I Samuel and John 9 are very dramatic and—in places—full of humor. The parade of seven sons in I Samuel 16—it’s so funny! Seven is one of the perfect biblical numbers, a number that was associated for the ancients with completion. The air crackles with confidence that one of these seven sons will be anointed for leadership (these guys would all get picked for a spot on The Bachelor, no doubt). I have long loved Walter Brueggemann’s depiction of how this scene functions in Israel’s memory and imagination: as a tale relished and delighted in by all who have ever felt themselves part of the assembly of nobodies. People listening to the story know, because the narrator of the tale has told them, that there is something going on behind the scenes—something none of the characters in the unfolding drama knows. The suspense builds, as one after another of the seven sons are not chosen, and the imagined listeners to the tale, composed of “the least of these,” hold their breath and try not to betray their glee. “When there is the next choosing,” Brueggemann writes, “it will be ‘one of us,’ one of the un-credentialed nobodies. Already there is the sense that God chose what is lowly and despised in the world to bring to naught the things that are (I Cor I:26-31). This is the nobody of an eighth son!”1
Although in both of today’s stories the one who is way outside the center of community leadership is suddenly thrust into the center of the action, the humor in John 9 seems to focus less on the nobody called to the center and more on the lengths—sometimes laughable lengths—to which we humans will go to preserve the constructs that enable us to move confidently in the world—to be knowers, authorities. However this tale functioned in the life of the early church in the controversies between followers of Jesus and synagogue authorities, we can recognize the struggle it represents in the church today, as taken-for-granted assumptions about all manner of things are unsettled and contested, and people who hold places of authority struggle with norms and procedures for unprecedented events. Those of us who hold or are preparing to assume places of authority in the church would do well to laugh at the Pharisees, but not laugh too hard. Someday we too may find ourselves facing their dilemma—asked to address a situation we have never faced before, which poses a challenge to our understandings and exposed our procedures as insufficient for the situation at hand. That is not a comfortable or happy place to be, and it’s clear they make a hash of it.
Craig Satterlee, who taught preaching here at LSTC until he was elected bishop last spring and who is legally blind, challenged a good many of us to do more than with this text than to simply argue that the Pharisees were really the blind people—blinder than the blind man—the “who is in the worse shape here” approach. Rather he challenged us to consider the constructs that shape the way the so-called “able-bodied” relate to the so-called “disabled,” ways of comprehending—constructs that continue to frame blindness as a disaster that needs to be pitied or overcome.
We could argue—and I think it would be true to say—that the community in which the “blind man” lived saw primarily his disability and not his personhood. One could make a compelling case for that in verses 8-10. When he comes back from Siloam able to see, his neighbors can’t really decide whether he’s the same person they walked past, maybe even put money in his cup, year after year. Without the disability, they could not be confident that he was the same person. I am ashamed of how true that is in my own experience. When I pass by people who are homeless in this neighborhood, how many do I know by name, or would recognize if one of them walked into the refectory dressed for a business meeting? We could end with chastisement—of self and others—and kick ourselves to do better.
But the dilemma is even deeper. We could all be kinder, more inclusive. That would be a good thing and I’m for it. But is it also possible to change the way we actually see; alter ways of comprehending the world that are no more life-giving for us than they are for others? I think Craig wanted me to understand that blindness is not the disaster or pitiable state that it is so often understood to be. Yes, people who cannot see challenge us to recognize that buildings or ways of having conversations developed over centuries by people who take sight for granted will be unwelcoming and painful to people who cannot see. Yes, the loss of sight is a devastating grief for many people, which should not be minimized with a “look on the bright side” theology. But it is also true that the binary thinking that too rigidly separates light and darkness, health and illness, sight and blindness, male and female—constructs that are so ingrained in many of us that they are like the air we breathe—falter and slip in the presence of the holiness of God, where oftentimes the place of deepest darkness is the place of revelation…where a different kind of light shines.
While I was pondering how to talk about this without getting lost in abstractions, I walked into my kitchen on Monday and the latest issue of The Christian Century was lying on the kitchen counter. Right there, on the cover, are the words “Seeing in the dark.” This lead essay is by Barbara Brown Taylor. It is an excerpt from her new book, Learning to Walk in the Dark. In this excerpt she refers often to the works of “Jacques Lusseyran, a blind French resistance fighter in World War II who wrote a memoir called And There Was Light."2
Lusseyran lost his eyesight in an accident when he was very young, anLussad as he described the experience, the reactions of those around him taught him what a “total disaster this was.” His parents were advised by doctors to send him away to a residential school, but his mother refused and learned Braille along with him. He said that the best thing his parents ever did was not to pity him, and they never spoke—as others did—of the “night” into which his blindness had pushed him. Instead, his father asked young Jacques to “Always tell us when you discover something.”3
Lusseyran’s memoir is about what he discovered in the darkness—the way you can tell trees apart by the sounds of their shadows… what you can learn about a table from your hands that you would miss if you only glanced at it with your eyes…that the best way to see the inner light and to remain in its presence is to love…and so many other things…discoveries that Taylor said would have sounded “crazy” to her had not she discovered what a trustworthy spiritual guide Lusseyran is. “Since becoming blind,” Lusseyran wrote, “I have paid more attention to a thousand things.”4 Taylor writes:
If we could learn to be attentive every moment of our lives, he said, we would discover the world anew. We would discover that the world is completely different from what we had believed it to be. Because blindness taught him that, he listened with disbelief as the most earnest people he knew spoke about the terrible “night” into which his blindness had pushed him. “The seeing do not believe in the blind,” he concluded, which may help to explain why there are so many stories in the Bible about blind people begging to be healed. Whoever wrote those stories could see.5
I hear Craig’s voice in my ears again. Kadi, what is the Good News here? I think it depends on where we find ourselves in the today’s dramatic narratives. For those of us who, like Lusseyran, listen with disbelief as the most earnest people we know make assumptions about our lives that are far from the truth of our experience, God always sees the “eighth person” that others cannot see—even the “eighth person” that may be hiding inside us. And when we suddenly, without warning, find ourselves called to give an account of what Jesus has made possible in our lives, whatever the response of others might be, Jesus has promised to be there in the witnessing, and in all that comes after.
For those of us who find ourselves confronted with challenges to our ways of seeing that are unsettling and even frightening, it is not necessarily bad news to dwell in the place where we cannot see. Luther himself gave us comfort in his commentary on the Magnifcat:
In the tabernacle fashioned by Moses there were three separate compartments. The first was called the holy of holies: here was God’s dwelling place, and in it there was no light. The second was called the holy place; here stood a candlestick with seven arms and seven lamps. The third was called the outer court; this lay under the open sky and in the full light of the sun. In this tabernacle we have a figure of the Christian…[whose] spirit is the holy of holies where God dwells in the darkness of faith, where no light is. For [Christians] believe what [they] neither see nor feel nor comprehend.6
Thus, perhaps when John’s Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind,” he proclaimed very Good News indeed. For doesn’t John’s Gospel begin with the same affirmation Jacques Lusseyran made: “The light shines in the darkness”—a kind of light that can only be known there.
1 Walter Brueggemann, David’s Truth in Israel’s Imagination and Memory (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), 19.
2 Barbara Brown Taylor, “Light without Sight,” in The Christian Century (April 2, 2014): 22.
4 Ibid., 23.
5 Ibid., 24.
6 Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 21, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1956), 304; emphasis (and inclusive language) mine.
Samuel 16:1-13; John 9