St Agnes, Kennington Jer: 31: 7-9 26th October 1997 Heb: 5: 1-6 30th Sunday of Year B Mark 10: 46-52

"Receive Your Sight"


"I see", said the blind man...

... and he didn't see at all"

Goodness know how old that particular joke is. I remember my mother telling it to me when I was about 4 years old, but it must have been around as long as English has been spoken, and many other, older, languages have the same double meaning of the words "I see" to do duty both for the thing that we do with our eyes, like seeing a car, seeing a book or seeing an aeroplane, and the rather different thing that we do with our minds like seeing the point of a joke, or understanding why something which has hitherto puzzled us is true. Someone gives us an explanation and our response is "I see!"

Today's Gospel reading is about someone being given back his sight: which seemed a good reason to look more closely at the whole business of Seeing and the various significances that such a word has for us, both in the teaching of Jesus and throughout the Bible as a whole.

The first thing to notice is that sight is a really remarkable thing; and yet how easily we just take it for granted.

Just think of all the things that sight enables us to do without difficulty. It enables us to read, to write, to find our way, to enjoy scenery and pictures and films and television in a way in which we otherwise could not do, it enables us to drive a car and ride a bicycle.

Now it's true of course that blind people can learn to do at least some of these things with the aid of Braille and guide dogs, for instance, and blind people tend to develop their other senses like hearing and touch to an extent which those of us who are fully sighted never do, in order to compensate for their disability. But the fact remains that if you or I were to be suddenly struck blind today (and such things do happen occasionally) we should soon realise the value of what we had lost and which we presently take for granted.

But it's not just eyesight that we take for granted. That applies just as readily to the other meaning of the verb "to see" when it means "to understand".

Whatever we understand about God, for example, what we call our "faith", is something which makes (or should make) a profound difference to our lives; yet it is something which people take for granted. That is, until some disaster or tragedy overtakes them and they "lose their faith". If only they had realised that that faith was itself the free gift of God (like eyesight) and had learnt to appreciate it more and take it for granted less, then it mightn't be so susceptible to "getting lost" when trouble comes. After all "man is born to trouble as surely as the sparks fly upwards" and God never promised us that believing in Him would guarantee us a trouble-free life. On the contrary....

Another meaning of the word "see" is when we talk about "seeing through" something or somebody in the sense of detecting that they or it are counterfeit. "I saw through that one at once" we say when someone comes up with an argument or an excuse which doesn't hold water or ring true; or we see through someone who is telling us a straightforward l pork-pie.

This ability, to tell good from bad, right from wrong, is one which it is also possible to take for granted only to discover that we've become partly or wholly morally blind. Once upon a time we knew perfectly well what was right and what was wrong, but over the years our standards have dropped, we've acquired bad habits ourselves which we've stopped noticing so familiar have they become, and the world and society and the media have all conspired together to bring us into a state of moral confusion - the Moral Maze as it is sometimes referred to. Well if you are in a maze, the one thing you need to do is to be able to see clearly.

What has changed is not the moral principles themselves. Such things vary very little from one civilisation or period of history to another and it comes as something of a surprise to discover that most civilizations worthy of the name have something corresponding to, and startlingly like, the Ten Commandments. But what has changed is our ability to see how these principles apply to particular situations in which we find ourselves. It's like being able to see clearly enough to read a book or a road sign. We are apt to take both these abilities for granted, with the result that we don't realise how morally short-sighted we have become over the course of time. So morally blind have we become that we now perform and permit behaviour in ourself and in others which at one time we would never have countenanced or even contemplated.

There are two other sorts of sight worth mentioning here. Hindsight and foresight, which roughly mean "looking backwards" and "looking forwards" respectively.

"With the benefit of hindsight" is a familiar phrase, often used with regret. It means learning from what has happened in the past, both to others and to ourselves. We learn particularly by considering people's mistakes, both our own and others', the things which we have done wrong. Of course we learn from what people (especially other people) do right as well: you can discover a great deal about a particular skill just by observing an expert practising his expertise be it golf or football or a musical instrument - but the chief benefit of that lies in the future, since it says to us "you too could become like that if you go about it the right way". But that's more like foresight which we shall be considering in a moment.

Hindsight, however, is more immediately concerned with learning from mistakes. That is why the Bible is such a good instruction manual for learning to live, because 90% of it is about people getting things wrong and the tragic consequences of their mistakes.

But the Bible also tells us about God putting things right. Now if that's not Good News, what is? The Scriptures are one long tale of the Enlightenment of people coming out of darkness and into the daylight and as a result being able to see, perhaps for the first time, what sort of people they are and where they're going.

How many mistake which people make could be avoided if only they learnt from the mistakes of others! St Paul says "Whatever was written in the past was written for our learning that we might be encouraged to have hope" The only reason we have to hope that a better future lies ahead of us lies in what God has revealed to us in the past through the scriptures and, finally, perfectly and conclusively in our Lord Jesus Christ.

God raised Jesus Christ from the dead in order that we might be able to look forward to a joyful resurrection in him, instead of the prospect of extinction (or worse) which our impaired sight suggests must lie in front of us every time a funeral cortege goes past us in the street.

Finally there is foresight. If the blind try to lead the blind they both fall into the ditch, said Jesus. Why do they fall into the ditch? Precisely because they can't see the ditch in front of them.

"Without vision", says the Book of Proverbs "the people perish".

We are presently living at a time when the Word of God is exceedingly rare. Many churches have stopped preaching it. Most people are ignorant of it. "There is no open vision" any more than there was in the days of Eli the Priest when everything including the priesthood had become devalued in the popular mind, in the days when the young prophet Samuel was still a child.

Yet that same Samuel, born in the most unpropitious of times, was chosen by God to be one of his Prophets, to act as the eyes of the people who had become blind to the way they were going. The people that walked in darkness saw a great light and the found their way back to the God who would save them from their enemies who oppressed them.

Remember, the Bible differentiates most strongly between prophets on the one hand and soothsayer and fortune-tellers on the other, true prophets and false prophets.

By and large the true prophets are those who speak to men of their own time about things that are happening right under their noses. They have the foresight and the hindsight to see what is wrong and what its consequences will be: but they also have the insight to be able to tell people how to get things right from now onwards.

The prophets' hindsight also enables them to know that it is usually only a small number of people, the remnant of Israel as the Prophet Jeremiah called them in today's first reading, who will be prepared to listen to what the prophets say. However it is through the faithfully ministry of The Few that the many will find their way back to God. "See I will bring them back... all of them, the blind and the lame, in a great company returning home.

Some, but by no means everyone, will latch onto the truth if it is presented to them intelligently and fairly. Nowhere does the Bible lead us to suppose that everyone will be prepared to have his eyes opened, to receive his sight. Indeed the Bible specifically warns us against such facile optimism, saying not once but many times that there are those who will prefer to remain in darkness because their deeds are evil.

Therefore, with the benefit of hindsight, insight and foresight we can begin to see more clearly through the darkness which is surrounding us. We can know that it is God's intention to give us back our sight in order to be able the better to see Him as He is.

For that is the reason He created us in the first place "to the praise of his glory"

As one great saint of the early church, Irenaeus, put it:

"The glory of God is the living man: the end of man is the vision of God."

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