MARCH 19, 2023

Our Faith Calls us to See









As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.  As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

After saying this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means “Sent”). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.

His neighbors and those who had formerly seen him begging asked, “Isn’t this the same man who used to sit and beg?” Some claimed that he was.

Others said, “No, he only looks like him.”

But he himself insisted, “I am the man.”

“How then were your eyes opened?” they asked.

He replied, “The man they call Jesus made some mud and put it on my eyes. He told me to go to Siloam and wash. So I went and washed, and then I could see.”

“Where is this man?” they asked him.

“I don’t know,” he said.

 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had been blind. Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud and opened the man’s eyes was a Sabbath. Therefore the Pharisees also asked him how he had received his sight. “He put mud on my eyes,” the man replied, “and I washed, and now I see.”

Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.”

But others asked, “How can a sinner perform such signs?” So they were divided.

Then they turned again to the blind man, “What have you to say about him? It was your eyes he opened.”

The man replied, “He is a prophet.”

They still did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they sent for the man’s parents. “Is this your son?” they asked. “Is this the one you say was born blind? How is it that now he can see?”

“We know he is our son,” the parents answered, “and we know he was born blind. But how he can see now, or who opened his eyes, we don’t know. Ask him. He is of age; he will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders, who already had decided that anyone who acknowledged that Jesus was the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. That was why his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”

A second time they summoned the man who had been blind. “Give glory to God by telling the truth,” they said. “We know this man is a sinner.”

He replied, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!”

Then they asked him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”

He answered, “I have told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples too?”

Then they hurled insults at him and said, “You are this fellow’s disciple! We are disciples of Moses! We know that God spoke to Moses, but as for this fellow, we don’t even know where he comes from.”

The man answered, “Now that is remarkable! You don’t know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly person who does his will. Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”

To this they replied, “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!” And they threw him out.

Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”

“Who is he, sir?” the man asked. “Tell me so that I may believe in him.”

Jesus said, “You have now seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you.”

Then the man said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him.

Jesus said, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.”

Some Pharisees who were with him heard him say this and asked, “What? Are we blind too?”

Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.

JOHN 9:1-41
In the ninth chapter of the Gospel of John Jesus comes upon a man born without the sense of sight from birth.  Jesus spits on the ground and makes mud with his saliva and puts it in the man’s eyes.  His sight is miraculously restored after washing in the Pool of Siloam.  The disciples demonstrate the common prejudice of the time by stigmatizing the man’s disability, wrongly assuming that his blindness must be the result of some moral failing on his part or by his parents.  This is a deeply problematic assumption since the notion that blindness is a curse or punishment from God rather than simply another element of human diversity. Jesus rejects this line of reasoning and reframes the man’s condition as an opportunity through which “the works of God might be displayed in him.”  The religious leaders then investigate the healing and exhibit even greater doubt and disdain toward the blind man, questioning the validity of his healing and criticizing that it took place on the Sabbath. Jesus responds with a pointed rebuttal, explaining that his time on Earth is short and that “he has come into the world so that the blind will see.”  As a result, Jesus refuses to refrain from doing his acts of healing simply to observe the law of the Sabbath.   
Jesus freely gives the man the gift of sight, removing the unjust stigma that the religious leaders and others place on him for his difference. The act of performing this miracle will bring metaphorical sight to people who witness the miracle by showing himself to be the long-promised Messiah. By performing this miracle on the Sabbath, Jesus confronts and defies the power of the often hypocritical structures of his day, uplifting those who are at the margins of society and undermining those who are “blind” holders of earthly power.
Throughout the story the man’s faith and boldness only increases the more he is challenged. The blind man begins by describing his healer as the man Jesus (v 11), then refers to him as a prophet (v. 17), then one to be followed (v. 27), and finally, as “Lord” who is worthy of worship (v. 38). Despite the blind man’s witness and his parents’ testimony that he was indeed born blind, Jesus’ controversial act of healing on the Sabbath results in the religious leaders throwing the man out of the of the synagogue.  
As I reflect on this powerful story, I see a number of timely parallels and lessons that can be applied to the profoundly unjust system of mass incarceration and the often pernicious and far-reaching collateral damage that system causes.  
The stigma and judgment that the disciples and religious leaders show toward the blind man is reminiscent of the stigma and judgment that our society levels against the formerly incarcerated.  The religious leaders also show incredulity that a blind man could be healed, which mirrors so many of the doubts we see in our society around whether prisoners can be changed or transformed. Our faith calls on to see every person as worthy and capable of redemption.  Bryan Stevenson captures this ethic when he reminds us that “each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” 
When someone is convicted of a felony, the crime (if they were not wrongfully convicted in the first place) so often becomes a permanent stigma that is used to keep them under the control of the state, suffocating their ability to participate as full members of society even after serving their term. Just as the stigma that followed the blind man felt inescapable, returning citizens often find it difficult or impossible to escape society’s stigma. Stable employment that pays a living wage can be incredibly hard to secure when so many employers perform background checks and ask about your criminal record. What’s more, many states permanently revoke the fundamental right to vote from anyone with a felony conviction. These and many other forms of discrimination haunt returning citizens, which means that people directly impacted by the criminal justice system never stop being punished and controlled.  
Tragically, the American justice system is seemingly addicted to a punitive spirit that so often dehumanizes prisoners rather seeking to restore them. People who are incarcerated routinely lack the most basic care for their physical and mental health. Obtaining quality healthcare in prison is often difficult or impossible. Imprisonment can also carry with it direct risks to physical health, as we saw when COVID-19 was allowed to run rampant in prisons across the United States. The mental health burden of being imprisoned and the stigma that comes with it upon release can also have lifelong traumatic impacts. Just as Jesus refuses to tie the blind man’s identity and worth to his condition, we must also reject the ways in which the humanity and dignity of prisoners is often assaulted.   
The good news is that Jesus continually demonstrated a particular concern for those who are shunned and seeks to overturn and transform systems that oppress or stigmatize. In his inaugural sermon at Nazareth Jesus clarifies his central mission quoting from the words of Isaiah to “preach good news to the poor… proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4: 18-19). Jesus came that all may have life in abundance (John 10:10)—and who would be more likely to lack access to abundant life than people experiencing poverty, incarceration, or the stigma of a disability? While it is often overlooked, Jesus directly references the mandate in Leviticus for a jubilee year to take place every seven years that restores right relationships for all. Shouldn’t restoring right relationship serve as the overriding goal and North Star of our justice system?  
I believe if right relationship became our focus, we would reject the false choice between upholding accountability for crimes committed and respecting the dignity and humanity of those serving their punishment. We would devote massively more resources to restore and heal, rather than marginalize them when they return home to our communities. Our justice system suffers from a debilitating blindness. Let us work together to restore its sight by focusing on restoring right relationships.
The Rev. Adam Russel Taylor

Meet the Author

Rev. Adam Russell Taylor is president of Sojourners and author of A More Perfect Union: A New Vision for Building the Beloved Community. Follow him on Twitter @revadamtaylor.
Taylor previously led the Faith Initiative at the World Bank Group and served as the vice president in charge of Advocacy at World Vision U.S. and the senior political director at Sojourners. He has also served as the executive director of Global Justice, an organization that educates and mobilizes students around global human rights and economic justice. He was selected for the 2009/2010 class of White House Fellows and served in the White House Office of Cabinet Affairs and Public Engagement. Taylor is a graduate of Emory University, the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government, and the Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology. Taylor also serves on the Independent Sector Board, the Global Advisory Board of Tearfund UK, and is a member of the inaugural class of the Aspen Institute Civil Society Fellowship. Taylor is ordained in the American Baptist Church and the Progressive National Baptist Convention and serves in ministry at the Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, VA.