Monday, March 20, 2023

Seeing vs. Perceiving


John 9:1-41

Lent 4 / Year A

Our gospel readings this Lent get longer and longer each Sunday.  Today’s story of Jesus healing a man born blind is, at one level, an interesting piece of literature consisting of seven vignettes:

1.   Jesus heals the man.

2.   Neighbors question the man.

3.   The Pharisees question the man.

4.   The Jews question the parents.

5.   The Jews question the man again.

6.   Jesus revisits the man.

7.   Jesus challenges the Pharisees.

Note Jesus appears in only three of the seven.  This truly is the blind man’s story.

One scholar of John’s gospel notes the man’s story mirror’s Jesus’ own story:

·       People question his identity.

·       He asserts “I am”.

·       His testimony about himself is rejected.

·       He is accused of being a sinner.

·       He combats the Pharisees with a combination of sarcasm and truth.

·       The encounter ends with an ironic punchline: Those who think they can see are blind while those who are blind can see… who Jesus is.

This scholar says the story functions as a picture within a picture – known as the Droste effect (named after a Dutch product whose logo features a person carrying a can of the product).  All of this is to say there is a lot going on in this narrative.  And there is a lot here competing for our attention – way more than any preacher should try to tackle single sermon!  Let’s focus on the end; on who is blind and who can see. 

Throughout his ministry Jesus draws from the prophet Isaiah.  One of his favorite verses comes from chapter 6, verse 9:  The Lord said to me, “Go and tell this people ‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but not perceiving.’” 

Other versions translate ‘never perceiving’ as ‘learn nothing,’ ‘gain no knowledge,’ ‘do not understand,’ ‘do not comprehend,’ “You will look and look, but never see,” and “No matter how much you look, you will not know what is happening.”  When Jesus says the Pharisees are blind, he is saying they do not perceive who he is.  The Pharisees and the blind man see the same thing, but perceive it differently.  One holds only a person sent from God can open the eyes of the blind.  The other holds it is a sin to do work on the Sabbath, therefore Jesus is a sinner.  The old adage holds seeing is believing, but really perceiving is believing.

Sight is function of the eyes – what you look at.  Perception involves awareness, recognition, discernment, and understanding – what you make of what you see.  We spend about 2/3rds of our day with our eyes open.  Given the average life expectancy is around 78, this means we spend 456,000 hour looking around.  We take in a massive amount of visual information; way more than we can process.  As a result, our brains have developed the capacity to use most of what we see without ever considering what it means.  For example, you walk around your house and manage not to bump into things, but never consciously focus on it.  You drive your car for hours and at the end of the day are not aware of single conscious decision you made during the process.  This is seeing.

Perception involves analyzing the information we deem to be important, categorizing it, comparing with previous information, making sense of it, and interpreting it within our larger context.  Much of the time the process of perceiving new information merely reinforces what we already know – the wind is picking up and the sky is getting dark so a storm is probably coming.  Other times new information is perceived in such a way it challenges our existing notions – at last Wednesday’s potluck I learned gravy and grape jelly make for a pretty tasty combination on tenderloin.

Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes both see the same clues.  While Watson fails to recognize their importance and meaning, Holmes perceives their significance and place within a larger narrative.  Watson is blind while Holmes can see.

One final thought… there are times we are tricked by what we are seeing.  If you want to have an existential crisis, go home and google ‘optical illusions.’  You will not believe how easy it is to manipulate our eyesight and to dupe our brains.  Magicians are masters at it.  The Pharisees in today’s story see events one way and are completely blind to any other possible explanation.  A great, spiritual question always to ask yourself is this: “Am I sure?”  Am I sure what I believe to be true is true?  What are some ways other people see what I am seeing?  What are some other possibilities?  If my perception makes the most sense, so be it.  If something else makes more sense, than I will change how I think, how I act, and what I believe.