How To See

Often my father would say: “I see, said the blind man.” He wasn’t making fun of blind people; he wasn’t the kind of person. But he was indicating that he understood something conceptually. It is this same kind of seeing that is at work in the story of Jesus’ healing of the man born blind in John’s Gospel.

I recently came across a story out of the sixth century Gaza monastic tradition that offers a profound commentary on this Gospel narrative. A monk had developed a profound hatred of a fellow monk and decided he would find a way to get this fellow monk into trouble. Since the fellow monk was a bad monk, he was obviously guilty of something, so getting him into trouble should be no trouble at all.

This hateful monk kept a sharp eye out for anything his hated fellow monk did wrong and–sure enough!–he saw this fellow monk wandering among the fig trees, picking figs, and eating them. This sort of gluttony was most unbefitting a monk! He ran straight away to the abbot and told him what he had seen.

The monk’s vengeful glee did not last long. The abbot informed the monk that he had sent the slandered monk off on an errand for the monastery and there was no chance that he was eating figs at the time when the vengeful monk saw–or thought he saw–him doing that. The vengeful monk was proven to have been seriously deluded and was shamed before the community for his slanderous accusation.

In the world view of the sixth century monastics, the illusion was caused by demons and the story was told to warn monastics of the tendency of demons to cause such illusions. What we can see easily enough today, just as the sixth-century monastics could, is that it was hatred on the part of the monk that inspired the demons to give him such an illusory sight. The monk thought he could see, but was blinded by his own hatred. We see much the same dynamic at work in the Gospel story: the accusatory “Jews” thought they could see but were blinded by their hatred of Jesus and, by extension, of the man Jesus had healed. The formerly blind man loved Jesus for what Jesus had done and could see clearly at all levels. Imagine what this vengeful monk could have seen if he had loved his follow monk! Did he learn to see after this incident as God meant him to see?

On Washing our Eyes at Siloam


“I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” (Jn. 9: 39)

This is one of the harder of the hard sayings of Jesus. It suggests that if we can see, we really can’t and if we can’t see, then actually we can. In the story of Jesus’ healing of the blind man in John 9, the blind man sees pretty well in many ways even while he is still blind whereas the “Jews” prove to be blind as to what is really happening right before their eyes. The overt irony throughout the narrative makes it clear that physical sight is symbolic of the ability to see at other levels. We say “I see” all the time to indicate that we have understood something.

The trouble is that most of us think we can see very well at this figurative level. That is, we think our worldviews are correct, or at least mostly so. Jesus’ admonition should make us stop and think about that. If we are sure that we see, we are actually being pretty sure about ourselves, which gives us a pretty good chance, amounting to a certainty, that what we think we see is wrong, at least in important respects. So how can we truly see?

I think we are helped by the famous admonition from the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” (Mt. 7: 1–3) Jesus makes it quite clear that judging other people automatically blinds us severely. This fits exactly with the story of the blind man in John. The assumption on the part of the disciples that either the blind man or his parents had sinned makes them blind on account of the judgmental attitude. The “Jews” are highly judgmental of the blind man for letting himself be healed on the Sabbath and all the more judgmental when the formerly blind man doesn’t see things their way when they explain the matter to him.

The problem now is that I am getting a bit judgmental about “the Jews.” Jesus has exposed their blindness and since I can see that, I assume I can see. But if I can see what “the Jews” don’t see, then there is the possibility, I mean likelihood, that I am becoming blind. I am seeing the speck in the eyes of “the Jews” and not seeing the log in my own. This blindness is quite serious when I reflect on the centuries of persecution of the Jewish people with stories like this present one being a pretext for that.

If we really want to see, we have to really understand that judgmentalism is our favorite blood sport and it really can be bloody in a literal sense. If I see a speck in somebody’s eye, that speck is probably there, but seeing the speck should be fair warning of the log in my own eye. We need to take Jesus’ advice and go to Siloam to wash the log out of our own eyes. If we do that, we will be much less judgmental and a lot gentler about helping other people with the specks in their eyes.


See also: Seeing with more than the Eyes and Sight and Vision Recreated.