The Blind Man and Lawrence of Arabia

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Sunday of the Blind Man, June 5, 2016
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
Acts 16:16-34; John 9:1-38

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen. Christ is risen!

Men have looked upon the desert as barren land, the free holding of whoever chose; but in fact each hill and valley in it had a man who was its acknowledged owner and would quickly assert the right of his family or clan to it, against aggression.

This observation about the culture of the Middle East was made by the famed British author and adventurer T. E. Lawrence, best known as Lawrence of Arabia, in his book Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which is the memoirs of his time in the deserts of the Middle East fighting in various wars.

One of the wars that Lawrence joined as a young army officer was the Great Arab Revolt, which began exactly one hundred years ago today, on June 5, 1916. This revolt was the fruit of the rise of Arab nationalism within the Turkish Ottoman Empire, whose aim was independence from the Turks and the establishment of an Arab state stretching from modern Syria in the Levant to Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula, nearly the entire Middle East except for Iran.

Lawrence was notable among Englishmen of his time in that he was not one of those who looked upon the desert as a vast stretch of available land, free to be held by whoever chose. Through his long experience in the region, he came to know that the desert was a rather complex place with its own customs and strangeness that baffled those who did not look closely at it.

Unfortunately, his countrymen were those who did not consider too deeply the inner character of the Middle East, and while the revolt, with the help of the British and the French, resulted in the independence of the Arabs from the Turks, it did not create a single Arab state. Instead, the British and the French divided up the Middle East between themselves under their two “mandates,” a kind of protectorate status that eventually led to the Middle East as we now have it—divided in some cases almost nonsensically, with whole peoples and cultures straddling multiple borders.

The various independent states of the Middle East with their rivalries and often violent complications were not foreseen by those revolutionaries that allied with the likes of Lawrence of Arabia. Americans often speak of the Middle East as a land of endless wars, but its history over the last few millennia is largely relatively peaceful, with the land being held by various long-lasting empires who conquered and then kept the peace for long stretches. The modern situation of numerous rival states is the direct result of the break-up of the region after the fall of the Ottoman Empire orchestrated by the revolt with its European allies.

But things were not rosy even for the British. In 1920, Lawrence wrote these words of the British adventures in Iraq: “The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honor.” Clearly, the British did not foresee what would come of their own involvement.

This was not the first time that kind of thing happened in the Middle East, of course. Those who have read the books of the Maccabees in the Orthodox Old Testament will observe that the presence of the Romans in Judea, who are shown as foreign occupiers in the New Testament, was actually at the request of the Jews themselves. The Jews invited the Romans into Judea to help them fight off the Seleucids and Ptolemies, only to find themselves turned into a client kingdom of Rome. Once again, those who made this alliance did not foresee where it would lead.

In our Gospel lesson for today, the sixth Sunday of Pascha, we read about the healing of the man born blind. And while we celebrate this remarkable healing, a kind of healing that no one had ever heard of before then, we as the Church meditate today especially on the question of what it means for us to be spiritually blind.

In some ways, the question of spiritual blindness seems uncomplicated. We are all spiritually blind. We are all ill-informed on the true state of our own spiritual lives and of the world as it truly stands. None of us really sees the world as it is. None of us knows the real truth about ourselves.

But this is not all there is to spiritual blindness, as we can see in the Gospel. We have the blind man himself, who is literally blind, but his is not the only blindness in this story. There is the blindness of the disciples of Jesus, who want to know who was being punished by this blindness—the man or his parents?

There is the blindness of the Pharisees, who only see what they think is a violation of their law—that Jesus must be a sinner because He is healing people on the Sabbath. And there is also the blindness of the man’s parents, who deflect questions away from themselves rather than bear witness to the miracle that they can see has happened.

All of the blindness that we have been talking about—with the exception of the physical blindness of the man born blind—is a spiritual blindness that comes from one basic yet critical failure. It was a failure of the Arab revolutionaries as well as their European allies. It was a failure of the Jews inviting the Romans into Judea. It was a failure of the disciples of Jesus in interpreting the source of the blindness. It was a failure of the Pharisees in not seeing the true significance of the healing. And it was a failure of the blind man’s parents in avoiding the opportunity to witness to the truth.

What is this failure? It is a failure of relationship. The source of spiritual blindness is a failure of relationship.

If the Arabs had truly known the Europeans coming to their aid, they might have chosen differently. And the Europeans might have chosen differently had they really known the Middle East and listened closely to men like Lawrence. And had the Jews known the Romans, first century Palestine might have looked different. Had the disciples of Jesus listened to Him better, they would have known that not all suffering is a punishment for sin. Had the Pharisees known Jesus, they would have understood that they were seeing not a man bound by the Sabbath but the Lord of the Sabbath Himself. And had the blind man’s parents known their son better, they would have seen that their love for him should transcend their fear of the Pharisees.

In our own lives, the source of spiritual blindness is also a failure of relationship.

Why is it that so many marriages have suffering and tension? It is because husbands and wives do not know each other well enough to know that they are both imperfect, both suffering people who need the love of the other to show them Jesus Christ.

Why is it that it is so hard to repent of our sins? It is because we do not know the Savior Whose forgiveness and tender-hearted mercy ought to attract us to Him magnetically, inspiring us to run quickly away from our sins.

Why is it that so many people belong to churches and yet participate either nominally or inconsistently? It is because they do not know the Jesus Whom they are ignoring.

We are spiritually blind. In one way or another, all of us are—perhaps in several ways, if you’re at all like me. And being blind, we do not see what is going to happen as we stumble along. When a marriage falls to pieces, or a spiritual life is not strong enough to withstand the shocks of this world, or damnation itself comes at the end of life, there will be many people who are surprised and perplexed—this is not what they were expecting at all. They just did not see it coming. They were blind.

So, what then must we do? In the words of the Philippian jailer we heard in the reading today from Acts: “What must I do to be saved?”

It is really very simple. Come and know this Jesus. Come and know Him. You may think that you are doing “enough” as a Christian, that you are a “good member,” but do you know Jesus? Only you and God know the answer to that. As we nurture and develop our relationship with Jesus in faithfulness, we find that He places His hands down into the muck of this world and then onto our spiritual eyes. He encourages us to wash them with baptism and repentance in confession. And then our blindness—a blindness we were born with—is washed away in His grace.

To the Christ Who heals the blind as they grow in knowledge of Him, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, be all glory, honor and worship, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen. Christ is risen!

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