President Emeritus Bill Robinson

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Whitworth College 2007 Graduate Commencement Address

May 19, 2007
Bill Robinson

Lessons from a Beggar

I can't remember if it's puppies or Cubs fans who are born with their eyes closed. Maybe both. But puppies are different. After a few weeks they open their eyes. I grew up in Chicago. I know these things.

I had a friend who was blind. At age 50 he underwent a surgical procedure that gave him sight.  He was one happy man. He told me the two best things about getting his vision were learning how to drive a car and watching his daughter win a state championship in track. But even when he was blind, my friend was a visionary.

The Bible story Heath Katsma read this morning is also about a blind man. Actually, it is about a lot of blind folks. The man's neighbors and church leaders, and even Jesus' disciples all have vision problems. But the beggar receives his sight. In fact, the beggar ends up having the best vision of all.

One day Jesus and his disciples are walking down the road, and they see a man who's been blind from birth. The disciples ask Jesus, "Who sinned -- the man or his parents?" Jesus replies, "That's the wrong question, boys. Neither the beggar nor his parents sinned."

True. The disciples are asking the wrong question, but it is the one we love to ask: "Whose fault is it?" We see a problem, we look for a villain. We have the same visual problem as the disciples. We see the world through the eyes of cynicism. Too often, when we look for explanations, we look in all the negative places. Our lack of charity blocks us from seeing the full range of possibilities. What do we think at the grocery store when we are in line behind a person using food stamps? "Lord, who screwed up – this person or his parents?"

Jesus looks at the blind beggar and says, "Bad question, boys. This is an opportunity to do something good." I hope Whitworth graduates see the problems in this world as opportunities to do something good. I hope school principals say, "Here's a Whitworth grad. He always sees the best in his students." I hope employers see an applicant with a Whitworth master's degree and say, "This woman will look forward, not backward. She will see the bright side." Jesus said, "I am the light of the world," not "I am the dark of the world." We see better in the light.

So Jesus tells these guys that neither the beggar nor the parents are the villains and he decides to make something good out of the situation. Now, this is where the story takes an odd turn. Jesus spits in the dirt, stirs it up and makes some magic mud. At the Council of Nicea, in 325 A.D., it was affirmed that Jesus was fully God and fully human. That means his spit was no more sanitary than your spit. Leading optometrists tell us that it is hardly ever a good idea to put spit and dirt in your eyes. It's a very good thing this man can't see what Jesus is doing.

Jesus applies the mud and tells the man to go wash it off in the Pool of Siloam. It works. The man can see.

When his neighbors and friends see the man, they are incredulous. They can't believe this beggar who has been blind all of his life can suddenly see. They don't believe this is the same man. They cannot trust their eyesight. This group has vision problems born not of cynicism but of skepticism. They aren't trying to lay blame on anyone; they're just skeptical that this is the same guy. Skepticism shrinks our vision. Our disbelief fogs our imagination. And this is sad, because our achievements will never exceed the specifications of what we can dream. We need dreamers! They are the can-do people of this world who do do!

As Martin Luther King, Jr., sat in a small cell in the Birmingham jail, he wrote a letter to white pastors who had criticized the nonviolent demonstration that landed King in jail. At the deepest level, these pastors were telling King that his dream was unrealistic, not doable. They were peddling skepticism in the name of realism. King's long reply systematically dismantled their every claim. His hope was irrepressible. Toward the end of the letter he wrote this:

I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour. But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future…We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham, and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America's destiny. For more than two centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages… [and] they built the homes of their masters while suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation. And yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail.

Thank God, the skeptical pastors were wrong and justice prevailed. And the skeptics are wrong about the beggar. They can't believe he is the same man. But he replies simply, "I am the man." You da man!

At this point we've been introduced to two groups with impaired vision. Cynicism leaves the disciples with only partial vision – the negative part.  And skepticism fogs the vision of neighbors and friends – they can see no more than they can believe.

Now the story moves on to the Pharisees. The Pharisees were one of three Jewish sects, along with the Sadducees and the Christians. The Sadducees didn't believe in miracles, but the Pharisees did. They just found it difficult to believe that someone who wasn't in their club could or even would give sight to a life-long blind beggar. So, they had two variables to work with – the healer and the miracle. Imagine a little 2x2 matrix in your mind:

Good man, good miracle: Pharisees won't buy it.
Bad man, good miracle: Pharisees try to make that work.
Good man, fake miracle: That doesn't work for anybody.
Bad man, fake miracle: Pharisees' explanation of choice.

So the Pharisees first attempt to discredit the beggar's claim uses the bad man-good miracle theory. They ask the beggar how he received his sight. He answers, "A man put mud on my eyes, I washed it off, and now I can see." You'd think the Pharisees would say, "Yeah, right.  And pigs fly!" Actually, these were the keepers of Jewish law, so they might have been a little down on pigs, but you get the point. But instead of challenging the miracle, they ask, "What day of the week was it?" Now, this is what you call missing the point. This is having your girlfriend start a conversation by telling you she wants to be your friend and you thinking Aw, cool. But this is the Pharisees' first question. And when the beggar replies that it was on the Sabbath, the Pharisees respond, "Aha! Only a sinner would heal on the Sabbath." Bad man, good miracle.

The Pharisees then change their tactic and go after the miracle as well as Jesus. They summon the man's parents, who are very nervous about being interrogated by the Pharisees. The parents respond by saying, "Well, we know he is our son, and we know he was blind" – don't you love parents who are really involved with their children? – "Well, we know he is our son, and we know he was blind, but he's a big boy, you better ask him." So the Pharisees return to the beggar and go after Jesus, the miracle, and the beggar. Of course, the beggar thinks Jesus is the real deal and he doesn't have anything to lose: He's a beggar. So he lets them have it.

Verse 27: The man answers, "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?" This is so great, this bottom feeder of the caste system talking smack to the Pharisees.

Verse 28: Then they hurl insults at him and say, "You are this fellow's disciple! We are disciples of Moses! Verse 29: "We know that God spoke to Moses, but as for this fellow, we don't even know where he comes from."

Verse 30: The man answers, "Now, that is remarkable! You don't know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes." Verse 31: "We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly man who does his will." Verse 32: "Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind.' Verse 33: "If this man were not from God, he could do nothing."

Verse 34: To this they reply, "You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!" And they throw him out.

The beggar has been blind his whole life, yet he is able to see more clearly than the Pharisees who are students of Scripture and faithful practitioners of the law. Why can they not see?  

Certainly, cynicism and skepticism blur their vision, but I believe the blindness of the Pharisees is caused by a far more serious impairment. In fact, it might be the most blinding disease of the 21st century. The Pharisees cand not see because they will not see. They are blinded by tribalism. Jesus is not in their tribe. He can't be for real. Tribalism is about arrogance, not tribes. In this part of the country we know members of Native American tribes who show no signs of tribalism. Tribalism blinds those who believe in their own group superiority. We tend to think of tribalism in ways that let us off the hook. Take Nazi Germany or the Rwandan genocide between the Hutu and the Tutsi. Now, that's tribalism. We're certainly not that blind. But we can be tribal, even in our reaction against tribalism. We are horrified by ethnic oppression, so we lift up democracy as the solution. But we fail to see that our expression of democracy may not work as well in other cultures as it does in ours. And we get irritated. And pretty soon we catch ourselves being tribalistic in our opposition to tribalism.

Tribalism blinds us because it equates agreement with truth. We all agree, therefore we have the truth. Truth becomes indistinguishable from falsehood because there are no dissenting voices. Religious tribalism is especially blinding because it makes God a member of the tribe. Tribalism forfeits the uniquely human capacity to take a perspective other than our own. It is the refusal to enter into another person's world.

The story of the blind beggar is a story of impaired vision. The only one who sees clearly is the beggar who starts off the story as a blind man. The disciples are cynical, the neighbors are skeptical, and the Pharisees are tribal. When Jesus hears that the Pharisees have thrown the beggar out of the temple, he tracks the man down and asks him if he would like to meet the guy who healed him. "Sure," the man says.  Jesus replies, "You're talking to him." And the man believes in Jesus.

So what does this story have to say to you graduates who have been enlightened by the lamp of learning? If I could offer you only one antidote for cynicism, skepticism and tribalism, I know exactly what it would be. It's kind of a miracle drug for bad vision. It is grace.

Grace treats cynicism by filling in the knowledge vacuum with charity rather than blame. When a student does poorly or a business associate misses an appointment, offer the benefit of the doubt. Start with trust. You will be blessing two people. The person to whom you extended grace will feel less judged. And you will be less annoyed.

Grace treats skepticism by granting abilities and capabilities beyond what you can imagine, which generally means beyond your capabilities. Visionary teachers see students not for what they are but for what they can become. It takes grace to believe that a lazy child is capable of trying hard. Visionary businesspeople see what can be done, not what can't be done. On Thursday I attended the groundbreaking of Kendall Yards. Whether you think it is a good thing or a bad thing, it is an amazing thing. For Marshall Chesrown to look at 77 contaminated acres of land and see an urban village required more than self-confidence. It required the grace of believing that the city will help, the county will help, the state will help, the neighborhood will help, and the business community will help. It takes grace to see through the clouds of skepticism.

Finally, grace is a powerful antidote to tribalism because grace allows you to hear the truth from any source, not just from your group. Do you have the grace to allow for the possibility that those with whom you sharply disagree might be sources of truth? Do you have the grace to say, "We don't agree but I will respect you and learn from you"? When we all have that kind of grace, we will destroy the tragic polarism that tears us apart.

I love this story. A man born blind stands face to face with his Messiah, seeing and believing. Maybe this is why John, one of those cynical disciples, chose two characteristics with which to introduce Jesus: "... [T] he word became flesh... full of grace and full of truth." May you have the grace to see the truth. Because that truth will set you free. Congratulations, Class of 2007.