Here’s the sermon I gave last night at Journey. It’s the last thing I’ll say about what happened at WorldVision last week. And, as with all sermons, it’s better heard than read, so I put the sarcastic bits in italics.
Today’s story from John 9—and it’s a long one—asks us the question, What do you see? And let me tell you, what we see is radically important. It affects what we believe, what we do, how we live.
Jesus and his disciples are walking along when they encounter a man blind from birth. And so, right off the bat, here’s the question: when encountering a blind man, what do you see?
The disciples, for their part, tell us what they see by the question they ask. Now, there are all kinds of questions they could have asked when they saw this: How can we help him? What makes society exclude him? What’s his story? What can we do to integrate him into the community here? Or even, Jesus can you heal him? But the question they ask, of course, is this one: Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?
What they saw was a man who was, to use a loaded phrase, depraved from birth. A man who showed physical evidence of spiritual sin. They saw a theological topic of discussion. What stood before them was the philosophical conundrum of generational sin, and what they wanted to know was, how does it work? Jesus, can you show us a flowchart of the generational effects of sin?
The disciples saw exhibit A in their philosophy course. Jesus saw a man who needed healing.
So he doesn’t take the bait. He rejects their question at its premise. Jesus answers, instead, “Neither of them sinned.” Now, the next part of verse 3 is often translated “so that.” “Neither sinned but he was blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” This makes some people imagine this man being born blind and suffering all this time just so twenty years later Jesus can show up at the appointed time and heal him in front of other people for show. Because, you know, Jesus is like that. But this word in Greek is a transitional word. It’s used to move from one idea to the more central idea, so it can also be translated “nevertheless” which seems to make more sense. “Neither this man or his parents sinned. Nevertheless, God’s works may be revealed in him.” You can also translate “so that” as “Moreover.” He and his parents didn’t sin! Moreover, God’s works can be revealed in him! “Moreover” transitions the disciples from one topic (sin) to a different, more central topic (the healing work of God) without throwing Jesus under the bus as some diabolical anti-humanitarian in the process.
That’s a big change from seeing the man as a lab rat. This man can reveal what the right-side up world of God looks like. And so Jesus goes straight to what he does best, which is to heal and restore and show love.
He does this with mud, which is at least as equally impressive. Maybe he uses mud to show us it doesn’t take something entirely otherworldly to do this work. Maybe he uses mud as some symbolic, subliminal jab at our fear and preoccupation with cleanliness. Maybe he uses it just because mud feels really great squished between your hands. But mud it is, or technically dirt mixed with a little of his spit, which had to just put cleanliness freaks a little over the edge. He spreads that mud right on this guy’s face and says, “Go wash that off in the pool.” So the man does, and we know already the man begins to see. But the story continues, now with a new question: when encountering a healed man, what do we see?
The neighbors, and here we use that term loosely, questioned whether this healed man was, in fact, the previously blind man. They argue about this for a while, some saying it’s him, others saying it’s someone else. It’s clear they’ve taken good care of him, what with really knowing what he looks like.
Meanwhile the healed man is trying to help them out by just telling them the answer- it’s me! He says. I’m the man! But they kept asking him, then how were your eyes opened? So he tells them how Jesus took mud and put it on his eyes and had him wash it off and then he could see. And they ask, well where is this Jesus? And the guy says, I don’t know.
Everyone looks around. Nobody sees Jesus.
So now the neighbors decide to take this man to see the Pharisees. He’s asked the same questions, he gives the same answers. Again, responses are divided. Some say, this Jesus didn’t observe the Sabbath so he’s a sinner. Others said, then how can he perform such signs? This time, they turn voluntarily to the healed man and ask him what he thinks of Jesus. The man says, “He’s a prophet.”
The Pharisees decide they may be looking at a liar.
They call in the parents of the healed man, to verify precisely how blind he was. I mean, was he really, fully blind, or was he begging on the side of the road all these years because he just has some dark spots here and there? The parents say, no, he was fully blind from birth. Then the Pharisees ask the parents how he was healed. They know not to mention Jesus if they want to ever go back to their synagogue again. So they defer to their son. He’s of age, they say. Let him tell you.
What the parents see most prominently is not a miraculously healed son but a potential for societal rejection. And seeing this way, they acted accordingly.
The scene turns back to the healed man. The Pharisees now beg him to give glory to God by denouncing the man who just healed him of blindness. This is an impossible situation. What kind of answer can you even give to this kind of question?! The healed man sticks to the facts. “I don’t know whether he’s a sinner or not. All I know is that I was blind and now I see.” Well, this makes the Pharisees see red. Let’s read the next few verses:
They said to him, ‘What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?’ He answered them, ‘I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?’ Then they reviled him, saying, ‘You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.’ The man answered, ‘Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.’ They answered him, ‘You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?’ And they drove him out.
When the Pharisees encountered a healed man, what did they see? They saw not a healed person but a theological conundrum. How can someone perform miracles while breaking religious laws? For them, the glory of God is at stake here. The purity and righteousness of God is on the line, and it must be put even before the healing of a blind man. Give glory to God! They demand. But what they really mean is give glory to our hierarchy of holiness, where what someone does on the Sabbath is more important than what suffering and isolation a person endured every day of every year.
This conflict escalated for the same reason Jesus didn’t answer the disciples’ original question: the parties were discussing two entirely different things. The disciples wanted to know who sinned, while Jesus just wanted to heal the man. The Pharisees wanted to denounce sin, while the healed man just wanted to thank Jesus.
It seems that preoccupation with other people’s “sins” can really blind us to what is important.
Jesus gets word that the healed man has been thrown out, and he goes to look for him, and when he finds him, he asks the only on-topic question in this entire chapter, the only question in 41 verses worth asking: do you believe in the Son of Man? And the healed man answers, “Who is he? Tell me, so I can believe in him.” This guy trusts Jesus so much that he’s willing to believe by proxy in someone else. Jesus tells the man it’s him. The man says, “Lord, I believe.” And then Jesus delivers one of those cryptic lines he’s always spouting in John’s gospel. He says, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”
At some point in this conversation, some Pharisees have come along, and they heard this last part. Part of me wonders if Jesus didn’t say it not only loud enough for them to hear it, but said it only SO they would hear it. Sure enough, they take the bait, because they are not half as smart as Jesus, which is exactly why he sets them up with sentences like this. They ask, “Surely we aren’t blind?” That’s an odd way to ask that question, isn’t it? It shows their hand, because it’s a question asked out of amusement. How funny, that this Jesus could think THEM blind?!
And Jesus says, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”
And here is our difficult Lenten confession: when it comes to what we see, we see so little that we don’t even know where we are blind and where we are not. We assume we’re people who see. We think we know things. But here’s the truth of the matter: We are blind to the people in front of us. We are blind to the needs of others. We are blind to our own navel-gazing self-righteousness. We are blind to what is most important because we are distracted by things that aren’t. We are blind to our own privilege, which allows us to debate things from a distance. We are blind because we can’t see the work of God when evidence is standing right in front of our faces. We are blind because we have done the wrong things, and we have left undone the right ones.
God have mercy on us. We can’t see a thing. And this is why we need Jesus. We need Jesus because his eyes are always focused where we, too, need to be looking. He shows us what it means to see, and to see rightly. And yeah, sometimes those eyes of his are blazing right on us and we know we need to change, but we never doubt for a second that he loves us, and that he believes we can do better, and that he trusts us, for some insane reason and certainly against MY better judgment, to do his work here in the world.
When I consider why I follow Jesus, it’s who he shows himself to be in stories like this that are my answer. Because if this week has reminded me of anything, it’s that humans can be self-righteous morons who are asking the wrong questions and debating actual human suffering as if it’s an idea and not a reality. And God have mercy on all of us, I’d like to see us all become more like Jesus, who did not ever debate pain in the third person. Suffering and loneliness and exclusion and discrimination were not ideas to him, or political positions- they were real, hurtful human experiences that were to be redeemed in every way possible.
This blind man was a pawn in society’s system. Every oppressed person plays this role. They are at the whims of what the social institution deems important. They are at the mercy of those of us with privilege who decide whether or not they are worth our attention. This man was also forced to play the role of the patsy. If he was the one they could point to as being born and steeped in sin, then they could feel that much better about themselves. His job was to make them—make us—feel more self-righteous. And more often than not, we will defend that system every chance we get, even if it means tossing oppressed people to the lions, or worse, simply living as if they aren’t there in the first place.
Jesus is the only one in this entire story who didn’t play this man like a pawn. He’s the only one who treated this man like a full-fledged human being, worthy of respect in his own right. Jesus healed him twice. Did you notice that? He healed his blindness, and then when the man was driven out because he wasn’t the patsy anymore, Jesus came to him and healed his isolation. This man was given a place in the beloved community of God, where there are no pawns.
Jesus is the only one who noticed this man, the only one who saw him.
I would like to be able to see like that. I think we all come here in no small measure because we’d like to be able to see like that, because we need to practice, and be reminded, and confess all the ways we don’t, and try again. That’s what Lent is for, certainly. But that’s what every day is for. Every day we can choose how we see the world. Will we notice suffering and respond? Will we leave our posts of privilege to see something or someone from a different point of view? Will we be wise enough to know which questions are worth answering, and which should be filed under “chess games?” Can we seek to create the kind of world where nobody has to play the pawn? Will we try to see this world and all that is in it how Jesus sees?
May it be so. And thank God Easter is coming. Amen.
*the image at the top is an Ethiopian icon