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healing blindReflections on John 9: 1-41
Our reading this morning is from the Gospel of John, Chapter 9 – the whole of Chapter 9 actually.  Because it is such a long reading, the elements of a sermon will be woven in as the scripture story progresses.

As [Jesus] walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.  His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

In Jesus’ day, blindness and other physical disabilities were understood in a theological way, as punishment for sin, which carried through from generation to generation.  Prosperity and health were indications of righteousness but illness, and poverty, were indications of sin.  Some people still hold with a variation on that idea: the prosperity gospel, for example, suggests that if you are a true believer, you will prosper and have good health, wealth and achievement.  I hope, though, that that idea has lost traction.

But the question is not a strange one for its original time.  And although the disciples may have been trying to nitpick with their question, it does suggest that we be on the lookout for a larger issue:  just who is a sinner, really?
Also notice, here at the beginning, that the man born blind did not ask for mercy, did not asked to be healed, did not ask to receive his sight.  Blindness was his actual, real state of being; he made his living being a blind beggar.  That’s the way it was.  And, because he could not see, he also, in effect, could not be seen.  He was easily overlooked – invisible.  Blindness was a two way street.

The man born blind did not expect anything about his life ever to change.  But you cannot come in contact with Jesus and think life will go on as usual.  

Jesus then quickly moves from the particular and literal into the metaphorical and theological essence of the chapter.  The point is not to find a cause or a purpose for the man’s blindness but to present it as an occasion for doing God’s works of healing.  And so Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.  We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.  As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.    

Is the man born blind the example of all humanity being blind to God’s continuing presence and activity in the world, as the Holy Spirit, when Jesus is not physically present?  And is that what constitutes a real sin, then?  To intentionally remain spiritually blind?

Jesus then begins the actual transformation of the man born blind.
When he had said this, Jesus spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent).  Then he went and washed and came back able to see.  

The story does not stay at this happy ending.  There has to be an explanation, and everybody, it seems, tries to have one.  The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?”  Some were saying, “It is he.”  Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.”  He kept saying, “I am the man.”  But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?”  He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’  Then I went and washed and received my sight.”  They said to him, “Where is he?”  He said, “I do not know.”

But this simple testimony is not enough for them.  There must be a better explanation.  So they brought him to the Pharisees.  These were the men in authority in the synagogue who were charged with teaching and interpreting God’s word and commandments to the people.  They were the ones who were supposed to have spiritual vision and insight. Now here is this Jesus, presuming to know God and God’s ways more intimately than they do.  

Not surprisingly, the Pharisees were not swayed and the conflict between Jesus and the synagogue authorities becomes quite pronounced in the next verses.  The Pharisees were blinded themselves by their rigid interpretation of the law.

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind.  Now it was a Sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes.  Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight.  He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes.  Then I washed, and now I see.”  Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God [Jesus, that is], for he does not observe the Sabbath.”  (no work is to be done on the Sabbath)  But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner [doing work on the Sabbath] perform such signs?”  And they were divided.  So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him?  It was your eyes he opened.”  He said, “He is a prophet.”

The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind?  How then does he now see?”  His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes.  Ask him; he is of age.  He will speak for himself.  His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.  Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”

So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God!  We know that this man is a sinner [that is, Jesus].”  He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner.  One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”  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 the 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.

Notice at least three ideas here:

  • Neighbors, Pharisees, parents – they all can see that Jesus has restored the blind man’s sight and they all fail to see it for what it is. They are all blind in one way or another to Jesus, the light of the world.
  • As the man tells his story over and over, his own understanding of who Jesus is becomes clearer.  First, he doesn’t know where Jesus is anymore (or who he is, for that matter); then he supposes Jesus is some kind of prophet; and finally he fearlessly declares that Jesus is from God.
  • The man is continually speaking from out of his own personal experience with Jesus.  The Pharisees grill him:  “What do you say about him?  It was your eyes he opened.”  His parents say:  “Ask him; he is of age.  He will speak for himself.”  Now, the man formerly blind is not unaware of what the Pharisees say about God and how to be correctly observant in the practice of the faith, but his personal encounter trumps the doctrine and law of organized religion.

In the final scene of this drama, Jesus and the man once blind speak with one another again, underscoring the personal relationship that has formed between them.  Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”  He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.”  Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.”  He said, “Lord, I believe.”  And he worshiped him.  Jesus said, “I came into the world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”  Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?”  Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin.  But now that you say, ‘We see’, your sin remains.  
The man born blind can see now, and not just with his eyes.  The questions, ‘Who is the sinner and what constitutes a real sin?’ have been turned back on the religious authorities and redefined.  Who is really blind?  And who can really see?

Have you ever talked with anyone who has experienced Jesus?  One who has had a near-death experience or a vision or an angel visit?  I have, several times.  And the point is this:  we confess Jesus, we do not explain him.  There is so much written about Jesus the man – the history of his time, the language, the customs, the geography, and so on – and that is all very interesting, but it is not convincing proof.  What matters ultimately is what mattered to the man born blind, and that is what you believe about Jesus.  Confession of faith – and living according to that confession - is everything that God wants, asks and indeed, expects from each of us.
One pastor, commenting on this passage, wrote:
In the darkness, we have the luxury of having conversations about the sin and sufferings of others without acknowledging our own sin.  In the darkness, we are free to pretend that we don’t see the suffering and pain of those around us, that we are not called to respond with love and healing.  Jesus, however, has not come to enable us to remain in the dark.  Jesus has come to bring light to the blind, even those who believe they can already see.
Jesus takes all of the deep darkness and the willful blindness of this world upon himself upon the cross, and he does so to open our eyes… [to see those who suffer and to see Jesus himself]…
Once we see Jesus, we are no longer free to be blind.  Those who worship Christ are called to see what is right in front of our eyes:  the hungry, the homeless, the displaced, the terrorized, the marginalized, [the list goes on and on]. (Lyle 19)

It is to see our fellow human beings as Jesus sees us, as God sees us. Recall the comment from the first reading, when God sent Samuel in search of David to be king of Israel.  At first Samuel marveled at David’s brother Eliab, who seemed to be quite worthy.  But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him… for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

May this be a word for each of us.  Amen and amen.

Lyle, David R. “Reflections on the lectionary.” Christian Century 1 Mar. 2017: 19.

Rev. Kathryn Henry
Peapack Reformed Church
Gladstone, NJ
March 26, 2017

khenryRev. Kathryn Henry
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