“As he passed by, he saw a blind man from his birth.” This is how John opens the story. Enter the disciples, who consider the blind man, not a man as such, they consider him more as a case: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?”
Undoubtedly you have heard about this notion of sin and punishment. This primitive idea that the consequences of sin are sickness and poverty. Thank goodness we have gone beyond these old ideas. I know that none among us have looked upon the poor, the homeless, the addicted and have definitely NOT thought of God justly punishing them. Well, as it turns out the Jews have never really had this notion of punishment and sin either. The Levitical purity codes were always egalitarian. Yes sin and all manners of uncleanliness could drive God away. But the purity laws and the various codes of cleaning were the ultimate social leveler. Each person was never more than a few days away from ritual purity, no matter their station. One of the points of the story of Job, was that sickness and misfortune are not necessarily linked to sin.
Jesus seems to understand this and says so, “it was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him.” I wonder what it was like hearing that? The blind man had grown up being told that he was a sinner or that his parents were. Here is a man who was certainly used to having the works of God made manifest in him, but as punishment. Now, someone is saying something new and he has a different tone, he’s not yelling for one, and now this mud.
Notice nobody is asking this man anything. He’s a case. Not even Jesus asks him, “Do you want to be healed?” Jesus just sends him off to the pool to make his mikvah, his ritual cleansing. Exit Blind Man, but John has us follow him, leaving Jesus and the disciples off stage. What follows tells how the-now-sighted man is received into his community after his healing. And it doesn’t seem to go well. Some don’t believe that he is the one who was blind. When he does convince them, and talks about his healing from Jesus, they bring him to the Pharisees who question him all over again, but this time they are asking him, not about his healing , but about the healer. “How did he heal you?” “How can a Sabbath-breaking sinner heal?” Still not sure about all of this, the Pharisees call in the man’s parents. And they just don’t want to get involved so they say, “Look, our son can make his own decisions, he’s of age, ask him.” The man really can’t get a break since he regained his sight, it’s almost as if his community liked him better when he was blind.
And this is where the story becomes less like holy writ and more like Night Court. Remember Night Court? Night Court was a cavalcade of 1980s stand-up comics who took turns making wisecracks, all set up by the judge, lawyers, and bailiffs. The Pharisees are getting impatient now and say: Give God the glory! Meaning: tell the truth! Ok, maybe it’s more like a Few Good Men, because I’m not sure that they can handle the truth. The man tells them what happened again, they press further and he asks “Why do you want to hear it again, Do you too want to become his disciples?” The Greek here is in on the joke, the man expects a “No” answer. His question might read more like, “You don’t want to become his disciples do you?” The Pharisees revile him and kick him out saying he was born in utter sin, putting us right back at square one.
Right back at square one, where we find Jesus. And if we read carefully, we see that the man does not recognize Jesus at sight or sound. Jesus asks, “Do you believe in the Son of man?” The man answers, “Yes, can you tell me who that might be.” And Jesus, ever the punster, playing on the man’s recent ocular improvement says: “You have seen him and it is the one speaking to you.” And the man worships Jesus.
And finally one last confrontation, this time between Jesus and some of the Pharisees. It’s the coup de grace on the whole affair, as if this entire passage were leading up to this exchange. Jesus says, “I came to judge the world, so that those who are blind might see, and those that are sighted might be made blind.” “So what, we’re blind then?” ask the Pharisees, and somewhat enigmatically Jesus answers “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.”
The End. The Gospel of the Lord. Praise to you Lord Christ.
Boy it sure feels good to be on the right side of that exhortation, doesn’t it? Good thing we’re not like those Pharisees. But you know the implication is on us. It always has been, and it is now. Like those Pharisees, we need to question this blind man who is no longer blind, but we need to go further and watch him and see what develops.
This blind man. This man who was not asked if he wanted to be healed, this man who defended Jesus’ actions without ever seeing him, or knowing what he was about, except that he was from God. Here is a person surprised by an uninvited Jesus. Here is a person that has an encounter that he just cannot understand, and this encounter does not hold up to the scrutiny of his family, his culture, even his own past. But, here’s the rub: as our blind, then-sighted, friend shows us, that kind of understanding, the intellectual and societal pigeonholing, is not really necessary. The understanding of how healing and God works in the structures that have come before, even in inspired ones, is not the point.
Here we have a story of the acts of God, we have a story of God’s works being revealed in a person! And what surrounds that person? Questions: Who, what, when, where, why, how; the questions are coming from people of faith, people of faith seeking understanding. It’s not that the Pharisees are asking the wrong questions, they are doing their due diligence; they are literally testing the spirit of what Jesus has done.
What is going on, I think, is that they don’t yet have the skills to relate with the blind man or with Jesus. There were those Pharisees who did seem to have the right skills, who could engage Jesus and the phenomena that came in his wake, Nicodemus for example, and in our story today the Pharisees were divided, meaning there were some who were trying to hear all this through.
But Jesus doesn’t make it easy on the Pharisees, and on us, when he drops this doozy: “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see, may see, and those that do see may become blind.” This puzzling phrase is rendered clear by watching this blind-man-who-isn’t-blind; what happens with him is the key.
Jesus didn’t just give the man sight. He gave him his blindness as well. Blind from birth! If you are blind from birth, can you even understand what it means to be blind? What have you got to compare it to? The sighted among us can close our eyes and at least imagine, however weakly, what it might be like to be blind. When you think it through, this man didn’t even know what blindness was until Jesus gave him sight. Blindness then, is not a condition of being, as much a lack of ability. Which is obvious, but it needs to be said in light of this reading because we tend to overly spiritualize these readings. We talk a lot about spiritual blindness, as if that were some kind of natural category. Jesus gave the man an ability to see his blindness. And in his mercy he will give the sighted blindness so that they may obtain perspective on their sin.
The healing then is a bestowal of a skill, a skill to see one’s blindness. To see where one has chosen, or been made, to be blind to one’s own injustices to ourselves and our neighbors. Where are you blind? Where are those subtle ways that you have hardened your heart to yourself, your neighbor, and your God? You are blind! Whenever you hear that one person and know, you know that the next thing that comes out of their mouth is going to be all wrong: you are blind. Remember that time when that jerk cut in line, remember? You kept your cool, you didn’t cuss him out, but you still carry that no account, ill-mannered, fool in your mind, you are blind. This hasn’t happened to you or me, but I’ve heard of it, when someone, no one here of course, when someone tears down another person, usually behind their back, and smooth’s it over with “Bless her heart.” That’s blindness!
But Jesus doesn’t seem to fault the blind, that’s the good news, Jesus doesn’t fault the blind: “If you were blind you would not have sin.” But, here’s the rub, Jesus heals blindness, and in that healing you receive sight to see how you were blind. Jesus grants the skill so that we can begin to reckon our blindness.
Funny thing is that sightedness and blindness in today’s gospel look a lot alike. Jesus also grants blindness, grants blindness, to those who in their pride say they see but show by their actions and understanding that they do not. There is this cycle that Jesus puts us on of sightedness and blindness, back to sightedness.
The common denominator though is Jesus, he is the one who gives us the skill, the sight to see our own blindness. Know this, you cannot encounter Jesus Christ and come back unchanged. Paul, blinded. Lazarus , raised. Mary of Magdela, set free. Changed. Andrew, Peter, James, John, Josh, Don, Jane, Bill: changed. It happens. What better place than the Church, and what better time than Lent, than to look and ask ourselves where we have been blind?
May Jesus come, even uninvited, come to find us where we are: when we do not have the sight to see him, find us in our blindness, and give us new eyes to see our blindedness and behold only him and the gift of new life that we have through him. Amen.