Texts: 1 Sam 16.1-13; Eph 5.8-14; Jn 9.1-41
While we disagree with the conclusion they drew about Jesus and his work, it is not their theology, but their dismissal of the testimony of the man born blind that John holds up as evidence of their own blindness. They cannot see God at work in Jesus because they are blinded by their certainty in their own correctness, their own righteousness. If we become unable to see God at work in those we call Pharisees today for the same reason, then we risk making the same mistake the Pharisees in John’s story did and we show ourselves to be just as blind.
But this, I think, is the point of the story. It’s not a story about “good guys” vs. “bad guys,” but rather a story about how human beings can get so caught up in what we think is right or correct or good that we miss what is right under our noses. It starts with the disciples’ question: “Rabbi, who sinned—this man or his parents—that he was born blind?” They take for granted that blindness (or any other illness) is a punishment by God for bad behavior. Their question to Jesus betrays their certainty in their own worldview, a certainty that Jesus upends with his reply: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but in order that God’s works may be revealed in him, we must do the will of the one who sent me…”* Jesus denies that God did this to him at all, but instead proclaims that God is at work in the healing of his sight.
Then, throughout the story, all the background characters—the man’s neighbors, the Pharisees, even his own parents—debate what has happened, in spite of the man’s repeated testimony about what happened and the fact that it took place in public with plenty of witnesses. It is not only the Pharisees, but nearly everyone else in the story who is blind on some level to what is going on around them.
This includes the man himself, even after his sight is restored. Through his repeated questioning by his neighbors and the Pharisees, even though the facts don’t change, his own understanding of what happened to him slowly evolves. First, he calls Jesus as man, then a prophet, then a righteous man, then a man sent from God. All the while, his faith is slowly being strengthened through his continual facing of the Pharisees’ challenges to his testimony, building to the point that at the end, he is finally ready to confess Jesus as God’s Messiah, the Son of Man. Though his physical sight is healed all at once, his spiritual blindness is healed slowly by degrees and only made whole at the end of the story. When Jesus meets up with the man again, remember that this is the first time the man has ever seen Jesus, and that he may or may not recognize him as the one who put the mud on his eyes. Now that he has been prepared by his trials, the man is ready to see Jesus for who he is.
But in John’s gospel, seeing isn’t believing; believing is seeing. It may be cliche and trite, but that’s the point John is trying to get across with the story of this blind man. His sight is restored at the beginning of the story, but it is not until the end when he recognizes Jesus as the Messiah that he truly sees by the light of the world. Meanwhile, the Pharisees never recognize this, and remain blind.
That’s why I think John’s point is that we are all blind. “If you were blind, you would have no sin,” Jesus says, “but because you say, ‘we see,’ your sin remains.” Nobody in the story—the neighbors, the disciples, the man’s parents, the Pharisees, nor the man himself—completely sees what is going on. It is only Jesus who reveals God’s work. The man—who was born blind--sees this and eventually recognizes him as the light of the world, the one revealing the Father. The Pharisees, despite the man’s repeated testimony, do not, primarily because they are unaware of their own blindness. This is what seems to make the difference in the story: the people who recognize that they are blind and in need of healing are able to see God revealed.
There are a lot of different Christians who believe lots of different things about God; not to mention all the other faiths out there who believe lots of other different things about God or the divine. We sometimes get so caught up in who is right and who is wrong that our religious traditions can blind us to God. The story reminds us that it is not religion, but Jesus who gives true sight; if we admit our own blindness—admit that we do not have a monopoly on God or on truth—then we may just be able to recognize the light of the world when he shines in unexpected places and through unexpected people.
The real story here is about what Jesus does. If we read this story with an eye to what Jesus himself is doing, the first thing we will notice is that nobody asks for this man to be healed; he displays no faith in Jesus’ ability to heal him. Jesus takes the initiative and acts so that “God’s works might be revealed.” He then completely disappears for the most tense and confrontational part of the story and only reappears after the man has been written off and separated from his community to help him receive his whole sight.
Like the man born blind, each of us has had some experience in which Jesus has found us and changed us. Some may seem more profound or make for better stories than others, but if nothing else the Son of Man finds us each week at the table, has washed us in the waters of baptism, has sent us to work the words of the One who sent him. As we once again journey through Lent, we are reminded that we all see partially but also still groping a little bit, putting our trust in the light of the world to guide us.
As a part of our journey, we face trials and challenges to our faith like the man born blind. As we face those challenges, we remember that it was the man’s testimony—his processing and explaining what had happened to him—that helped prepare him to receive his full sight, his faith in Christ as the Messiah. Though we are wary of not placing too much faith in our own ideas about who God is or what God is like, telling others about what Christ has already done for us is important; not will not only help others come to see the light of the world, it will also help prepare us to receive our sight, as well. Just because we can see doesn’t mean we are not still blind. That is why we continue to gather together here, around font and table, because somehow in the midst of this invented tradition and imperfect community shines the light of the world, and somehow we are able to see it.