Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 19, 2023
John 9:1-41 Commentary
Thus far, the Lenten lectionary journey has brought us from Jesus’s temptations to his nighttime conversation with Nicodemus, to Jacob’s Well in Sychar. In each of these stories, we have been reminded of Christ’s lovingkindness and the very fact that it is impossible for us to understand how the Spirit is at work to change lives and reshape our understandings of the way things are and work. This week’s text is no different. As discussed in the textual point below, the verb oida (to know), is a key verb in the story of the man who has been blind since birth, but who is now healed by Jesus.
Notice who is doing the “knowing”: the healed man, his family, and the Pharisees. And though the verb is not used to describe his neighbours, the sense of the verb applies to their struggle to accept that the healed man is the same man that used to be blind and who begged on the streets. They know it can’t be him, even though the man keeps repeating that it is him. His neighbours demand proof of knowledge in order to believe: how did he get his sight? Explain it to them and perhaps then they will believe. When the healed man explains the facts of what he did by Jesus’s command but is unable to tell them where Jesus is now, his neighbours bring him to the religious authorities to get to the bottom of things.
But the Pharisees, and to some extent the healed man’s parents, instead of celebrating and giving glory to God for a miracle, use what they know to be right and “true” to protect the status quo. They know what is to be tolerated and what God will do (or allow to be done) on the Sabbath, and what has happened to this man is not within that scope—according to their knowledgeable judgment. Healing on the Sabbath is a sin, and therefore, this Jesus person could not be an effective healer since God doesn’t listen to sinners.
Yet, the proof is right in front of them: a man who was born blind and had never been able to see his entire life is now able to see and function in the world completely as though he has always been able to see. Stubbornly, they deny what is in their face, for what they “know” is that this is not possible. They have created a reality based on what they “know” and it means having to reject what is actually true. Like the folktale, the emperor’s “new clothes” are not clothes at all.
The healed man’s parents try to walk the tight-rope between these two conflicting “realities.” Knowing that the Pharisees are the power-brokers in the synagogue, and knowing that if the Pharisees deem that they have said the wrong thing they will be kicked out of their faith community, the healed man’s parents explain what they know. They confirm the reality that this is their son and that he could never see; but they don’t know how he can see now, nor who did it—even though the gospel’s narrative implies that they believe Jesus to be the Messiah based on what he has done for their son.
Clinging to their false narrative of what they “know” to be true, the Pharisees return to questioning the healed man, demanding that he fall in line and glorify God according to their knowledge: “Healing on the Sabbath is a sin, so call Jesus, your healer, a sinner!” They forcefully assert that they know this to be true even though they have not spoken to or even met with Jesus. It is a stark reminder that when we have constructed a reality or idea that we have made to be “the truth,” we will protect it at all costs—even as God breaks into it to speak real truth.
When the healed man simply tells them yet again what he knows, his personal truth is the actual truth, he was blind and now he sees, the Pharisees demand yet again to know how. Eventually, they say that they don’t accept Jesus because he doesn’t align with what they know about God and God’s agents like Moses.
The healed man finds this confounding. Here he is, living proof of the goodness and benevolence of Jesus, characteristics that all those who worship Yahweh should know to be true about God. The healed man essentially takes what the Pharisees “know” and tries to show them their purposeful ignorance: “How can you not know where he comes from? Look at what he has done! By your own admission, God doesn’t listen to people who are sinners, and yet, here I am, healed by Jesus! Jesus must be from God.” Unable to bring their perceived reality into alignment with truth because they are unwilling to change their minds about what they know, the Pharisees reject the witness of the healed man, driving him out of the synagogue and maintaining the false perception of being right for a little while longer.
Driven out of their presence, the healed man finds himself back in the presence of Christ. Jesus finds him, and makes known even more clearly what the healed man is coming to realize: Jesus IS the Messiah. The healed man not only knows the utmost reality, he believes it to be true. God is the arbiter and judge of what is real and true, and he will act to confound our perceptions about reality in order to afford us the opportunity to repent. Christ, through his Spirit, turns upside-down what we believe to be true about ourselves and about others. He transforms realities, brings healing, corrects false narratives and works for justice and righteousness. May we not fight for our own false perceptions of reality, like the Pharisees did, but repent and enjoy the truest reality: that of the inbreaking purposes of God’s loving goodness.
One word dominates the middle section of our text today, as the Pharisees go investigating this “bad” miracle, the verb oida (to know). From verse 12 to verse 31, the perfect tense of the verb is used eleven times. At each turn, every party is essentially saying, “here’s what I know/don’t know!” It underscores what we’ve been witnessing all along this Lenten season: we don’t know the how of the Spirit’s work, and that when we are confounded by a reality that does not match what we think we know, we’ve very likely encountered God. Dallas Willard wrote in The Allure of Gentleness, “Truth reveals reality, and reality can be described as what we humans run into when we are wrong, a collision in which we always lose.” Because, even if we can’t know the how, we can know God’s why, and God’s why trumps what we “know” every time.
[Note: We have a special page dedicated to further sermon ideas and resources for the 2023 Year A Season of Lent and on into Easter. Visit this page here.]
At the time of my writing this commentary, President Carter’s family announced that he was entering end-of-life hospice care, which has led to a number of reflections about his life and legacy. One quote I’ve seen shared is from a cover story for The New York Times Magazine written by Jim Wooten in 1995. In it, after Wooten describes Carter cleaning up his local church’s yard then flying the next day to Bosnia to try to negotiate a cease fire, Carter says, “I have one life and one chance to make it count for something. I’m free to choose what that something is, and the something I’ve chosen is my faith. Now, my faith goes beyond theology and religion and requires considerable work and effort. My faith demands—this is not optional—my faith demands that I do whatever I can, wherever I can, whenever I can, for as long as I can with whatever I have to try to make a difference.”
As most of us are aware, Carter kept this practice to the last years of his life—helping to build Habitat for Humanity homes even as his health and strength waned into his mid-nineties. In his commitment, Carter joined Jesus in the demand that Jesus gives in verse 4 as he moved to heal the blind man: “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.”
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