Lent 4A: The Gift of Sight
Years ago in the weeks following the September 11 attacks, perhaps some of you noticed something that a number of people were detecting during that dark and difficult time: namely, there was a lot of axe-grinding going in many circles. People from both sides of the political spectrum, and from most all points in between, used September 11 rather opportunistically as a validation for things they had already been proclaiming for years.
In England, the atheist Richard Dawkins highlighted the Islamic fundamentalism that fueled the terrorists, noting especially their motivation to commit suicide due to the promise of getting rewarded with 70 virgins in the next life. Dawkins then claimed that this only proved what he had been saying for years: all monotheistic religions are toxic. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are all equally bad and equally immoral in that they proffer promises for a paradise to come. Thus Dawkins held up September 11 and proclaimed, “So there!”
More well-known were the dreadful words of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and not a few lesser-known preachers who asserted that September 11 was God’s punishment for America’s sins. Conveniently enough for many high-profile televangelists, the sins they believed God was targeting were the same ones they themselves had been condemning the loudest for years (homosexuality chief among them). Thus some preachers likewise looked at the 9/11 devastation and proclaimed, “So there!”
It seems that we often want to make a connection between the bad things that happen in this world and the God we believe is in charge of this world. Some of what people said after 9/11 may have reminded some of us of what happened some years ago when California experienced a devastating earthquake. Desperate to make sense of this tragedy, one southern California church asked Richard Mouw to come to their congregation the week following the quake to help them discern what God was saying to the folks in that rather secular part of the country. It seemed that they were looking for some confirmation that maybe God was judging Hollywood for its loose morals. Mouw, however, was not interested in playing into any naive equating of that catastrophe with God’s wrath and so Dr. Mouw chose as his sermon text the portion of the Elijah story that says, “. . . but God was not in the earthquake”!
We are now about mid-way through this year’s observance of Lent. This is a time of the year that calls Christians to be particularly serious about sin, to focus on sin’s reality, to confess it, and above all to see where sin ultimately led Jesus: the cross. We need to be earnest about sin as Christians. Still, it seems that the Bible itself also calls us to a certain amount of measured prudence when it comes to our sin-talk, especially our attempts to connect the dots between a given person’s sinfulness and God’s alleged response.
There are, of course, places in the Bible where God himself makes clear that sometimes there is a correlation between a tragic event and God’s punishment. When God himself reveals such a judgment, it can be taken as reliable. However, even in the Bible, when human beings try to make such connections on their own, they nearly always get it wrong (the entire Book of Job is an extended example of such a misguided correlation).
The disciples in John 9 get things wrong, too. They see a man born blind and assume someone must have sinned. In John 9:3, however, Jesus provides the Bible’s single most striking counter-argument against the simple equating of bad things with specific sins. The blind man’s unhappy situation may ultimately be a tragic fallout of a world that had fallen into sin, but it was not the result of any proximate sin. In other words, sometimes a little holy agnosticism is called for when it comes to talking too glibly about other people’s sins.
The Pharisees possess no such pious caution. But by trying to parse out the events we read about in John 9, the Pharisees end up getting themselves into one whopper of a theological pickle! Even those of us who have never studied the philosophical discipline of logic probably can understand the simplest of all logic: the syllogism. A syllogism is a simple three-step argument containing two premises and a “Therefore” that is logically entailed by the premises. The classic syllogism is 1) All men are mortal. 2) Socrates is a man. 3) Therefore, Socrates is mortal. Or another very simple example would be: 1) All water is wet. 2) Rain is made of water. 3) Therefore, rain is wet.
In the case of John 9, the relevant syllogism goes like this: 1) Only someone sent by God could cure the blind. 2) Jesus cured a blind man. 3) Therefore, Jesus was sent by God. The logic of all that is pretty air-tight. So what do you do if you are a Pharisee who is desperate to deny that Jesus and God have anything to do with each other? Well, you start undermining the premises that lead to the iron-clad “Therefore.”
The Pharisees begin their undermining process by once again lobbing the sobriquet “sinner” toward Jesus himself. Since Jesus had, by their definition, broken the Sabbath, he could not be some God-sent prophet. You cannot break God’s law and be on God’s side at the same time. This claim doesn’t stand up for more than a minute or two, however. Because as the Pharisees knew all-too-well, you cannot deny the punch behind the premise that no one other than a heaven-sent servant of God could cure a man who had been blind from birth. And what made this whole thing a bit ticklish for the Pharisees is that precisely such a now-cured man is standing, fully-sighted, right in front of them!
Hence the Pharisees launch Plan B, which is to impeach the miracle itself. Plan B is to say that there was no miracle to begin with. It was all a set-up, a fake, a staged miracle. The man had never been blind to begin with. No prior blindness, no miracle; no miracle, no need to connect Jesus to God. Alas, Plan B does not work either as it soon becomes clear that the healed man is no impostor–he’s too well known as the town’s blind beggar. Premise #2 appears to still be intact: Jesus cured a blind man. Therefore . . . . Well, therefore nothing! The Pharisees will not concede this point.
So they fall back, re-group, and return to Plan A; namely, calling Jesus a sinner. But this tack works no better on the second go-round as this time it is the healed man himself who provides the counter-argument: no mere sinner could have the kind of pull with God as Jesus clearly has. Frustrated, fed up, and frankly also defeated, the Pharisees dispense with the man by returning to the same idea the disciples had when the story began: namely, it is this man who was steeped in sin at birth (which is why he was born blind in the first place) and so he is not a credible witness. You can’t believe a word this man is saying. He was sinful from his birth on, which is why he got born blind as a bat to begin with!
Hilariously, by calling this cured man a sinner as evidenced by his having been born blind, the Pharisees now tacitly acknowledge the miracle: “OK,” they want to say, “so what if he was healed? He was a born sinner and is still a sinner. So there.” Ah, but now they have played right into the logic of Jesus’ divine character after all! If they are now admitting that a man born blind has been healed, then it doesn’t matter who that man is, the fact of Jesus’ divine character remains! They cannot get out of this logically!
That’s why Jesus, having begun the story by repudiating the disciples’ cozy assumptions about sin, Jesus concludes the story by targeting the genuine sin of the Pharisees. If the Pharisees really were ignorant (or spiritually blind) as to the logic of all this, then they would not be guilty of sin. But Jesus knows (as did the Pharisees deep down) that they saw and understood the implications of this healing. Their spiritual eyesight was just fine. Their stubborn rejection of Jesus came not from blind ignorance but willful sin.
But the real tragedy of the whole story is that all of this wrangling and spiritual posturing keeps everyone from appreciating the marvelous miracle that happened. Like several New Testament healing stories involving the blind, so also here we see this blind man recover his sight and then immediately start to walk around like a typical sighted-person. However, as neurologists like Oliver Sacks point out, if it really happened this way, then this once-blind man was the recipient of a double-miracle: not only had Jesus fixed his optic hardware but Jesus must have installed also the necessary mental software that allowed the man to make sense of the information coming through his eyes.
Although we do not realize it most of the time, the ability to see is one-part a physical phenomenon but also one-part a mental exercise. Functioning as a sighted person requires having access to a long backlog of visual experience. That’s why blind people who surgically receive the ability to see cannot instantly begin to act like all other seeing persons. Without having had any prior experience with things like depth perception, the formerly blind find themselves reaching for objects that are actually well out-of-reach even as they may knock over a glass of water which is closer than they thought.
Likewise the once-blind misjudge steps and bump into walls all because they have not yet acquired the knack for interpreting visual data. Some even continue to use their white canes for a while so that they can slowly begin to connect how the world has always felt through the tip of the cane with how it now looks through their eyeballs.
As it turns out, this matter of sight is a bit more complex than we might think. But then, John 9 bears witness to this same fact, albeit in a spiritual realm. As is the case in many classical Greek dramas, so in John 9 irony is created through the fact that the man who had been blind turns out to have a sharper spiritual vision than people who never had any optic difficulties. Conversely, the Pharisees, who believe their vision can penetrate spiritual matters with laser-like precision, turn out to be the truly blind ones.
But sometimes we are, too, and just here is where the “shoe” of this passage may pinch our own feet a bit more than we like. John 9 counsels caution to those who, out of a sincere but misguided desire to show pious seriousness, say more about the sins of others than they know. By way of counter-example the Pharisees, through their convenient dismissal of both Jesus and the healed man as lousy sinners, remind us that it is possible for the devout to use the sin label as a way to avoid people–folks who, if only we would listen, have something important to teach us. More chillingly still is the end of this story which contains more than a hint that sometimes the very people who talk the most about sin (other people’s sin, that is) are themselves the most blind, sinful folks of all.
Perhaps it seems odd to encounter such a text half-way through Lent. In some ways John 9 could make us wary to talk too much about sin smack in the middle of a season which centers on sin! But perhaps this passage calls us not to dispense with sin-talk but to import into our doctrine of sin a slogan of the ecological movement: Think Globally, Act Locally. The global, sin of the world is a matter of great seriousness–it explains why the Son of God came to die. But too much focus on all the sin that is “out there” in the wider world can quickly transmogrify into a self-righteous smugness. This can then make us so blind to our own need for grace that we become stingy in doling out this same grace to those around us.
In a scene from the chilling film Unforgiven, a young gun-slinger from the Old West is trying to convince himself he did nothing wrong in having just shot another man dead. “Well,” he nervously muses aloud, “I reckon he had it coming to him.” To this, Clint Eastwood’s character replies, “We all got it coming to us, kid.” That scene is one of those startling vignettes of common grace by which a vital theological truth whip-saws your whole being from the middle of a rather unholy context.
We all got it coming to us. It’s too easy sometimes to see someone suffer something but then conclude, “Well, he got what he deserved, got what he asked for. She smoked too much, he ate at McDonalds too often, she didn’t take her medications regularly enough, he wouldn’t listen to his parents. He had it coming to him. She got what she asked for. (And by the way, I’m glad I’m not like that!)”
If the gospel contains good news, it is that by God’s grace, we none of us get what we otherwise deserve. That’s why grace is good news, and it’s not just good news for other people but for me, for you. Does this mean we may never warn someone of the potential consequences of this or that action? Does John 9 mean we may never draw any conclusions as to what may have brought about a given tragedy? No, but it does mean that we should never do so from some alleged position of spiritual superiority and, above all, it means that we need to be very, very shy about claiming we always know the cause-and-effect relationship of most every situation.
John 9 concludes with an interesting little discussion between the cured man and Jesus–a discussion apparently overheard by some Pharisees. The funny thing throughout this story is that because of the way Jesus healed this man, the man had quite literally never laid eyes on Jesus. So after the Pharisees excommunicate this man for having the audacity to get healed on the Sabbath, Jesus approaches him. He’s no doubt dazed and bewildered. How could the best thing that ever happened to him have turned out in any sense to be bad? As he is mulling this over in his dizzy brain, Jesus comes up and asks, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” Again, this cured man had never seen Jesus and so cannot recognize him. But when Jesus directly tells him who he is, the man falls down in instant worship.
Then Jesus says something interesting. Earlier in this Gospel in John 3, we heard Jesus say “The Son of Man did not come into the world to condemn the world.” But now we hear Jesus saying, “For judgment I have come into the world.” Those two statements seem to contradict: he didn’t come to condemn but he did come to judge? Yet seen the right way, these two sentences actually do go together. Jesus did not come to condemn people like the Samaritan woman at the well or this once-blind man because they were people caught up in the confusions of a sinful world–people who were eager to welcome a Savior if they could only find one. Jesus didn’t come to condemn or judge these spiritually needy folks but to save them fully and freely by grace.
So who did Jesus come to judge? He tells us himself in verse 39: he came to judge those who were willfully blind, who see only what they want to see in spiritual matters. He came to judge and to make blind those who made their living by seeing only the sins of others but never their own; those who protected their privileged status in the religious world by keeping the spiritually needy at bay.
To put it mildly, there is a lesson in that for us in the church today, too. “Who is the Son of Man? Tell me so that I may believe in him.” That’s what this man asked, that’s what some people today still ask. It is our privilege and joy to have the answer ready for them: to have and to give the answer to all those people in this world who need the grace of Jesus no more and no less desperately than does every last one of us. If your eyes are open, then you see that. Blessed are they who see. Amen.
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