Wednesday, April 13, 2011

John 9:1-41[1]
Our eyes are truly amazing. We can detect minute variations of hues in thousands of colors. We can see in bright sunlight and also in almost complete darkness. We can determine the relative distance and speed of moving objects. And yet, at the same time, we can be incredibly blind to what is obvious. Especially when something is “out of place.” Like the set of keys on the counter right in front of us. Or the cell phone that is still lying exactly in the same spot where we put it.
Our Gospel lesson for today is a story about how we can be blind to what is obvious. We tend to think of the metaphors of light and darkness in terms of those who are “enlightened” by their religious faith versus those who are still “in the darkness.” But our Gospel lesson turns the tables on all that. In this story, it is the religious authorities who are blinded to what is the obvious truth, something they should be able to see plainly, something right under their noses. And it is to some extent one who was viewed as an unlearned vagrant who points out what they are so unable—or unwilling—to see.
The episode begins with Jesus encountering a man who had been born blind and who had spent his whole life seeking the charity of others in order to support himself. Part of what makes this story ironic and even humorous, however, is that while the narrator continually speaks of him as “the man who had formerly been blind,” the religious authorities go to great lengths to try to disprove or discredit or simply avoid this obvious truth. As it turns out, they are the ones who are truly blinded because of their religious assumptions—or should be say prejudices?
Well, the first blinder in the story is that anyone who suffers tragedy must have brought it on themselves by some grievous sin. Jesus’ own disciples voice this belief, asking, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). Their question reflected the common religious view that if you do what is right you will be blessed by God, but if you do what is wrong you will be punished. But Jesus exploded the myth. I like the way Eugene Peterson translates Jesus’ response in The Message: “You’re asking the wrong question. You're looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do” (John 9:3, Message). In essence, the religion of the day taught that anyone suffering from tragedy surely must have done something terrible to deserve such a fate. In a very real sense, the religion of our day still teaches that! But Jesus says that tragedy in our world is an opportunity for us to demonstrate “the works of God” (John 9:4): kindness, compassion, mercy, and generosity!
The next blinder that comes up in the story has to do with the fact that Jesus healed “the man who had formerly been blind” on the Sabbath day. Because Jesus dared exercise God’s mercy by healing this man, the religious authorities believed he had “broken” the Sabbath and therefore assumed that he was a “sinner.” Some of them put it this way: “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the Sabbath” (John 9:16). The assumption was that these particular religious authorities were the experts on what one must do to please God. And since Jesus didn’t follow their meticulous rules about keeping the Sabbath holy, he must have been a sinner.
Ironically, it is “the man who had formerly been blind” who exposes their folly. The religious authorities keep pressing him, trying to find a way to avoid the obvious conclusion that this man had been born blind and Jesus had restored his sight. Finally, in exasperation they say, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner” (John 9:24). And this unlearned, marginalized, very like unkempt man, who just that morning had been living on the street, shows a depth of insight beyond any they possess. He says, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see” (John 9:25).
Think about it: one of the ways we religious people go around trying to make ourselves look and feel good is to brand other people as “sinners.” At one point the religious authorities fire off what they must have thought was the ultimate insult: “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” (John 9:34). At one point even “the man who had formerly been blind” buys into the idea that “God doesn’t listen to sinners” (John 9:31, CEV). But it seems to me that if God doesn’t listen to sinners, we’re all in trouble! Surely when it comes to labeling who’s a sinner and who’s not, we should heed the wisdom of “I don’t know.”
The end of the story finds Jesus making an ironic pronouncement: “I am here to give sight to the blind and to make blind everyone who can see” (John 9:39, CEV). In a very real sense this is what the story of “the man who had formerly been blind” is about. The Message puts it this way, “I came into the world … , so that those who have never seen will see, and those who have made a great pretense of seeing will be exposed as blind” (John 9:39, Message). This story is about exposing how those who think they are so pious and holy and righteous are the ones who completely ignore the grace and mercy and compassion of God. It’s not the “sinners” who go around making a pretense of being holy and pious and righteous. It is the religious people, the church members, the elders and deacons and ministers and priests of this world who make “a great pretense” out of their religion, going around labeling other people “sinners.”
But, as in the case of the authorities in our gospel lesson, all our religious pretenses and assumptions and prejudices tend to be elaborate means for justifying and validating ourselves at the expense of others. They wind up blinding us to what is obvious, to what should be as plain as the nose on our face. They keep us from seeing the people around us, not as “sinners,” but as beloved children of God. They keep us from seeing other people with God’s eyes, which are eyes of mercy, and compassion, and love.[2]

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/3/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. Desmond Tutu, God Has a Dream: a Vision of Hope for Our Time, 71-98. Cf. especially p. 97: “if we had the eyes to see, we would look at one another and see the beauty of God, and we would treat each other with appropriate reverence and awe”; and “when we begin to look for the light of God in people, an incredible thing happens. We find it more and more in people—all people.”

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