Overconfidence in what we think we know can betray us. This week, Faith in Real Life discussed the story of the man born blind whom Jesus healed. No one could believe it; certainly not the Pharisees, but not even the man’s own family. Their preconceived notions of how the world operates wouldn’t allow them to consider the miraculous. But our Lenten journey to the cross, and the whole of our faith depend on it.
1As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3 Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. 8The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” 9 Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” 10But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 11He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” 12 They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”
13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. 14 Now it was a Sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15 Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” 16 Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the Sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. 17 So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.”
18The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19 and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” 20 His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21 but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” 22 His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23 Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”
24So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” 25He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 26 They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27 He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” 28 Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29 We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” 30The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31 We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32 Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34 They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.
35 Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36 He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” 37 Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” 38 He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. 39 Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” 40 Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” 41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”
Last week Jesus saw a child of God across the many social categories and prejudices that diminished her value and worth. Human valuing brought exclusion and disdain. Godly seeing brought new life. This week, Jesus once again inverts human assumptions and explanations of good and evil. This time he crosses religious certainties and assumptions about sinfulness and suffering. A man born blind had no place in religious society. His blindness was proof of sinfulness and by definition, he deserved exclusion.
Humans struggle mightily with suffering and sin. We go to great lengths to explain it. Our explanations might be preposterous but they serve to protect us from the vulnerability that comes from acknowledging our entire lives can turn on a dime and we do not know why. Abused children would often rather believe they did something to deserve the pain in their lives rather than face the reality that their parents are cruel and do not care. It is better to be at fault (in which case, if only we were good enough, we would not have to suffer) than it is to face that sometimes we are vulnerable and helpless. Sometimes there is no reason or protection. We are left to rely upon God at the very moment we feel most separated from Him. But that is where Lent and the passion story leads us. More on that later.
One of the steps in the Lenten journey is Jesus’ encounter with a congenitally blind man. The conventional wisdom of the day was that congenital blindness could be explained as a consequence of sin—either his sin or the sin of his parents. ‘Bad’ things don’t just happen. There must be a reason. (There were (and are) actual theological debates as to whether a fetus could sin). Implied is that his blindness was deserved, and therefore, with proper living, avoidable. We might not know what the man (or his parents) did, but the fact of his blindness was proof of sinfulness. Jesus rejected such assumptions out of hand and goes on to shine an entirely new light on subject.
Jesus gives the man physical sight and in the process reveals the spiritual blindness of the entire community—and especially the religious community. When his identity was questioned, the blind man kept saying ‘I am the man’ but the people were so used to not seeing this man, they wondered if he were a look-alike. They are not convinced until they go to his parents for verification and even they keep their distance. Though something wondrous has happened, the primary reaction is incredulity and detachment. Typically, we have the same problem. If something new comes into our lives—even something wondrous, we are often more skeptical than joyous.
There is a story, probably apocryphal, in which a man’s car breaks down on a lonely two-lane road. His tire is flat. As he gets out of the car he notices a man looking through the fence, watching him. It turns out the car has broken down on the edge of the local mental institution and the man watching is a patient. The patient does not speak but he stares. The driver is uncomfortable but he starts to change his tire and places the lug nuts in the hubcap so he wouldn’t lose them. That would have been a good idea but a semi driving by caught the edge of the hubcap and flipped the lug nuts completely out of sight. As he stood, befuddled and unsure what to do, the patient spoke for the first time. “Why don’t you take one nut from each of the other tires? You, at least could get to a gas station.” Relieved and amazed, the driver asked how he had come up with that idea. The patient replied, ‘I’m here because I am crazy—not because I am stupid.’ The driver had not even considered that a crazy man might be his rescuer. Likewise, the Pharisees could not imagine that a sinner could teach them.
In another example, a couple had been struggling to stay together ‘for the kids.’ They made a conscientious effort to fight behind closed doors and to protect the children from their estrangement. When they finally decided to divorce, they agonized about breaking the news. But the 13 year old dispelled their worries when his response was, ‘Shocker.’ The children were well aware. When we say, ‘out of the mouth of babes,’ we are simply acknowledging that truth can come from unlikely sources.
We see what we expect. Nothing new can enter if we insist on keeping old ways of seeing. The Pharisees already ‘knew’ what sinning meant—they already knew who was righteous. To consider anything else turned their world upside down. The blindness of the Pharisees was their unwillingness to see outside of their categories. Their certainty precluded anything new—which meant that in the name of God there was no room for God. Confronted with something wondrous, they first doubted, and then attacked the source. Jesus could be discounted because he had no credentials (they did not know where Jesus came from) and because he was a sinner—-after all, he healed on the Sabbath. And finally they expelled the blind man because he was living proof that the unexplainable had occurred. You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out. They worked very hard to preserve what they knew.
Our political climate is full of examples of modern day blindness. Over and over, arguments shift from issues to the legitimacy of the news source. We refuse to listen to news from sources that typically disagree with us. The other side is always accused of twisting the truth or being fake. We all protect our own view of the world by dismissing contrary points of view. But our certainties make us blind to the new and the transformative. In Genesis language, our certainty is our self-righteous knowledge of good and evil. In this story and in the gospels, that is what Jesus came to correct.
When we review our spiritual lives, we can explain and interpret our histories in many ways. In a secular society, there are always questions and doubts about ‘what really happened.’ The introduction of the unknown, of mystery is suspect and often dismissed out of hand. It is the reason that in both the first century and our own, there is nothing that Jesus did that all who saw believed. Belief does not come from wonders performed. New understanding, new sight comes from belief. For the believer, God is present is in every aspect of life. For the non-believer, no amount of wonder can convincingly persuade that there is even a God.
In fact, most of us can no more explain God’s presence in our lives than the blind man could explain his sight. Sometimes all we can say is what the blind man said—I do not know how this happened, I just know I now see the world in ways I could not imagine. Spiritual transformation often leaves us speechless. Even the blind man needed to be told what happened. Transformation comes from God. Jesus had to give the man sight in the first place and then Jesus had to explain who he was. “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” Part of our faith journey is always instruction.
We are in Lent and we all know this season ends in the most dramatic transformation we could imagine. But this transformation comes at great price and includes great suffering. That is something we need to be reminded of when we are suffering.
I do not believe God made the man blind so that he could give him sight. I do believe that God can be present and transformative in the most hopeless and helpless predicaments of our lives. That is a huge faith claim. It cannot be explained but it changes how I see.
Gracious giver of life, interfere with our certainties that we might see. Let it be so.