John 9:1-13, 26-38
March 30, 2014
Healing the Blind Man
During Lent the Gospel will be presented in worship as dramatic readings before the sermon.
Narrator: As [Jesus] walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him,
Disciple: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
Jesus: “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.”
Narrator: 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,7saying to him,
Jesus: “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam”
Narrator: (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,
Neighbor : “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?”
Narrator: 9Some were saying,
Neighbor : “It is he.”
Narrator: Others were saying,
Neighbor : “No, but it is someone like him.”
Narrator: He kept saying,
Blind man: “I am the man.”
Narrator: 10But they kept asking him,
Neighbor : “Then how were your eyes opened?”
Blind man: “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.”
Neighbor: “Where is he?”
Blind man: “I do not know.”
Narrator: 13They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind.
Pharisee: 26How did he open your eyes?”
Blind man: “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?”
Narrator: 28Then they reviled him, saying,
Pharisee: “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.”
Blind man: “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”
Pharisee: “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?”
Narrator: And they drove him out. 35Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said,
Jesus: “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”
Blind man: “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.”
Jesus: “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.”
Blind man: “Lord, I believe.”
Narrator: And he worshiped him.
As I listen to the conversations around Jesus’ healing the blind man, I am both annoyed with the disciples and want a better answer to their question. Though the text doesn’t specifically say they were in earshot of the blind man when the disciples asked Jesus whose sin caused him to be born blind, it does give that feeling. I want to scold them, “How could you be so insensitive; didn’t your mothers teach you to be more polite than that?” But like the disciples, I also want an explanation of inexplicable suffering. I want Jesus to make sense out of senseless calamities. In this sermon I don’t want to give you simplistic answers to insoluble problems, yet I do want your faith to be strengthened and your spirits encouraged.
In my nine months with you, I have heard again and again, “I don’t understand why God would let Lynne Norwood suffer the way she did. She was such an example of faith, courage and love. She did so much for this church and this community. Wouldn’t God have wanted her to keep going? For her life to be cut short is not only unfair, it seems counterproductive for God.” Theologically, it is true that God sees more than we do and has purposes we can’t understand, but that does not satisfy our questioning. We, at least, want to know what makes our suffering worthwhile and meaningful.
The past couple of weeks we have struggled with understanding what happened to Malaysian Airlines flight 370 and why. Instant global communication regularly confronts us with catastrophes of such scope and distance that we are helpless to respond meaningfully. For the disciples, the blind man was in their path in Jerusalem. For us the people of Ukraine, Syria, South Sudan are digitally abstracted, yet our human kin.
Jesus seemed to have been prompted to heal the blind man by the disciples’ question. What if they hadn’t asked? The Gospels record only 26 healings by Jesus. Some were crowds of people coming to him, but most were individual. John 5:1-9 says many invalids: blind, lame, and paralyzed lay at the Pool of Beth-zatha, but he healed only the seemingly passive-dependent man who had been there making excuses for 38 years. After Pentecost, the Apostles healed a lame man in Acts 3:2 and many others in 5:12. Jesus must have walked by them when he was in Jerusalem. Why didn’t he heal them?
Jesus’ answer to his disciples’ question heads them and us in a different direction than we expect.
At first glance, we are relieved to know that we do not deserve all of our suffering because of our sin. To think that our pain may bring glory to God sounds ennobling. However, the way our English translations read, Jesus seemed to be saying God imposed blindness on this man and his parents, just so Jesus could come along years later and heal him, which just doesn’t seem fair.
The words translated “so that” (v. 3) can mean cause, but they can also mean result. So, rather making the man blind so Jesus could heal him later, God’s glory resulted from Jesus healing him. Either is grammatically possible, and the commentators understandably prefer the later.
In Jesus’ answer to the disciples’ question he went on to say, “We must work the works of him who sent me.” (v. 4) Rather than pondering an explanation, for Jesus the blind man was an opportunity for compassionate action. He went on to repeat what he had said at the Feast of Tabernacles (7:2, 14), “I am the light of the world.” (8:12) fitting right in with healing the blind man and confronting the Pharisees about their spiritual blindness. (9:40-41) You may remember that after 9-11, Fred Rogers said that his mother had told him that to find the good when disaster strikes, he should look for the helpers. I think Jesus was telling his disciples and us, that when disaster strikes, we should look for ways to become helpers.
The blind man did not ask Jesus to heal him. He didn’t even seem to be aware of who Jesus was at first. Yet, he must have heard the disciples’ insensitive question and wondered who this was that said he was the light of the world and was putting mud on his eyes. His healing came before he expressed faith. He got to faith by stages.
The text does not say Jesus said he would receive sight when he washed, but he went and washed and came back seeing for the first time in his life. As this healing was not a restoration to former sight but seemingly the creation of sight, people could not believe it was the same man. But he said, “Oh yes, I am the man.” (v. 9) When they asked how his eyes were opened, he gave a Joe Friday, “just the facts” answer, “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.” (v. 11)
I don’t think the people thought they were getting the man in trouble when they took him to the Pharisees. I think they were going to their teachers to help them understand how something so amazing could have happened. But the Pharisees were already suspicious of Jesus, and this happened on Sabbath, so their questioning quickly became hostile. The man is not intimidated. He got cheeky, chided them and said Jesus was from God. (v. 33)
When Jesus heard that he had been thrown out of the synagogue, Jesus went and found him, but he didn’t either comfort or commiserate. Jesus asked, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” (v. 35) Though blindness had prevented the man from learning to read or reading Scripture, he knew that “Son of Man” was a Messianic title. So with some excitement, he asked, “Who is he so I can believe in him?” We might paraphrase Jesus answer to the man who was seeing for the first day of his life this way, “You’re looking at him!” Just like the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well, he immediately recognized Jesus as Christ, the Son of God and confessed, “I believe.” Without hesitation that awareness prompted him to worship Jesus.
The man did not ask Jesus, “Why did I have to be blind for so long?” He probably appreciated that Jesus acted toward his blindness with power and compassion. I can try to act with compassion when I see people in pain rather than being paralyzed by trying to explain the inexplicable. Compassionate action for people I know may be difficult but is realistic. Whether locally or globally, being overwhelmed by need produces compassion fatigue. Giving to the Salvation Army or Week of Compassion does make a practical difference, but can feel distant and insignificant. Whether the lost Malaysian airliner or the violence in Syria, some suffering seems hopelessly intractable. Compassionate action is good and important, but we still long for something more satisfying.
From many people in this congregation and community, besides questioning why Lynne Norwood suffered, I have heard even more of how much she gave to others through her suffering. Her courage, her faith, her love, her determination have encouraged and inspired hundreds, maybe thousands of people. The practical benefits to this congregation and community are immeasurable. I would not dare to suggest her suffering was necessary for those benefits to accrue, but I can affirm that in her suffering she relentlessly drew on and pointed to Jesus.
Through the centuries Christians have launched and sustained many of the world’s greatest humanitarian enterprises, but we don’t have a monopoly of compassion. So whether a one-to-one personal helping hand to a person in pain or a shared undertaking as a congregation or Christ based group, drawing on Jesus is essential. Without his spiritual sustenance, we will soon be overwhelmed and burnt out. While blatantly flaunting an effort as Christian can be counterproductive and offensive, pointing to Jesus as our incentive, leader and empowerment gives enduring purpose and offers hope.
True as these may be, they do not get to the bottom of the mystery of suffering. From Apostolic days, the Church has seen Jesus in Isaiah 53:3, “a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity.” I rather like how KJV put it, “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” St. John of the Cross wrote about his experience of being met by Jesus in “the dark night of the soul.” Ignatius of Loyola wrote about the rhythm of “consolations and desolations” intrinsic to the journey with Jesus. When we were living in the Daybreak community, we were coached to look for the presence of Christ in the pain of the mentally handicapped core members. For 21 years now, I have tried to cultivate that as a personal spiritual discipline. When God brings someone across my path who is suffering, I try to look for Jesus in them. I am trying to recognize that here is someone who knows sorrow and is acquainted with grief with whom Jesus identified. Can I identify with them? Can I see Jesus when I look at them?