A Meditation on John 9
As they say, “Ask a silly question, and you’ll get a silly answer.” I count about eight to ten silly questions in today’s Gospel story, like “Are you really the man born blind?” and “How did Jesus heal your eyes?” They make sense the first time around, but they get sillier the more people ask them, for the second or third time. For silly, they’re right up there with the question that the radio comedian, Fred Allen, asked after he went to the ballet: “Why do ballet dancers dance on their tiptoes? Couldn’t they just hire taller dancers?”
But the worst question comes from Jesus’ disciples, when they see the man born blind: “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Now, what sense does that make? Jews like them most definitely did not believe in reincarnation. But how or why would anyone be punished at birth for a sin he had not even yet had the chance to commit? For sheer silliness, that’s right up there with a question overheard at an airport ticket counter: “So, how do I get off a non-stop flight?”
But that question, “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” is not so funny as much as it is cruel. In their defense, we might say, “Give them a break! They’re only trying to defend God by finding a logical way to justify the suffering, loss and limitation they see, like the man’s blindness.” Kind of like what Job’s so-called friends tried to do, when they tried to make him confess the sins that supposedly brought about his sufferings. But Jesus says, “No one sinned, neither he nor his parents,” at least, not in such a way as to merit going blind, or else everyone should be blind.
No, Jesus says, “this blindness happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” When it comes to the mystery of sin, suffering and evil, Jesus does not so much look backwards for a reason to explain them, certainly not to justify them. Jesus looks forward, to alleviate suffering and evil. Jesus’ way of seeing does not mean just standing back and analyzing people and the causes of their troubles; it means empathizing with people, leaning in and engaging with them. As for the question of why there are suffering and evil in the good world of a good God, Jesus does not call his disciples to defend God, as much as He calls us to demonstrate God. Of course we can’t help but wrestle with such questions. I don’t have it all figured out. I still believe that God is good. Yet our most effective witness to a suffering world is when we demonstrate God with actions, rather than just trying to defend God with arguments, words and ideas.
God has however cast a light on the thorny problem of sin and suffering. But it’s not one for the usual philosophy books. It’s personal, more than it’s philosophical. It’s relational, more than it’s intellectual. You don’t need a Ph.D to grasp the light which God has shed on the problem of suffering, sin and evil, because that light is a Person, not so much an idea nor an argument. That light of hope in a world going dark with despair, that light of love in a world going dark in fear, estrangement and violence, that light of truth in a world running after lies, is Jesus.
“I am the light of the world,” Jesus says in today’s passage. Jesus is the light of the world, because he shows us most clearly who and how God is. He is also the light of the world because he shows us who and how we can be, and shall be, if we hold fast to the light he gives us, as did the man whom he healed from blindness. He is the Light of the World because he shows us how God engages with a sin-darkened world to redeem it.
But Jesus does not only claim to be the light of the world, he demonstrates it, first by giving the blind man sight, and then again by revealing himself to the formerly blind man as “the Son of Man.” “Son of Man” is an Old Testament name for Israel’s long-waited divine king and Messiah.
God’s personal, relational answer to the problem of sin and suffering, Jesus, the Light of the World, does not, however, thrill everyone. “But this is the judgment,” John the Evangelist says in chapter 3: “Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.” In other words, people judge themselves by how they respond to the light of the world. That kind of self-judgment is exactly what we see happening in today’s Gospel reading. The blind man exonerates himself by turning toward the light and walking in it. Step by step, then, he gains ever greater ability to see. But other people in this story condemn and exclude themselves by turning away from the light, and fleeing from it. Step by evasive step, they make themselves ever more blind.
Now none of that is to be taken as a value judgment against people with actual disabilities in their physical eyesight. If I took my glasses off now, I would not be able to read my sermon notes, and the lot of you would look like an impressionist painting. I’m not aware that I did anything to deserve that, except maybe watching too many Saturday morning cartoons on TV. In my childhood, I mean. Come to think of it, my Mom did warn me about sitting too close to the TV, and for too long.
But John’s Gospel is talking about a blindness of soul and spirit that people choose and cherish, and reinforce by continual choices. By those choices we can descend into ever greater darkness of mind, soul, spirit and action, resulting in ever more evil deeds. In the case of the religious leaders who reject Jesus and the blind man, their evil deeds are not the usual sins of weakness that we normally warn against, like drunkenness, drugs, pornography and promiscuity. And we should warn against them. But the darkness in the religious leaders and the Pharisees results in sins of power, like the long, bullying interrogation to which they subject the formerly blind man with loaded, harassing, questions, questions meant to intimidate and confuse the poor man. As each question follows another, they make less and less sense than this one overheard at a city park: “How did they get the ‘Stay Off the Grass’ sign out there in the middle of all that grass that we’re supposed to stay off of?”
As for another sin of power, there’s the condemnation that the Pharisees heap upon the formerly blind man. “You were born steeped in sin,” they tell him, when he won’t join them in condemning Jesus for healing on the Sabbath. Sins of power, like those, are so dangerous because they masquerade as virtue.
The example of these Pharisees warns us against turning toward the darkness, and prods us to turn instead toward the light that is Jesus, as the man born blind did, so that we too can “see,” by any of the following three choices:
One: We turn toward the light of the world whenever we choose humility over pride; When we are humble enough to know and accept that we need help, like the man born blind did, as opposed to being sure that we already have all we need, and turn away from it, as the Pharisees did.
Two: we turn toward the light of the world whenever we choose compassion, as Jesus did, over hardness of heart or; whenever we would “do the work of God” and help, rather than standing apart, just to analyze and speculate on what is the will of God, like the disciples, wanting to know what the man or his parents did to merit his blindness.
Three: we turn toward the light of the world whenever we choose faith over Fear, as the man born blind did, by sticking to his testimony about Christ and what he had done for him, rather than giving in to the Pharisees’ threats of rejection, condemnation and expulsion.
As for the first choice, pride or humility, the disciples chose for pride when they asked, “Who sinned?” So, they think they can understand everything that goes on this world and all the cause and effect between everyone’s actions and their well-being and woe? And once they have that all figured out, then they can earn nothing but God’s favor, and therefore, a happy, healthy life? Will understanding all that make them more secure, as well as more worthy?
As for the Pharisees, they chose the pride that says, “God has entrusted us with the power and the duty to enforce everyone’s conformity to the truth as we see it, and to punish their departure and difference from it.” But really, they’re only enforcing their own power, privilege and position, and punishing any challenges to their power, privilege and position.
Therein lies a warning for us in our leadership, witness, service and ministry as Christians: it’s one thing to teach and to testify to truth as we have been given to see it, to tell the truth and be willing to take the heat. The Pharisees were doing right, whenever they did just that. As we live the truth, and not only talk about it, then we gain valid, God-given spiritual authority, the authority of character and conduct.
But it’s another thing entirely to force, enforce, ridicule, condemn, control, manipulate and punish people so as to protect one’s own power, position, prestige and opinions. Then we don’t have proper authority. We have authoritarianism. In today’s Gospel text, the way the Pharisees bullied the man born blind was an abuse of authority and an exercise in authoritarianism. Their use of God-talk only makes such authoritarianism all the more dangerous and deadly.
This is not just a Pharisee thing, by the way. Some of us have experienced authoritarianism in the church, and it leaves a taste of trauma and distrust in our souls. The sex abuse scandals in some churches were not just sins of weakness, about sex, but also sins of power, the fruits of authoritarianism, by using clerical authority to prey upon the vulnerable, and again, just as bad, by paying the victims to silence their pain and hide their misconduct.
There are more subtle forms of this temptation to turn spiritual authority into authoritarianism: if ever our witness, service, or our leadership are more about making ourselves look good, than about revealing Jesus, if ever we go from making ourselves useful to making ourselves indispensable, if ever we slip from serving into controlling, or if ever we let anyone else’s accomplishments, achievements and recognition make us feel jealous and insecure about our own, then we are in danger of slipping from godly authority into authoritarianism with God talk.
By contrast, the blind man is a paragon of humility when he accepts the administration of Christ’s healing work, however strange it must seem at the time. Spitting and putting mud on our eyes? Then again, he displayed humility by obeying Jesus’ command to go to the pool of Siloam to wash off the mud. Again he shows humility when he says, “I don’t know if this Jesus is a sinner or not. All I know is that he gave me sight.” Bless his heart; he’s humble enough to know when he doesn’t know something and admit it. And yet, by sticking to what he does know, he’s also humble before the truth and submits to it, whatever the cost. Lastly, he shows humility again when he asks Jesus, “Who is this Son of Man?” Once he knows who the Son of Man is, he shows the greatest humility by worshiping him. Such humility is how we turn toward the light which has come into the world: Jesus. By such humility, the man born blind becomes a better spiritual authority than the authoritarian Pharisees. He even becomes a more effective apostle and evangelist than the twelve disciples.
As for the choice of fear versus faith, fear has blinded both the disciples and the Pharisees. Why else would the disciples ask, “Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” unless they feared that they too might do something to merit the punishment of blindness, or pass it on to their children? Do they think that by analyzing and understanding everyone and every situation, they will know how to protect themselves and avoid such disaster?
The Pharisees have chosen the same darkness of fear, with their efforts to bully the formerly blind man into their way of seeing. They fear losing their power, prestige and control. So have the blind man’s parents surrendered to fear, when the Pharisees drag them in to their inquisition. “Is this your son who was born blind? How was his blindness healed?” they ask. The parents choose not to choose and pass the buck to their son. “Ask him; he’s of age.”
But by faith the man born blind turns toward the light, by courageously staying faith-full to his testimony. And so he grows from one perception and revelation about Jesus to another. We see the progression of his enlightenment in his testimony about Jesus. The first time he testifies about his healing, he calls his healer, “the man whom they call ‘Jesus.’” The second time, before the hostile Pharisees, he calls Jesus, “a prophet.” The next time before the Pharisees’ Inquisition, he calls Jesus, “a man from God.” See how his understanding of Jesus is growing along with his faithfulness to his confession? Then, when Jesus finds him after his courageous testimony, he comes to see Jesus as “The Son of Man,” “the Messiah” and Israel’s expected liberator and ruler of the world. And so the man born blind goes from sticking up for the man who healed his sight, to seeing him in his fullness.
Do we want to grow likewise in our faith and understanding? Then we too must stay faith-full to Christ, and do and obey his commands. Then, step by step, to our eyes of faith light will be added upon light, as long as we keep turning toward the light in humility, faith, and the third thing, compassion. As for the third choice, of compassion, versus hardness of heart, we see hard-heartedness in the disciples and in the Pharisees. Their response toward the suffering of the blind man starts with suspicion—both the disciples and the Pharisees suspect that the man’ blindness was his own fault, or his family’s fault. Then, when they can’t control the man’s testimony, the Pharisees resort to shaming, blaming and threatening him. They are probably more concerned with avoiding the blind man’s suffering, than in alleviating it. They are also probably more concerned with controlling the gates of society and synagogue than in restoring the blind man into a full and dignified participation in synagogue and society. That shows their hardness of heart toward God and others, and reinforces it.
The cost of whatever false security, control and smug self-justification they got from treating the man born blind that way, was the loss of all joy. For the joy of ministry, service, witness and leadership, is in sharing what light we have been given, and seeing others blossom and grow in that same light.
A rabbi was once asked, “Why do so few people find God?” Now there’s an intelligent question, unlike “Why does the sign in the gas station restroom say, ‘Employees must wash hands’ when I know perfectly well how to wash my own?” So few people find God,” the rabbi said, “because we’re not looking low enough.” Down really, really low, like where Jesus knelt to scoop up dirt from the street, mix it with his spit, and apply it to the eyes of a blind beggar sitting where beggars usually sat, on the ground. That’s how Jesus demonstrated the compassion with which we turn toward the light of the world. Down there in the dirt, with the blind man, he also demonstrated the humility required of us if we should turn toward the divine light that has come into the world. And since most people there neither understood what he was doing, nor would they have approved—he was doing what they considered work on the Sabbath; he might also be making himself ritually unclean—he also demonstrated the same courageous faith and faithfulness that we must show in turning toward the light. For such conduct and character, and more, Jesus is “the light of the world,” to which we too must ever turn in humility, faith and love.
Jesus also said that we, too, are “the light of the world.” In much of the world today, his church displays the light of Christ against the backdrop of fear, hardness of heart, and pride like what the formerly blind man had to endure. Especially the Christians of the Middle East, especially of Israel/Palestine. In two weeks we’ll be hearing from one of them, Dr. Alex Awad, former missionary, and former professor and president at Bethlehem Bible College. Not Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, but THE Bethlehem, where Jesus was born. In the 2,000 year history of the Middle Eastern and Palestinian church, they have often been in the middle of conflicts between Jewish nationalists and Roman imperialists, or between Muslims and Crusaders from Europe, or now, between Israeli Zionists and settlers and Islamic jihadis. Their faithful testimony to Christ often draws angry reactions of fear and heard-heartedness from both sides, even when their own compassion and humility make them sympathetically engaged with people on both sides.
And there I have just described Dr. Awad. I’ve been blessed to hear him speak two times, and each time I have been impressed by his humility, compassion and faith. And by his joy. In spite of all the darkness in that corner of the world, I think we can explain his joy this way: whatever the risk or cost of being faithful to Christ and compassionate to others, it is still the way to “the joy set before us,” the greatest joy of all, finally, of seeing Jesus, as did the man born blind.