Lent 4A’s reading is from John 9:1-41 (NIV):
Jesus Heals a Man Born Blind
1 As he went 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 “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. 4 As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. 5 While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
6 After saying this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. 7 “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means “Sent”). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.
8 His neighbors and those who had formerly seen him begging asked, “Isn’t this the same man who used to sit and beg?” 9 Some claimed that he was.
Others said, “No, he only looks like him.”
But he himself insisted, “I am the man.”
10 “How then were your eyes opened?” they asked.
11 He replied, “The man they call Jesus made some mud and put it on my eyes. He told me to go to Siloam and wash. So I went and washed, and then I could see.”
12 “Where is this man?” they asked him.
“I don’t know,” he said.
The Pharisees Investigate the Healing
13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had been blind. 14 Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud and opened the man’s eyes was a Sabbath. 15 Therefore the Pharisees also asked him how he had received his sight. “He put mud on my eyes,” the man replied, “and I washed, and now I see.”
16 Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.”
But others asked, “How can a sinner perform such signs?” So they were divided.
17 Then they turned again to the blind man, “What have you to say about him? It was your eyes he opened.”
The man replied, “He is a prophet.”
18 They still did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they sent for the man’s parents. 19 “Is this your son?” they asked. “Is this the one you say was born blind? How is it that now he can see?”
20 “We know he is our son,” the parents answered, “and we know he was born blind. 21 But how he can see now, or who opened his eyes, we don’t know. Ask him. He is of age; he will speak for himself.” 22 His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders, who already had decided that anyone who acknowledged that Jesus was the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23 That was why his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”
24 A second time they summoned the man who had been blind. “Give glory to God by telling the truth,” they said. “We know this man is a sinner.”
25 He replied, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!”
26 Then they asked him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”
27 He answered, “I have told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples too?”
28 Then they hurled insults at him and said, “You are this fellow’s disciple! We are disciples of Moses! 29 We know that God spoke to Moses, but as for this fellow, we don’t even know where he comes from.”
30 The man answered, “Now that is remarkable! You don’t know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes. 31 We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly person who does his will. 32 Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. 33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”
34 To this they replied, “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!” And they threw him out.
35 Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”
36 “Who is he, sir?” the man asked. “Tell me so that I may believe in him.”
37 Jesus said, “You have now seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you.”
38 Then the man said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him.
39 Jesus said, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.”
40 Some Pharisees who were with him heard him say this and asked, “What? Are we blind too?”
41 Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.”
Irony is a bitch. Just ask the Pharisees in Lent 4A’s reading.
Similar to Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman at the well, John tells one story while the subtext tells another. On a textual level, John relates the healing a man born blind received. This healing “happened” to take place on a Sabbath and the religious leaders took issue with that, using it as an opportunity to investigate Jesus and those interested in following him.
But on the subtextual level John tells a deeply ironic story about sin and deservingness.
It begins with the disciples’ assumption that the blind man’s condition was a result of sin – either his or his parents’. This was a common enough belief at the time. Righteousness was deeply steeped in law-keeping, which in turn was steeped in the religious life of Jerusalem. In other words, righteousness as people like the Pharisees understood it was largely the purview of the upper classes (who only made up about 10% of the total population at the time) because, through their own machinations, only they could afford to keep the letter of the law.
Being the 10% on top of a very oppressed and at time volatile 90% is a tenuous situation at best. Combine that with the fact that the Jerusalem elite were invariably in cahoots with Palestine’s Roman oppressors and we begin to understand why the religious leaders would go to furious lengths to keep the scales balanced in their favour.
Scales that Jesus were proving to be fraudulent.
The primary way the religious leaders kept things working to their benefit was by using religion, and holiness and cleanliness, to control and oppress the 90% mostly peasant population. So many laws had been added to “the law” that no one outside certain economic classes would have the means or opportunity to be “truly holy”. They were defiled and unclean and needed the religious leaders to make them presentable to God.
Enter a man blind from birth who had been reduced to begging on the streets. He was exactly the kind of person the religious leaders would say had sinned in some way to deserve his blindness, and deserved continued judgment for it – he was still blind, after all.
Enter Jesus and his healing.
The Pharisees’ anger was never about the Sabbath (though the fact that this healing took place on the Sabbath wasn’t coincidental). They were angry that their propaganda about sin and deservingness was being challenged, and by a Galilean peasant at that! Jesus showed anyone who cared to see that the religious leaders’ claims about their own deservingness and the deservingness of others were faulty; that their rendition of God was warped.
In healing a man born blind – in using spit and dirt to do it – Jesus turned the whole corrupt socio-economic and religious system on its head.
The man born blind knew it too. When the very people who, through their self-serving actions and beliefs had rendered his life worthless, interrogated him, he used their own prejudice against them. “You’re always saying God doesn’t listen to sinners,” he told them, “so by your own logic, Jesus can’t be a sinner – he has to be from God!”
Little wonder they threw him out!
The question to ask this week may well be: What? Are we blind too?
Certainly, the modern church generally has more in common with the outraged Pharisees than the blind man who received his sight. We can be relentless about the deservingness of those we assume to be “in sin”, adding all sorts of terms and conditions to salvation that don’t exist outside our own “addendums”.
We pretend these addendums are about the other person: a way to “love the sinner but hate the sin”. Ironically the religious leaders of Jesus’ day probably thought that of their own actions too.
But invariably our behaviour is about us and our privilege. We feel threatened when people whose “sins” we don’t personally approve of try to enter our sanctuaries and claim the same love, grace and mercy that we receive because it inevitably reminds us that we too are sinners, that nothing separates our sin from other sins and that we don’t have a leg to stand on when it comes to sin.
So perhaps this is a good week to be reminded that we were once blind, but saw; and though we’ve become blind again, we will be healed again too.
Blessings for your sermons,