This Lent the Lectionary takes us to John’s Gospel with four of his Signs of the Kingdom stories. John builds his theology of love and the Kingdom of God around and through these stories. We began on Lent 2 with the story of Nicodemus and his nocturnal and clandestine visit with Jesus and will end on Lent 5 with Jesus’ visit to Mary and Martha and the raising of their brother Lazarus. The hallmark of these signs stories is the focus on Jesus’ true identity and the effect when this becomes known to the other actors in the drama of each story.
Today we are given the story in which Jesus heals the man blind from birth. We need to remember that each Sunday the lections refocus us on the question: how is God seeking conversation with us today? Today’s conversation opens with Jesus once again challenging the crude and cruel conventions of his religious society.
A useful Metaphor
John unlike the other Evangelists does not construct his Gospel around the chronology of Jesus’ three years on the road. Instead, he constructs a theology of Jesus’ ministry around his seven Signs of the Kingdom stories. Each of these stories functions like a play. I suggest the concept of a play as our metaphor for capturing the complex flow and movement within these stories.
Today’s story is a play in four acts:
- Act 1 – Jesus and the disciples encounter the man blind from birth. This is not any blind man, for its crucial for John’s later development of the plot that we know from the outset that this man was born blind. The discussion about sin ensues and Jesus challenges his disciples assumption that illness or misfortune results from sin. Instead, Jesus invites them to see the man’s blindness as an opportunity for God to open not only his eyes, as in to restore his sight; the man’s blindness is an opportunity for God to open all their eyes to the bigger picture of things, as in invite them into insight.
- Act 2 – Jesus and the disciples exit to stage right. Entry from stage left, the blind man’s acquaintances and neighbours. In this act the drama unfolds around their confusion about what has taken place for this man. The only way they can make sense of it is to dispute that this is the same man, whom they have known as blind from birth. He protests that he is the very same and that the man Jesus, healed him. The act closes with the group asking: so where is he? The man formerly blind says he does not know. At this stage he knows only that he can now see, and does not know who has performed this healing.
- Act 3 – The group take him to the Pharisees – scholars of the Law, because this is all too much for them to handle. The Pharisees can’t work out what has happened either. They end up arguing among themselves with one group saying this could not be a healing because Jesus performed it on the Sabbath, and so Jesus himself is a sinner; ipso facto God can not work through sinners. The other group object that the evidence of their own eyes is that God has acted, Sabbath or no Sabbath. Two interesting developments now take place. Having asked the man who he thinks Jesus is and shocked by his answer they call for his parents in an apparent attempt to continue to question the veracity of the man’s blindness. We should note how the focus now subtly shifts from questioning the healing to questioning Jesus’ identity. The act concludes in considerable disarray. The man’s parents fearful of being cast out by the Pharisees put the whole responsibility on their son for declaring who Jesus is. We see the man, under the relentless pressure of the Pharisees’ interrogation moving from the simple statement: all I know is that I was blind and now I can see, to: the facts seem to be these, this man cured my blindness, an action that clearly cannot be performed by someone who is breaking God’s Law, therefore, all I can say is that he is of God. We now see him in the process of moving from sight to insight. We see the religious authorities approaching the invitation to insight, and pulling back in horror. The act ends with them rejecting the man, who for dramatic purposes, is left alone on the stage.
- Act 4 – Jesus enters from stage right having heard that the Pharisees had rejected him. He asks the man who has healed him? Remember that the man was blind when he last encountered Jesus so he has no way of recognizing him. Jesus identifies himself and the man proclaims his belief that Jesus is the Messiah. The act close with Jesus teasing the Pharisees with the suggestion that: if you were truly blind you would not be sinners because you can’t be blamed for what you can’t see. But because you claim to be able to see, and clearly have no insight, then for that you are culpable.
The play spirals back to end on the opening theme of sin and culpability.
Text and context
This is a text, which we simultaneously hear echoing in three contexts:
- The original context of Jesus, the disciples, the man blind from birth, and the confrontation with religious attitudes that enshrine the hardness of the human heart rather than the love of God.
- Some 60 years later John records this original story in his Gospel. John reconstructs the story to connect with the issues, current in his own community. We hear the echo of a mighty struggle between the Johannine Community and the Jewish Synagogue. John is writing after the destruction of the Temple in 70AD. Judaism had regrouped around the Synagogue-centered Rabbinic movement, the descendants of the Pharisees of Jesus day. The Synagogue had expelled the Christian community by John’s day leaving John’s community struggling to hold itself together in the face of persecution from without, and division from within. One of the significant divisions in the Johannine community was between those prepared to proclaim Christ and take the consequences and those who still wanted to secretly follow Christ for fear of being excommunicated by the Synagogue – a theme played out in the story between the Pharisees and the man’s parents.
- In 2014 we receive this text within the context of our own time and place. We hear the echo of Jesus’ conflict with the Pharisees and the Johannine Community’s struggle with the Synagogue some 60 years later. Our task to to receive this text as God’s desire to open a conversation with us about the challenges of being faithful in 21st Century America.
For me the story of the man blind from birth opens us to the challenges of continuing to live our lives as a community being called by God to proclaim the expectations of the Kingdom. We live in a time when under the impetus of unparallelled change older forms of Church are passing away and we still can’t quite see what will take their place. This fills us with anxiety.
In my last sermon blog on the story of Jesus and the woman at the well, I drew some general conclusion about the similarities between the community of John and our Anglican tradition in the Episcopal Church. I did so to remind us of the unique gifts that we as a tradition offer the wider society of our day. https://relationalrealities.com/2014/03/28/the-woman-at-the-well-a-sermon-delivered-to-an-unknown-community/
Receiving the text
As he walks along with his disciples they come across a blind man. The disciples give voice to the age-old desire to explain-away illness and misfortune in terms of sin. They ask: Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents; that he was born blind.
It always pulls me up short when I encounter the tendency of people who consider themselves quite religious to use religion and religious explanations as a mask to validate the hardness of the human heart.
Wanting to see this man’s blindness as the result of his or his parent’s sin comforts the disciples and give them a false sense of security. This illusion of security holds out the prospect that if they can avoid the commission of sin, then the callous gratuitousness of affliction, will pass them by.
I don’t often recall these days that my undergraduate degree was in law. Growing up in New Zealand it was the English Common Law tradition that I was trained in. This tradition still forms the bedrock of most American State legal systems, though not all. English Common Law works by appealing to precedent. Precedent operates when counsel, or the judge appeals to an earlier decision of a court of equal or superior authority, as binding, i.e. binds the court in the present case to arrive at the same conclusions as in the previous case. The legal device of distinguishing is the way counsel argues that there is a crucial difference between the precedent and the present case, thus arguing that the judge is free to decide the present case on a different basis.
Distinguishing is not only a legal device. As the disciples demonstrate the desire to distinguish is deeply rooted in the human psyche. Though Episcopalians don’t usually appeal to sin as a distinguishing device, we nevertheless distinguish all the time when we attribute another’s misfortune to the results of their own carelessness, or their own fault.
Jesus challenges our desire to protect ourselves from our fears in the same way that he cuts right through the disciples desire to distinguish themselves from the man blind from birth. Like us, the disciples are seeking to distance themselves from this man’s fate because of their fear – fear that the precariousness of life’s bad fortune could strike them at any time. In so doing they act-out religion’s tendency to scapegoat those different from us when their point of view or their misfortune threatens our security or complacency in some way. We love to scapegoat such individuals or groups by casting them into the role of the other, the outsider, the sinner, and appealing to religion to validate our actions in doing so. Throughout his ministry Jesus’ most serious conflicts always center on his confrontation with religion operating as a mask for the hardness of the human heart.
How we distance ourselves from our own fear of life’s unpredictability is one theme in this story that we need to take to heart. There is also another theme that seems to me to be significant. This story offers us a nuanced play on the movement from sight to insight. If we receive this story of the man born blind into our own lives, by which I mean, allow the authority of this story to apply to us, we immediately face some uncomfortable questions:
- Where and to what do our fears still blind us?
- Do we have the courage to allow our blindness to be healed and begin to see?
These two questions are challenging enough. But there is a third and more difficult one to face.
- Having recovered our sight can we risk the journey from sight to insight?
The man born blind seems at first to be content simply to have his physical sight back. Yet, John’s point is to show us how by refusing to be cowered by religious authority, he moves from the possession of physical sight to the acquisition of spiritual sight. To put this another way, we see him moving from sight to insight. It’s only through insight that he discovers who it is that has not only healed him, but more to the point, calls him to a new experience of life.
What is this new experience of life, you ask? If we read-on into chapter 10 we find Jesus offering his own interpretation of this story of the man blind from birth in his metaphor of the shepherd and the sheep. The sheep are not confused by the voice of the imposter because they know the shepherd’s voice, and knowing him for who he is, they trust him. The new experience of life is a life lived with the courage to trust. Trust means that no matter what – we know ourselves to be loved. Is this not the best insurance policy against the fear of the unpredictability and precariousness of life?