— A Sermon by Robert W. Prim —
~~~ 4th Sunday in Lent ~~~
Walking down the street, Jesus saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned: this man or his parents, causing him to be born blind?”
Jesus said, “You’re asking the wrong question. You’re looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do. We need to be energetically at work for the One who sent me here, working while the sun shines. When night falls, the workday is over. For as long as I am in the world, there is plenty of light. I am the world’s Light.”
He said this and then spit in the dust, made a clay paste with the saliva, rubbed the paste on the blind man’s eyes, and said, “Go, wash at the Pool of Siloam” (Siloam means “Sent”). The man went and washed – and saw.
Notice what the disciples have done. They see this man – this object on the side of the road – and they asked Jesus a question: “Rabbi, who sinned: this man or his parents, causing him to be born blind?” What a question! The man born blind becomes for the disciples an object to be commented upon rather than a human being in need of compassion. The man born blind becomes like the frog in formaldehyde we dissected in high school – only there to teach us a lesson. The disciples were so self-absorbed they failed to really see the human need that was right before them.
You see, the disciples were riding high. They were on the inside, ground floor of a burgeoning movement. Things were going great for them at this time. Jesus was growing more and more popular and his power seemed to the disciples to be endless. The disciples were next to the power center! Life was good, and then their jaunty good fortune was brought into extreme contrast when they saw (sort-of saw) the pathetic blind man on the side of the road. They used him to further buttress their own self-importance. “Rabbi, who sinned: this man or his parents, causing him to be born blind?”
Do you see the implications of the question the disciples asked? If this poor guy was there because of sin, then the disciples were where they were because of their virtue. The disciples were convinced, it seems, that their good fortune was a product of their hard work or their religiosity or their good heritage, and Jesus dismissed such near-sighted theology.
The disciples were, indeed, asking the wrong question. The blind man and all the human needs in the world are not cause and effect issues; rather, human needs can be opportunities for God to be revealed in our responding to the needs of brothers and sisters on the side of the road.
Soon the town was buzzing. His relatives and those who year after year had seen him as a blind man begging, were saying, “Why, isn’t this the man we knew, who sat here and begged?”
Others said, “It’s him all right!”
But others objected, “It’s not the same man at all. It just looks like him.”
He said, “It’s me, the very one.”
They said, “How did your eyes get opened?”
“A man named Jesus made a paste and rubbed it on my eyes and told me, “Go to Siloam and wash.’ I did what he said. When I washed, I saw.”
“So where is he?” …“I don’t know.”
When the man born blind was given his sight, it seems that everyone else started to have blurred vision. His neighbors who had seen him year after year in the same spot and in the same condition could not adjust their eyes to see this more empowered man before them. They had so trained their eyes to see the man one way that when he was transformed they could not see him in a different way.
The blindness of the story has been revealed to be beyond the physical blindness of the man on the side of the street. The disciples have limited vision of the man and his neighbors, too, have eyes that see but they do not perceive the new and glorious thing that happened in their midst.
They marched the man to the Pharisees. This day when Jesus made the paste and healed his blindness was the Sabbath. The Pharisees grilled him again on how he had come to see. He said, “He put a clay paste on my eyes, and I washed, and now I see.”
Some of the Pharisees said, “Obviously, this man can’t be from God. He doesn’t keep the Sabbath.”
Others countered, “How can a bad man do miraculous, God-revealing things like this?” There was a split in their ranks.
The previous scene introduces another element to the story – the tradition of the elders and the ways in which those traditions had blinded the religious authorities. Jesus brought sight to the blind man on the Sabbath – a day, according to the law of Moses, in which there is to be no work. The teachers of the law considered Jesus spitting and making a paste a work unlawful on the seventh day. Some saw the beauty of what had happened but others were locked in the prison of legalistic religion.
They came back at the blind man, “You’re the expert. He opened your eyes. What do you say about him?”
He said, “He is a prophet.”
In the summer of 2013 there was a story about a man born blind who was made to see. Two years before Pierre-Paul Thomas, 68 years old and blind since birth, fell down some stairs and went to a doctor for the fractures he sustained around his eye sockets. The doctor planned the reconstructive surgery and asked Mr. Thomas if he wanted to see. The doctor discovered that his blindness could be cured. The surgery took place and now Pierre-Paul Thomas can see. With the repair of his eyes, Mr. Thomas says he feels like a child all over again – he is witnessing for the first time the blooming of flowers and trees. “I find everything beautiful,” he said. “Faces, skin – I find it all beautiful.” He has, however, had to relearn everything. His brain is not wired to remember things visually, and he suffers now from vertigo. He still often resorts to touching and feeling the world around him. His coming into sight has been a process.
And so it was for the blind man cured by Jesus. John, however, is most interested in showing how the man born blind comes to deeper and deeper spiritual awareness. At this point in the unfolding of the story the man is beginning to understand who it was that cured him. When asked by the religious authorities what he thought of the man who put the paste on his eyes and restored his vision, the no-longer blind man said – “He is a prophet.” This understanding will broaden. Listen as the story unfolds to how the newly sighted man elevates his understanding of the man Jesus who put paste on his eyes.
The Jews didn’t believe it, didn’t believe the man was blind to begin with. So they called the parents of the man now bright-eyed with sight. They asked them, “Is this your son, the one you say was born blind? So how is it that he now sees?”
His parents said, “We know he is our son, and we know he was born blind. But we don’t know how he came to see – haven’t a clue about who opened his eyes. Why don’t you ask him? He’s a grown man and can speak for himself.” (His parents were talking like this because they were intimidated by the Jewish ((religious))leaders, who had already decided that anyone who took a stand that this was the Messiah would be kicked out of the meeting place. That’s why his parents said, “Ask him. He’s a grown man.”)
Anthony de Mello, the Jesuit priest and collector of stories from around the world, has this story in his book The Heart of the Enlightened –
A mouse was in constant distress because of its fear of the cat. A magician took pity on it and turned it into a cat. But then it became afraid of the dog. So the magician turned it into a dog. Then it began to fear the panther. So the magician turned it into a panther. Whereupon it was full of fear for the hunter. At this point the magician gave up. He turned it into a mouse again saying, “Nothing I do for you is going to be of any help because you have the heart of a mouse” (p. 16).
Sadly, the parents of the man born blind were fearful. This wonderful thing happened in their family and to their son and yet they could not celebrate. The parents did not stand with their son and shout for joy for his healing. They only trembled like a scared mouse. Notice, however, the brave heart of the newly sighted man!
They called the man back a second time – the man who had been blind – and told him, “Give credit to God. We know this man is an impostor.”
He replied, “I know nothing about that one way or the other. But I know one thing for sure: I was blind … I now see.”
They said, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”
“I’ve told you over and over and you haven’t listened. Why do you want to hear it again? Are you so eager to become his disciples?”
With that they jumped all over him. “You might be a disciple of that man, but we’re disciples of Moses. We know for sure that God spoke to Moses, but we have no idea where this man even comes from.”
The man replied, “This is amazing! You claim to know nothing about him, but the fact is, he opened my eyes! It’s well known that God isn’t at the beck and call of sinners, but listens carefully to anyone who lives in reverence and does his will. That someone opened the eyes of a man born blind has never been heard of – ever. If this man didn’t come from God, he wouldn’t be able to do anything.”
They said, “You’re nothing but dirt! How dare you take that tone with us!” Then they threw him out in the street.
Notice how the Pharisees fall back in an old and well-worn defense – “That is not the way it has always been done.” The Pharisees say to the man healed of blindness – “…we’re disciples of Moses. We know for sure that God spoke to Moses, but we have no idea where this man even comes from.” The Pharisees, the religious authorities of the day, were unable to see that God was at work doing a new thing. The powers that existed in the religious establishment were unable to see that God was acting, shining light, through this man from Galilee and through this man born blind who was healed. The Pharisees were blinded by their overzealous commitment to the tradition and the way things had always been done.
Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and went and found him. He asked him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”
The man said, “Point him out to me, sir, so that I can believe in him.”
Jesus said, “You’re looking right at him. Don’t you recognize my voice?”
“Master, I believe,” the man said, and worshiped him.
Jesus then said, “I came into the world to bring everything into the clear light of day, making all the distinctions clear, so that those who have never seen will see, and those who have made a great pretense of seeing will be exposed as blind.”
Some Pharisees overheard him and said, “Does that mean you’re calling us blind?”
Jesus said, “If you were really blind, you would be blameless, but since you claim to see everything so well, you’re accountable for every fault and failure.”
The Message by Eugene H. Peterson
One final comment about being open to God moving in the world in new ways, about keeping our eyes peeled to God’s Spirit at work. Not too many years before he died I heard Peter Gomes speak at a Covenant Network gathering – a group working for the transformation of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in the direction of welcome for LGBT people in the life of our denomination. Mr. Gomes, at the time, was the chaplain at Harvard University and the author of many books, including The Good Book – a book about the Bible and how Dr. Gomes reads it.
At the conference Peter Gomes recounted that at Harvard as in many other universities there is the practice of selecting one student to give a speech at graduation. Usually, said Gomes, the speeches are filled with bathos, pathos and banality and no one expects anything much to be memorable. Last year’s speech, said Dr. Gomes to our conference, was different. The student giving the speech asked the question – What is it that these great leaders have in common? He then proceeded to name John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Helen Keller, John F. Kennedy. What is it that these great leaders and Harvard graduates have in common? the student asked in his speech. And then he paused for a moment… and said, They are all dead! This is our moment in history. All of our parents and grandparents had moments in history when nobility was summoned from them – WW I and WW II and Civil Rights. What will our moment of nobility be?
So, I say on this day –
this time of dealing with the Corona-virus –
is our moment of nobility.
Jesus has shown us the way.
The way is the way of love and compassion
and openness to how God can use us in this time of trial.
May our eyes be opened to the Light.
This is our moment. Amen.