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Beyond our vision…

April 3, 2011

Lent 4A
Scripture: John 9:1-41

This is a story about healing. It is also a story about seeing. It is about the way we see sin—in others…in ourselves.

The sin question emerges at the beginning of the text (v. 2). The disciples and Jesus are walking along; they see a man who has been blind from birth. The question: Jesus, who sinned, this man or his parents?

The question may seem strange to our ears. We do not interpret blindness as a sin issue. When we encounter a blind man making his way across a busy intersection, we may even admire the courage of a human being overcoming the challenges of a disability.

We might want to ask the disciples: how could the man have sinned in the womb? What are the temptations of a zygote, an embryo, a fetus?

Perhaps blaming the parents makes more sense to us. When we think of sin issues, we are aware of generational patterns. It is easy to blame parents for juvenile delinquency.

But Jesus does not seem to be interested in having a theological discussion about sin. He sees the situation of the blind man as an occasion to “work the works of the one who sent him.”

This word translated “works,” is important for our understanding of this passage. It is the same word used to point to God’s works—the creation of the world and the liberation of Israel from slavery. The disciples see the blind man through the lens of the Law. Jesus sees a human being—formed from the dust and carrying the breath (spirit) of God. Someone in need of liberation. He goes to work.

Jesus spits on the dirt and makes a mud paste which he applies to the man’s eyes. He sends the man to wash in a pool. We don’t know whether or not all of this made sense to the blind man. We do know that he trusts that Jesus knows what he is doing—or at least he has nothing to lose and is willing to try anything.

I don’t know how the man got there, or how long it took him. If you have ever waited for the prognosis after a procedure, you can imagine that there was a mixture of hope and anxiety. Will this treatment work? We cannot know, but we trust.

As the water washes the mud out of his eyes, the man sees the lines and colors of trees, the sky…his own skin…for the first time. Thus concludes the healing part of this story. It takes seven verses to tell. The rest of the chapter (34 verses) addresses the controversy Jesus stirs up.

The controversy has to do with when Jesus heals—the Sabbath—and who he heals—a blind man. The inquisition that ensues has to do with how Jesus challenges the dominant understanding of the holiness code found in Leviticus.

Read Leviticus 21:18-21

The purity code is a call to be holy because God is holy (Leviticus 19:1-2). Sickness placed a person outside the boundaries of God’s holy community (Lev. 13:46). Thus, if you were blind, lame, or had leprosy, you were excluded from approaching God. If you were a priest, it disqualified you from offering sacrifice.

There are other verses that speak of blindness in negative terms (Isaiah 59:10, Deut. 28:29). Some verses suggest that God punishes sinners by blinding them or their animals (Zeph. 1:17; Zech. 12:4).

This is the basis in scripture for why the disciples ask their question about sin. It is the interpretive tradition behind the controversy created by Jesus’ work.

The healing of the blind man has challenged their interpretation that blindness has to do with sin.  So the neighbors take the man to the Pharisees to settle the matter (v. 13).  As I read this text, I sense an emotionally charged scene. This dispute has to do with the deepest matters of belief about sin. 

I imagine this scene taking place in the context of a general assembly. The resolution concerning whether or not blindness is a sin is before the delegate body. Table 42 sends someone to the mic with a question: How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs? They were divided.

Some suggest that we should listen once again to the story of the blind man (v. 17). Even the matter of what to call the man is contested. Some are still calling him “the blind man.” It is difficult to identify in a different way than he has been known all these years.

They solicit his views.  What do you say about him? He is a prophet.

They are unconvinced. They go to question his parents. Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?

The first question is easy. The second one is loaded. There is a question behind the question. Whose side are you on? Lines are being drawn, alliances are being made. Are you a disciple of Moses or a disciple of Jesus?  The parents see the risk in answering the question. They don’t want to get kicked out of the synagogue.

They go back to the man who had been blind and tighten up the screws. We don’t care that you were blind and now you see. This is about Truth. Give glory to God! Acknowledge that Jesus is a sinner.

The man cannot deny his experience, so he responds: I was blind, but now I see.

He goes a step further and interprets his experience with a theological assertion: If this man were not from God, he could not have opened my eyes.

The crowd is not interested in hearing this interpretation. For them, the Law trumps what Jesus is doing. They cannot deconstruct their view that blindness has to do with sin. They stand up for their convictions and excommunicate him.

After he is thrown out of the community, Jesus comes to the man and asks him if he believes in the Son of man. Who is he, sir? The one speaking to you is he. I believe. The man worships Jesus.

What are the lessons for us from this story?

Perhaps the lesson is that even when we are walking with Jesus, he will do things that surprise us. We may discover that Jesus is more interested in loving folks and bringing wholeness to their lives than he is in categorizing them according to the law. We may even discover that Jesus welcomes those who have been marginalized by our interpretation of scripture. This is a liberating word.

Perhaps the lesson is that when we start with the wrong questions, we focus on the sin problems of others. We burn Korans. We trigger a violent reaction in Afghanistan.

Perhaps the lesson is that to be human means that our vision is flawed. Like the disciples, and the neighbors of the blind man, we sometimes begin with the wrong questions. We tend to focus on the desolation of others.  In healing the blind man, Jesus shows us a different way.

Where is Jesus at work in ways that go beyond our vision? 

When we are blinded by the wrong questions, when we are focused on the sins of others, may we allow the one who spits in the dirt to rub mud in our eyes. May we go where he sends us to have our eyes washed. May we be liberated to see the world as Jesus does. And may we worship the one who welcomes sinners like you and me. AMEN.

It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view.  The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts; it is beyond our vision.  We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is the Lord’s work.  Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.  No sermon says all that should be said.  No prayer fully expresses our faith.  No confession brings perfection.  No pastoral visit brings wholeness.  No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.  No set of goals and objectives includes everything.  That is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one day will grow.  We water seeds already planted knowing they hold future promise.  We lay foundations that will need further development.  We provide yeast that affects far beyond our capabilities.  We cannot do everything and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.                            ~Oscar Romero (1917-1980)

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