I See

Fourth Sunday of Lent
John 9:1-41
March 30, 2014
William R. Clough

The Gospel of John is the most brilliant, the most insightful, the most elegant work of theology or philosophy, ancient or modern, in or out of the Bible.  In this little story Jesus sheds light on the greatest problem for believers in God, the Achilles heel, of monotheism.  Then John illumines the pitfalls along the path. 

JOHN 9:1-41
9 As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” 10 But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 11 He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” 12 They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”
13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. 14 Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15 Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” 16 Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. 17 So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.”
18 The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19 and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” 20 His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21 but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” 22 His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23 Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”
24 So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” 25 He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 26 They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27 He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” 28 Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29 We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” 30 The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31 We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32 Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34 They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.
35 Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36 He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” 37 Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” 38 He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. 39 Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” 40 Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” 41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

(NRSV)
If you believe in one God, you have a big problem: If God is all good and all powerful, how can evil happen?  God must be either baffling or cruel.  Pagans, polytheists don’t have that problem.  Read The Odyssey.  All sorts of painful, horrible things happen and there’s no problem of evil.  You get shipwrecked – Neptune is mad at you.  You can’t make it to shore – two gods are having a tiff and you’re collateral damage.  Suffering to be sure, but no theological issue.  Atheists don’t have the problem either.  Suffering is just part of life.  It’s not justified or unjustified.  It’s just the way things are.  Viewed philosophically, the problem of evil is an insoluble conundrum; viewed emotionally it’s an unacceptably harsh fact of life.  But here, in that intro – so brief as almost to be missed, mistaken for a throw-away line – Jesus redefines the problem, hence the solution.  Who sinned?  Nobody.  This isn’t a philosophical issue “How can we reconcile the idea of a good God with bad things happening?” and it’s not an emotional problem “How could a good God allow this suffering?”  Neither he nor his parents sinned, he was born blind so that he could be healed, “the works of God might be displayed in him”.  Jesus defines evil as the problem. 

Suffering is the problem, healing is the solution.  Pain is the problem, comfort is the solution.  Inability is the problem, empowerment is the solution. 

Now for some reason in the human psyche fixing problems is too unsatisfying.  It’s more fun to discuss evil, agonize over it or, most satisfying of all, find somebody (other than us, of course) to blame for it. 

And John does an outstanding job of describing precisely how these arguments go.  Note first, few of us have access to the real facts.  The vast majority of us fight about hearsay, opinions and worldviews rather than reality.  “Isn’t this the man who used to sit and beg?”  “No, it only looks like him!”  Right off the bat something true is “controversial”.  Perhaps it’s best for us to treat passionate opinions respectfully, as deeply held convictions, but not take them seriously as assessments of reality.    

When I drive around, I listen to talk radio – Left and Right.  I switch between EIB and Pacifica, between Rush Limbaugh and Amy Goodman.  At first I found it intriguing – I was interested in the arguments people offered, the facts they emphasized, what the different audiences found persuasive.  As time passed I saw that the facts are selectively emphasized, like when one Right Wing show host says the cold winter in the US disproves global warming but a warm winter in Russia (Sochi, for example) and a devastatingly hot summer right now in Australia never quite made his evidence list.  Or when a reporter was arrested, along with a whole crowd, for trespassing at the Republican convention and then claimed that because they arrested her they were “systematically targeting journalists”.  Once you’ve listened to the shows for any length of time, you know exactly what you’re going to hear.  It’s like listening to a Shakespearian play – you know every word you’re going to hear, the only question is how the lines are delivered.  You know, from the Right, that the problems in this world are created by the Liberals, the lazy, and the takers.  On the Left they’re created by the big corporations, the military, and the exploiters.  The only thing they both agree on is that the real problem is the US government.  The whole point of the operation is pin-the-blame-on-the-donkey, or the elephant, or the selfish, or the lazy.  I went from intrigued, to annoyed, to bored, to disgusted. 

Next, there’s the litmus-test mentality: “He’s a sinner because he did something we think is wrong.”  “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.”  This is why politicians and pundits learn to use – or not use – particular buzz words.  We’ve certainly seen this sort of reaction every time our General Assembly makes any decision on homosexuality.  When we decided not to ordain homosexuals the Left called us sinners (bigots) despite our work for justice for farmworkers, self-development of people, and world-wide medical missions.  When we decided gays and lesbians should not be singled out for special rejection as sinners the Right decided we were the sinners (standardless, politically correct appeasers). 

In a politically polarized climate any search for the truth becomes intimidating.  Witness how the question “Is this your son?” frightens his parents.  And surely the line “Give glory to God by telling the truth, we know this man is a sinner” was read as an early version of the joke where the judge tells the bailiff to bring in the guilty so-and-so and let’s get this trial started. 

At this point, the man formerly known as blind gives just about the best answer anyone can give.  He doesn’t try to get into arguments or defer to the experts; he simply says, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know.  One thing I do know.  I was blind but now I see!”  And notice, at this point he knows that he sees but doesn’t know Jesus because when Jesus asks him later, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answers, “Who is he?  Tell me so that I may believe in him.” 

It would be tempting right now to say that if we just follow Jesus, we’ll be all right.   But as you know that won’t do.  All of us know people who sincerely, dedicatedly, scrupulously follow Jesus and do things that are harmful to themselves, their families, and their communities.  It is no answer to change one religion or authority for another and John will not let us rest with anything quite so litmus-test simple.  So there is that intriguing and challenging tag line: The Pharisees say, “We aren’t blind, are we?” and Jesus answers, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty but you say you can see.”  So, we’re back to a larger definition of “seeing”. 

In his book, An Anthropologist on Mars, neurologist Oliver Sacks tells about Virgil, a man who had been blind from early childhood. When he was 50, Virgil underwent surgery and was given his sight. But having working eyes is not the same as seeing.

Virgil's first experiences with sight were confusing.  Just like the blind man healed in Mark, he was able to make out shapes, colors, and movements, but not form them into a coherent picture. Over time he learned to identify various objects and not bump into things but his habits, his worldview, his behaviors were still those of a blind man.  Seeing is a delicate operation.  It’s more than seeing, it’s learning to see. 

Dr. Sacks says sight is not enough; one must die as a blind person to be born again as a seeing person.

1 John 1:8 says, "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”  Everyone has blind spots and, by definition we can’t see them.  It’s emotionally and intellectually satisfying to tell ourselves that we are not blind.  But we know that’s not true so we need some guidance.  One thing we must keep, belief in the goodness of God, which is a true matter of faith (unprovable and unfalsifiable – the evidence is ambiguous so it rises to the level of a true belief).  We also have the facts as we know them, which are the most reliable guides we have, but you learn something new every day.  Systems in between, like politics (or religion, for that matter) should be shaped by, not filters for, our facts and our faith.

You have to do what you think is right and say what you think is true, but since we know, for a fact, we will get to heaven and find out we’ve been very wrong about some things, it behooves us to keep a provisionally open mind and to be as gentle and humble along the way as we can be.