2014.03.24 – Lent 04
John 9:1-41 – The Man Born Blind
There was a story in the news a few years back – a man in the UK had been fired from his job for religious reasons. I figured it was an evangelical or Jehovah’s witness proselytizing at work. Turns out it was a English Premier League soccer coach. He had given an interview in which he said people born w/birth defects, disabilities were being punished for the sins they committed in a former life. There was a huge outcry & he lost his job … even if you believe something like that, a public figure can’t say people w/disabilities are being punished for sins of a past life.
In Jesus’s day this was the dominant view among Jewish people. If you had a birth defect, then either you or your parent had sinned somewhere along the way. One ancient writer refers to a baby born w/deformity. He says the reason is the mother walked through pagan orchard & “was delighted” by the trees… so her child was born w/a physical defect.
It seems silly to us with our great big brains. But you’d be surprised how often I talk w/people in the midst of really HARD stuff of life & they have an irrational moment, thinking: Is God punishing me for something I did wrong? Ever have that thought? It’s really a matter of needing to assign BLAME. Blame is just a way of discharging pain & discomfort. We see something wrong & it bothers us. But if we can figure out who to blame, then we don’t have to feel responsible for it. If we can assign blame, then we don’t feel as much of an obligation to suffer with them & suffer for them.
That’s how it was in Jesus’s culture. So the man who was blind since birth probably spent his whole life being judged, ignored, & blamed. He was disabled: people found that depressing. He was a beggar: people found that demanding. But it was a little less depressing & demanding if they could find somebody to blame. That way they could walk by him everyday w/out having to feel bad for him… or especially w/out having to feel responsible. He was either seen as a sinner, or else he just became an invisible man. He was not only blind, people were blind to him.
So the disciples aren’t insensitive, they are just asking the obvious question, v. 2 ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ To them, it was theoretical; like a case study. They could only see theological question, not the man himself. So Jesus says, “3‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” Which, if you think about it, is why we have all been born… so that God’s works might be revealed in us.
It’s an interesting question: who sinned? Who can we blame? But their idea of sin is part of an OLD ORIENTATION Jesus is trying to dispel. Before we ask who sinned, should probably stop & think about what we mean when we use the word sin. Because I think we might need a new orientation on this too.
The Hebrew people had a word to describe what lived at the heart of God’s vision for his creation & that word was SHALOM. Shalom literally means “peace” but it’s bigger than that. Shalom means everything rightly ordered. Existing in harmony; doing what it was created to do…
When I was in college had to take one 6 hr course called human anatomy & physiology, including 3 hours of lab during which we dissected actual cadavers. The very first concept the lecturer introduced was homeostasis: the condition in which the body lives at a stable equilibrium; the body’s natural state – everything functioning in harmony. If something isn’t firing right, the body will notice it’s not at homeostasis & it’ll try and correct the problem. If your temperature’s too high you’ll sweat. If you haven’t had enough water – you’ll thirst. The body will try to restore that homeostasis. SHALOM is a lot like homeostasis, only 4 the entire creation.
We often say this happens in 4 directions for the person. We experience peace or SHALOM when we are relating naturally/peacefully to: God, ourselves, other people, & the created order. So, peace is not just lack of violence, or inner peace, although those are certainly part of it. Peace does not come when arrange the circumstances of our life into perfect order (cause when does that ever happen?) Peace comes when every part of our life exists in right relationship to everything else.
SIN, is what the Hebrew people called it when the SHALOM was disrupted. Sin is any kind of disruption of shalom. This is very different from the concept of sin that most of us were taught. I was taught that sin meant, “Don’t drink or smoke or chew, or go with girls who do.” But, sin is much bigger than wrong behaviors or attitudes. Sin is anything that disrupts Shalom.
In the NT, whenever JS sees a disruption in SHALOM he moves against it to try and restore the peace. Now… this means that even the brokenness of the world serves a redemptive purpose. Which means (for us & certainly for the man born blind): the place of our deepest wounding – is meant to be the place where God does his work of healing & restoration. That’s why JS says, “3‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. This is why we have all been born… so that God’s works might be revealed in us…
Jesus is going to use the man’s weakest point – his blindness, to give them all yet another glimpse of what his entire mission is about. In other words, what he does for the blind man, is what he’s going to do for all of us. First for the church – those who are a part of the body of Christ. Then for the world – somehow, through us… One of my favorite theologians N.T. Wright was in town this past week & our staff & some others went to see him. He said in one of his lectures (paraphrasing but close): “The church is God’s purposes for all creation being seen in advance through this community.” God is restoring shalom in YOU & in the WORLD by bringing it all back into relationship w/God through this new community. And to enact this mission he heals the blind man.
“6 he spat on the ground & made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7 saying to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which means sent). Then he went & washed & came back able to see.”
Now technically, this action makes Jesus a Sabbath breaker. Observing the Sabbath was a big boundary marker for the Jewish people. There were 39 specific works which were forbidden on Sabbath… couldn’t cut your fingernails, couldn’t pluck a hair from your head or beard, couldn’t wear sandals which had a sole nailed to them. Woven sandals were fine, but if they had nails in them, then each time you lift your foot was counted as work.
Another forbidden act was kneading bread/clay – which JS did with the dirt. Another was healing – which JS did as well. It was a very technical thing. You could receive medical attention only if your life was in danger; then only enough to keep you from dying…which is ironic given that in Deuteronomy 5, part of the rationale for Sabbath keeping was so that those who typically get overlooked in society can be seen. Sabbath was meant to be the one day of the week during which the rest of the people are not too busy to see the children, slaves, aliens, the sick.
So Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath & makes clay, works on Sabbath. This bothers the Pharisees. So they appoint a special prosecutor & start the investigation. First w/the people who knew him. Each morning someone from town would have to walk the blind, the sick, the lame to the synagogue where they’d sit outside the synagogue and beg for alms… which actually brings up an interesting point. Think how much time the Pharisees spent at the synagogue. They would have walked by this guy a thousand times. But they had never SEEN him. They had to ask other people who he was.
So, they bring him in & he tells the whole story (course they don’t believe him… think it’s a ruse) so they call his parents in, & they say, “look he’s our son; he’s blind since birth; if you want more info ask him (he’s of age).” It says,
22His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews.” In John when you see “The Jews” it’s talking about Pharisees. Everyone in this story is Jewish, Jesus, blind man, parents…John’s talking about the Jews w/the power to ex-communicate. That’s the Pharisees… and it says v.22: “… the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23Therefore his parents said, ‘He is of age; ask him.’” So the Pharisees call the man born blind in again. 24 So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, ‘Give glory to God! [Aside: Jews didn’t take oaths. This phrase was like saying “do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”] We know that this man [JS] is a sinner.’ 25He answered, ‘I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.’ 26They said to him, ‘What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?’ 27He 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?’
He’s making fun of them now; saying, ‘you guys are obsessed w/this guy, maybe you want to be his disciples?”
28Then they reviled him, saying, ‘You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.’ 30The man answered, ‘Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.’ 34They answered him, ‘You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?’
And they drove him out. That resolution here is very important. They drive him out of the synagogue… this action is significant. In the Gospel of Mark, the blind man is given a name: Bartimaeus. (son of the unclean). This man had never gone into the synagogue – he was unclean. He had sat outside & begged his whole life. He was never was allowed to worship until Jesus puts mud on his eyes & says, “wash at the pool of Siloam” (another important detail). This washing is a ritual cleansing… it gave the man access to the synagogue. For the first time in his life he can go worship w/his people..Because he is ritually clean. And what do the religious leaders do? They drove him out of the synagogue!
This is the sad reality: This stuff goes on all the time. It’s going on in our world right now. Somebody says or does something that the religious elite don’t like & they call them sinners or heretics & do their best to drive them out. Somebody struggling w/ sexuality, addictions, doubt, things they’ve done, things that have been done to them… there are always religious people ready to judge them & drive them out – to reject them … on behalf of God.
So what will Jesus do about this? Pick it up in v.35 “when Jesus heard they had driven him out, he went to find him.” I stinking love this part… I’m telling you, this is part of why I love and follow Jesus: The Pharisees drove him away… Jesus? He goes to find him. That’s what God is really like. God is hunting down the blind & the broken ones… it says:
“… when he found him, he said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man? 36He answered, ‘And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.’ 37Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.’ 38He said, ‘Lord, I believe.’ And he worshipped him.”
If you remember back to last week & the story of the woman at the well. You can actually see some deep similarities: A woman of ill-repute, shunned by her community, at the well in the middle of the day, talking about access to the temple & where they should worship, calling Jesus a prophet, then Messiah. Here, we have man born blind, shunned by the community, sitting in front of the synagogue where he is not allowed to worship, calling Jesus a prophet, then Messiah.
Jesus speaks w/ Samaritan woman. “I know that the Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” Jesus sees the man to which most are blind, asking if he believes in the “Son of Man” (which is a Messianic title in John), & the man born blind says, “who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.’ 37Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.’ 38He said, ‘Lord, I believe.’ And he worshipped him.
In both cases Jesus is revealing himself as the Messiah, the Christ, the son of Man… as the one who has come to bring SHALOM. In the first story, it’s the disciples who don’t get it. The Samaritans do – the ones who are usually left out. And in the second story, it’s the Pharisees who don’t get it. The man born blind does – the one who is usually left out. The revelation of JS as Israel’s Messiah produces belief on the part of some; and blindness on the part of others.
And John has Jesus and the Pharisees on a collision course here, which is sort of the climax of the whole story. 39Jesus 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.’ 40Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ 41Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.
All along in the gospel, John has been calling Jesus the light. John 1:5 “the light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.” John 8:12 “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” Here in John 9:5 “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” So Jesus has come as the light. And Jesus has come as the judge. And when he’s done the blind see, and the seers are blind.
We talked about this reality a lot during Epipahy – JS is experienced very differently by the man born blind, than he is by the Pharisees. This light also has this element of judgment. It exposes those who are not living truly. It’s like a flashlight that shines in a dark room. It exposes the things they are hiding… (usually, btw, on religious people).
So, when his light shines on a 5 time divorcee Samaritan – it makes her whole, and she sees JS is the Messiah. When it shines on a man blind from birth – it restores his sight, and he’s able to see that JS is the Messiah. But when it shines on the Pharisees – it exposes them as the source of the fractured SHALOM… they’re the cause for the lack of shalom… because they refuse to be humbled when God shows up.
The problem isn’t that the Pharisees are wrong, it’s that they’re unwilling to admit their wrongness. Jesus was never scandalized by broken people. What he could never stomach was the fakers… actors… hypocrites who had convinced themselves they were perfect. They don’t find healing because they can’t admit they are sick! They don’t find wholeness because they think they’ve been made whole by their own righteousness.
When Jesus shows up in John, he’s is called “the light of the world.” Those who are in darkness – i.e. man born blind in this story. Jesus is the light for them. They can now see. But those who think they are in the light – i.e. Pharisees. He’s the light for them too but for them it’s the light of judgment. But it’s the same light! Jesus … the light of the world
Does that make sense? Jesus is the light of the world. To some this means healing. To some this means judgment that exposes their true condition. But it’s the same light. You know what makes the difference? The difference is their answer to the question of his identity. The woman confesses Jesus as Messiah to all of her friends in her community and she’s restored. The blind man falls on his face and worships Jesus as Messiah, and he is restored.
Jesus says (v.39) ‘I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’ 40Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ 41Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.
That’s a pretty stunning thing to say… “If you were blind – if you had the obvious problem & everyone could see it – then you wouldn’t be a sinner.” He’s saying the man born blind is not a sinner. He’s just suffering under the effects of sin in the world. It’s sin for sure, but not his sin. It’s the sin that’s part of the whole messed up situation – disrupted shalom, lack of homeostasis. He’s guilty of nothing except being weak & broken. Who’s not guilty of that? His blindness is a lack of SHALOM to be sure…but it’s not the source of that lack, so Jesus draws near.
And this is a radical thing he says. This explodes the Judaism of his day. Jesus says, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” You struggling w/some sort of brokenness? You have a blindness? (physically, emotionally, spiritually)? Jesus doesn’t hold it against you. But if you self-justify… you hold yourself up as the holy ones? …Jesus says “you are the ones who are really blind.”
Man you think of all the time Christians spend condemning all of the people they call sinners… JS just blows that up here in John 09. He’s like, “Nuh-uh… no way… if you were really blind (like, dealing w/ a problem that you just can’t handle), I got grace for that. But because you are so convinced that you see perfectly, that you have no sin, so you can set yourself up as the judge & jury… the lack of shalom is on you.”
If sin is the disruption of Shalom, then JS is saying that the reason for that disruption is not that the man is blind, but that the Pharisees are. Because the Pharisees refuse to welcome this poor broken man into the life of their community. It turns out – they are the ones who are really blind! Stunning.
Jean Vanier – is one of my heroes, he was a Canadian – grew up in France because his father was part of the diplomatic corps for Canada. Vanier was brilliant – Naval College & officer in WWII. He got his PhD. in philosophy – wrote on Aristotle. He was a committed Christian and was never completely sold on the Navy or Academy. He had this mentor named Fr. Thomas – a chaplain at a home for people w/severe mental disabilities. As Vanier spent time w/his mentor at the facility, he became bothered by these institutions. He thought they were casting aside human beings too easily; quarantining them as misfits of nature & not as human beings.
So one day Vanier decided to rescue 2 men from a terrible institution, and he brought them home to live with him. They were both severely disabled & had no family. So he took them in, christened his house L’Arche (the ark), and began just to share his life w/them. All they did was live together in a home; worked around the house; built a friendship & makeshift family: the results were stunning.
For 1 thing: Philippe & Raphael, the 2 men, became happy. They still had their severe disability, but they began to flourish. Then, people started showing up from out of nowhere to help. Within 6 months Vanier was asked to take over the institution where his mentor was the chaplain & convert it to L’Arche. Five years later they started a L’Arche in India, then Canada. Today there are 134 such communities in 35 countries @ world (including one here in Kansas City).
Most of them are small homes and communities where the boundaries between patients and professionals have been erased. Residents live together & work together in group homes. Over the years, people of all walks of life have become involved (Henri Nouwen is one of them) – it’s become an innovative model (not treating/giving a life).
It’s been 50 yrs now he’s lived with the mentally disabled. Over that time Vanier has become convinced of the power of broken people – in the life of a community. He’s convinced they are a conduit of God’s healing & grace. He says that the reality that Jesus seemed to know is that the weak & the broken have hidden power most fail to recognize. That power is that they don’t have the ability to mask their own weakness. So they just share it – embrace it. And when they do it unleashes the power of Christ… inviting the presence of the God who inhabits weakness. When they expose the ways in which they are all broken, it’s as though God draws very near to them all…
Vanier notes that when you work w/the mentally disabled, most people think the success story is for them to learn to live on their own. What they found is that in the cases in which they were “successful” and people moved into their own place, it nearly always led to alcoholism. They’d get lonely & start drinking. Isn’t that interesting? What Vanier has come to believe & what he teaches is that: Independence does not lead to health it leads to loneliness, Interdependence (community) leads to health.
Human beings are wired for connection not autonomy. We’re wired for mutuality and love. What endangers our SHALOM is not our brokenness & our issues. What endangers our SHALOM is when we allow our brokenness to cut us off from the body of Christ – church.
Sometimes we do this to ourselves… can’t be real w/each other, or put on an act for the church… man, don’t do that here of all places… It’ll cut you off from God’s peace. Sometimes we do this to one another. The reason the Pharisees miss out isn’t cause Jesus is mad at them. They miss out because they don’t want everybody included. The Pharisees thought SHALOM would come when you drive out all the UNCLEAN & have a pure Israel. They don’t WANT to be in communion w/the blind man. Even after he’s been healed… they still drove him out!!
So Jesus, in this story, completely redefines sin for his people. In the gospel of John: “Sin is defined in one way only – what is your relationship to JS!” And specifically by whether or not you really believe that God is present in Jesus restoring SHALOM… He is the light of the world. If he shines on you and you say, “heal me I’m broken!” His light will restore you. If he shines on you and you say, “I don’t need healing.” Then his light exposes that as a lie – a disruption of Shalom.
In our own lives, when God sees us, especially the parts of our lives that are not as they should be, our own sins, our brokenness, the wounds we carry around, our failures, our fears and all that stuff. Your place of deepest wounding is where he does his best work. He does not count that against us… He does not turn his face. So we have no right to count those things against each other. This is the great change JS brought in the way we view God. God does not run from our brokenness. God enters into our brokenness fully. God comes right into the middle of our blindness, to restore shalom – to give us sight.
And the only way to blow it is to 1) insist that you don’t need it, & 2) to ostracize others because of their struggles & problems. In the end the man born blind could see & the Pharisees were blind. Don’t make those mistakes. What would it take for you to bring your brokenness out into the open? I promise you’ll find that the light of the world will heal you… that the place of your deepest wounding will be the place he touches you & performs his greatest work in your life.