I like this story. It's full of theological messages and I could probably preach for an hour on it, but my parishioners would either walk out or start throwing shoes at me. (Lutherans love church, but only for about an hour at a time.)
The appointed gospel lesson for the Fourth Sunday in Lent in Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary is the story from the ninth chapter of John's gospel, the story of the Man Born Blind. Even though it's a miracle story, its appeal to me is the fact that it's so human. I wonder if John was chuckling to himself when he wrote it, because it's got some real goofy humor in it.
The story (which takes up all of John chapter 9) starts with Jesus and the disciples strolling along and encountering a man whose been blind from birth. I don't know how they knew he was born blind, but somehow they got the idea. The disciples think it's a pretty lousy thing to not be able to see, and can only concluded that it's a punishment from God. Their only question is: who is being punished? Did God know in advance that this guy would grow up to be a total jerk and so decided to smite him at birth? OR, were his parents so awful that they deserved to have a disabled child, and the poor slob in front of them is just collateral damage?
Jesus sets them straight. That's not the way God works. Not every affliction is divine retribution—especially since we bring so many of our troubles on ourselves without any help from an angry God. No. Rather, every affliction is an opportunity for God to be glorified, for God is the source of strength and comfort in our trials.
Once Jesus has made his point, he hocks up some spit, makes mud from the dusty ground, puts it on the man's blind eyes, and tells him to go wash in the pool and he will receive his sight. And so he does.
What's funny about this is that, although the blind man now sees, those around him seem to have become visually impaired. They doubt the evidence of their own eyes and aren't willing or able to positively identify the guy whom they've seen begging every single day for years as the same happy dude who is now doing the Peppermint Twist down the main drag in joy at having received the gift of vision! So who's blind here, anyway?
The former blind beggar's friends are so flabbergasted that they drag him to see the Pharisees—really religious guys who can make sense out of this. Or so they think. Unfortunately, the Pharisees can't get beyond the fact that Jesus spat and made mud on the Sabbath. This, to them, constitutes work and is, subsequently, a violation of religious law. They don't see (and here's that blindness thing again) the facts that a) a friggin' miracle has just taken place, and b) it was a pretty darn compassionate thing which potentially moved the beggar from welfare to work. All they focus on is the violation of Sabbath law and so they can only conclude that Jesus is a sinner. They've made up their minds and don't want to be contradicted by the facts. If they lived two thousand years later, they would all have great jobs as reporters for FOX News.
To settle the question of identification, the Pharisees go to see the beggar's mom and dad. The parents admit that this guy is their son. Unfortunately, they are so sheepish of offending the ruling class and losing their membership in the club that they throw Junior under the bus. He's of age, they say, so let him tell you about Jesus. You would think they'd be a little more supportive of their son since he is now able to go to work and move out of their basement.
By this time, Junior is really tired of repeating the story, but the Pharisees grill him again, hoping he will say something which supports their view that Jesus is a sinner. I often wonder when I read this passage about Junior's reply in verse 27: “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?” Is this kid being innocent or just being a smartass?
Regardless, this answer really pisses off the Pharisees, who fall back on their credentials as disciples of Moses. Junior counters that a) his sight is a miracle, b) Jesus performed this miracle, c) God would not perform a miracle for an evil person, so d) Jesus must be on the side of God. But this is too logical for the Pharisees who rail at the kid for being impertinent and proceed to tear up his membership card to the synagogue.
To me, this is one of the most painfully human parts of this story. It seems that we can never see ourselves as being righteous unless we can find someone who is un-righteous and makes us look good by comparison. For example, I just read the lovely article by Peter W. Marty in the March issue of The Lutheran magazine. Pastor Marty wrote about God's gift of salvation and suggested that maybe the love of God is so vast, gracious, and unknowable that even people who may not subscribe to exactly the same doctrine we do could actually be “saved.” Of course, in April's The Lutheran there appeared a letter from an angry reader calling for Marty's expulsion from the magazine and immediate defrocking on the grounds of heresy.
(Read the article yourself and see what you think. Just click on PeterMarty.)
But back to our gospel story. It ends with Jesus hunting down the former blind man. Why? Because that's what Jesus does. He seeks the ones who have been shunned by society and shares God's love with them. He's come so that those of us who don't see God's grace in our own lives may see it before us in Jesus' suffering, in the faces of those around us, and in the symbols of the faith which preach forgiveness and reconciliation. He also opens our eyes to our own narrow-mindedness, selfishness, and stubbornness.
“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1:8)
Help us to see, Dear Lord.
Thanks for reading, dear friends. Drop me a comment, won't you?
PS-If Jesus came to open our eyes, let's notice that what Lutherans and Roman Catholics believe about the Holy Eucharist doesn't seem to be that different. The question is: will we look at the differences or will we focus on the similarities? If you're Lutheran or Roman Catholic and you agree, won't you sign my petition on Eucharistic sharing? Just click here.