As [Jesus] 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.” But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 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.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”
They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 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.” 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. 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.” 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 and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 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.” 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. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.” 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.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 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?” Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.
So we’re right about in the middle of Lent, the season of sin. In a mainline Protestant church like ours, we don’t talk that much about sin. Nobody really likes the word. But in Lent, it’s different. We phrase it in terms of “forty days of preparation and repentance” – but it’s still forty days of meditation upon our sin, our limitations, our shortcomings. So it’s only appropriate that we have a story today, from the Gospel of John, about sin.
The passage begins as a story about a man who’s been blind from birth, which means he’s also poor and despised. As Jesus walks by him, immediately, this man becomes for the disciples an object lesson, a theological discussion. They treat him not as a man, but as an example for their own beliefs and ideology. “Rabbi,” they ask, “who sinned – this man or his parents – that he was born blind?” Because they believe there must be something the man did to deserve such a disability, such a tragic life.
This type of thinking isn’t unusual. When faced with the question of “why did this happen?” often people want to explain away sadness and tragedy with sinfulness as a rationale. What did I do to deserve this? What did we do to bring this upon ourselves?
In 1755, an earthquake and tsunami hit Lisbon, Portugal and killed tens of thousands of people and destroyed most of the city. In the years following the disaster, across Europe hundreds of books, articles, and sermons on the subject were published by everyone from Voltaire to John Wesley, debating whether the earthquake was caused by the wrath of God.
More recently, when Hurricane Katrina hit, an Alabama senator stated that “New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast have always been known for gambling, sin and wickedness. It is the kind of behavior that ultimately brings the judgment of God.” In response, one minister said, “Well if the Lord was aiming for those casinos then the Lord needs to improve his aim. The hurricane took out about eight casinos and nearly a hundred churches!”
This type of reasoning is easy for many to follow: If God is good and righteous, then if there’s bad, the bad must be punishment for our unrighteousness.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus wants nothing to do with this simplistic theology of establishing a link between sin and a person’s circumstances in life. Jesus says, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.” With that, Jesus spits, makes a paste of mud, and heals the man’s blindness.
As with other instances of Jesus’ healing, there’s much conversation that ensues. The people who had passed by the poor man every day now can’t even recognize him. “This can’t be the same man who was blind!” they say. If his tragic circumstance was the result of his (or his parents’) sin, then he can’t possibly have had his life changed without there being a reversal in the entire moral order of the universe! He’s a sinner, he’s meant to be blind. How can this be?
So they bring the once-blind man to the religious officials, the overseers of moral respectability, for a ruling on their debate. The Pharisees declare that not only the man and his parents probably sinned, but so has Jesus, otherwise Jesus wouldn’t have healed a person on the Sabbath.
Talk about a tragedy! Here’s a man who’s been healed of lifelong blindness, but nobody celebrates his healing. Instead, they end up arguing over who the real sinner is. Their sense of moral order, the connection between sin and a person’s plight in life, has been disrupted, turned upside down by Jesus’ healing. So in response, they try to restore that moral order. If Jesus, by his healing act, has upset how things are supposed to work (if you do bad, bad things will happen to you; if you do well, good things will happen to you), Jesus is labeled as the worst sinner of all.
The notable point is that Jesus doesn’t even get into the debate. He refuses to label anybody as a sinner. Instead, he criticizes the religious leaders, who are so obsessed with the order of things that they show no compassion for the plight of the poor man and his parents. They show no joy at his healing and restoration. They think that their faith in God qualifies them to see when sin crops up. But they can’t even see their own insensitivity to what’s just happened before them.
This chapter in John is a reminder about who writes the scripts in our lives. Those who wanted to place the blame for blindness on the man’s sinfulness were blind to the effects that their statements had on him and others. Think for a moment how the parents must have felt when they were told by the religious authorities that they were the cause of their son’s blindness.
We add so much to the burdens of others when we judge and accuse.
When we’re trying to control the scripts of our lives, we’re like the religious leaders in our Gospel today. This passage has been likened to a version of the Keystone Cops. While a man is healed and restored, the people around him are chasing each other around in theological circles, blind to their own shortcomings.
We do the same maneuver today. In the face of human need, many of us prefer to shore up our own belief system or our own political agenda. We see a person in need and we systematize. We think, they’re in the shape they’re in because of their shortcomings. Before his healing, the man was neatly placed in the “blind and helpless” category, so that folks were free to go about other tasks in their lives. Even today, society and daily culture depend upon people first being categorized and, then, staying in their place.
When Jesus sees someone in need, he doesn’t use that person’s plight to develop a political or moral agenda. Jesus sees an opportunity, a chance to recognize God’s work. God’s work is revealed, not in a moral statement, but in an act of mercy, in an act which pays close attention to the need itself.
If the blind man is right in believing that Jesus is who he says he is – the Son of God, the Savior of the sinful, suffering world – then the season of Lent is actually a very joyful one for the church. In Christ, something wonderful is being done by God to heal us, to have mercy upon us. Lent is a season of celebration and praise of a God who comes to us in love and compassion, despite our sin. God bursts the boundaries and walls of our personal agendas with new light and life.
That light is Jesus, the Light of the World, who shines in our lives. May we welcome his presence, and his illumination. Amen.