As Jesus passed by, he saw a man blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
The disciples see the blind beggar as an occasion for discussing a theological problem. If affliction is caused by sin—as was widely believed at the time—whose sin is it? They don’t see the man himself. They don’t see his suffering and his isolation.
All of us have known the feeling of being in misery, but what is even worse is to be alone in misery, to have no one notice you, to have no one care. Jesus notices. Jesus cares. Jesus sees. He sees the blind man as no one else does, even though the man has not done anything to attract his attention. He silences his disciples with a sharp rebuke: Stop worrying about why he was born blind! That’s completely irrelevant! You are about to see the power of God at work!
The Lord bends down and takes earth, and makes clay, and puts it on the man’s eyes. Some of the old commentators say that we see here the Creator himself, the One “by whom all things were made, stooping again to the dust from which Adam was created, performing now an act of new creation.
Jesus tells the man to go and wash his eyes in the pool of Siloam. This is a strange command, but the man obeys; “he went, and washed and came back seeing.”
Now you might think that this is the climax of the story. But it’s only just beginning. The healing takes only two verses out of a forty-four-verse chapter. The heart of the story lies ahead.
When the blind man (I’m going to keep calling him “the blind man” because it takes too long to say “the formerly blind man”) comes back from the pool, he discovers that people behave strangely toward him. Instead of rejoicing, they seem offended. They seem almost hostile. Jesus’ deeds always attracted hostility from some onlookers.
Now at this point the blind man knows nothing whatever about Jesus. He doesn’t even know that he has a reputation for healing. So when people question him suspiciously, all he can say is, “A man called Jesus put clay on my eyes.” At this interesting juncture the blind man is hauled off to be interrogated by the Pharisees, and the real drama begins.
Now it’s very important to know something about the Pharisees. We’re used to thinking of them simply as arrogant hypocrites, but that’s a mistake. The Pharisees were the truly respected men of their community. Imagine assembling a few top professors from USC, and a couple of judges maybe, and definitely some church leaders. The Pharisees were the most respected men in the Judaism of Jesus’ time. They were scholarly, able, godly, and committed.
So when the illiterate blind beggar is suddenly thrust before this learned council, it’s an intimidating situation, to say the least. The interrogation begins in a reasonably neutral fashion with the Pharisees saying, “How did you get your sight?” But as soon as the blind man gives his straightforward testimony—“he put clay on my eyes, and I washed, and now I can see”—a vehement dispute arose among the Pharisees. Some said, “This man Jesus cannot be from God,” and others said, “If he is not from God, then how can he do such wonderful signs?”
The blind man, observing this dispute among the powerful men, must have felt himself being drawn into a controversy of dangerous proportions. How easy it would have been for him to say, “Look, I don’t know anything about this. I never saw this man Jesus before in my life and I don’t expect to see him again. I don’t want any trouble.” But he does not say that. When the Pharisees turn to him again and ask him, “What do you say about this man?” the blind man steps up the pace and declares, “He is a prophet.”
Now to say that Jesus was a prophet was to make a very strong claim. There hadn’t been very many true prophets. In view of the fact that the only thing the blind man really knows about Jesus is his name, this is a remarkable affirmation.
The Pharisees’ reaction to all this is one of increasing opposition. They want to discredit the man’s witness. They call in his parents and say, “Come, now, this isn’t your son who was born blind, is it?”
The man’s parents make a curious response. First they blow the Pharisees’ cover by saying “This is our son all right, and he was born blind,” but then they wimp out: “We don’t know how he got his sight. He can speak for himself; ask him.” The evangelist explains this evasiveness by telling us that the parents were afraid of being thrown out of the synagogue. What a familiar story! Fear of ostracism, fear of the loss of status, fear of offending community standards. This is a measure of how dangerous Jesus can be.
In the meantime the Pharisees are faced once more with the irritating fact of the man’s cure. Jesus seems to be making more and more trouble for them, operating out of bounds, encroaching on their territory. Who does this man think he is? They summon the blind man back again, and this time they make no show of courtesy. They are no longer divided; those who seemed willing to entertain the idea that Jesus might be a man of God have now gone over to the other side. Imagine the man who cleans the floors of the office building being called up for questioning before the board of the corporation. If the blind man’s situation was uncomfortable before, it is downright untenable now. The chairman of the board of the Pharisees leans forward. We have come to a conclusion, he says. “You should give God the glory for what has happened to you. We know that this man (Jesus) is a sinner.”
This is the point of no return for the blind man. We need to try to understand how unequal this contest is. The Pharisees are the God experts. If they have made a pronouncement, it must be the real thing. The blind man has no reason whatever to think that these godly men, these pillars of the faith, might be wrong. All he has is a tiny fragment of knowledge about Jesus. In the face of utter condemnation he doggedly clings to what he knows: “Whether he is a sinner or not, I do not know; one thing I know: I was blind, and now I see.”
The power and truth of this statement is not lost on the Pharisees. They back away from it, shifting their tactics, seeking distractions, changing the subject, evading the true issue of Jesus’ identity. “What did he do to you?” they demand to know. “How did he open your eyes?”
Now listen to the blind man’s reply. Something—or some One—is making him strong. With sudden audacity and resourcefulness he snaps back at his inquisitors: “I’ve already told you! Weren’t you listening? Why do you want to hear it all over again?” and then suddenly—we can imagine him tilting his head impudently—he says “Do you want to become his disciples too?”
At this, they turned on him furiously. “You’re the one who is his disciple! We are disciples of Moses. We know that God spoke to Moses, but as for this man [Jesus], we don’t even know where he comes from.”
This is the last word in pharisaical clout. The learned men of the faith reach back into the arsenal of the tradition and upon the head of this apparently defenseless beggar they hurl the thunder and lightning and fire and smoke of Mount Sinai itself.
But it is not the Pharisees who control the fires of the Spirit of God. The blind man is the one who is becoming an inspired witness. “What an extraordinary thing!” he exclaims! “You are the leaders of our faith, yet you can’t figure out where this man comes from. No one has opened the eyes of a man born blind since the world began. If this man Jesus were not from God, he could do nothing.”
And with that, the Pharisees rise up and throw him out of the temple, out of the company of decent people, out of the circle of the godly, out of the dwelling place of mercy and forgiveness and sanctuary.
But now, to him who is thrown out of the temple comes the Lord of the Temple. Upon him who has been cast into outer darkness comes the Light of the World. Jesus, “hearing that they had thrown him out,” went forth and looked for him, combed the streets for him, and found him. Finding him, the one who has been sentenced to spiritual death, Jesus of Nazareth comes intimately, personally close and gently says to him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” (“Son of Man” meant “the Messiah who is to come”) and the formerly blind man who was so stubborn and assertive before the Pharisees instantly and humbly yields himself to the leading of Jesus, saying, “Who is he, sir? Tell me, that I may believe in him.”
“You have seen him,” said Jesus. “Indeed, it is he who is speaking to you now.” “Lord, I believe,” said the man, and he bowed down and worshipped him.
It is for this purpose that the blind man was given his sight—that he should believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. The story is not about physical blindness and physical sight. It’s about spiritual blindness and spiritual sight. John’s Gospel was written with a particular purpose, and if we know what that is, we will understand this story as we are meant to understand it. At the end of the 20th chapter, the evangelist states his purpose: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” That’s the purpose of everything John writes in his Gospel and it’s the purpose of this sermon.
The story of the man born blind is the story of a struggle between the Pharisees and a blind beggar, but it’s also the story of each of us. Each of us is part Pharisee. The Pharisee is sure of his place in society. He is so certain of his faith and his standing in the community that he has no room for an encounter with this disconcerting man, Jesus of Nazareth. The Pharisee has shut the door on the Lord of life. We can so easily be like that. Our devotion to our chosen way of being religious blinds us to the very presence of God in the person and work of his Son. You see, the blind man represents all of us in our fallen humanity, imprisoned in our own small selves, without hope of being freed from the oncoming darkness, unable to see ourselves as God sees us,.
My base for many years has been New York City. It’s different there. The intellectual and cultural leaders in New York are very, very sure that they hold the keys to what’s important. In many ways they do—I turn to them for analysis of what’s going on in music, art, international affairs, the literary world. But when it comes to the purpose of existence, the source of goodness, the destiny of humanity, most of them don’t know. They don’t know Jesus Christ, the Lord of life.
But do you know? Do you know him?
The story of the man born blind is constructed in segments. Three times, the Pharisees challenge the blind man. Their purpose is to discredit the witness. Every time they do, they move one step further away from recognizing the Son of God. Three times the blind man—a very spunky character—defies them, with increasing confidence each time. As he sticks to his story, the light of Christ increases in him. True knowledge comes at the climax when he kneels and worships the Lord.
Do you recognize him? He stands before you this very moment, in this story from John, this word from God, this message that the Holy Spirit speaks to you at this hour. You can be in the church building all day and all night, you can work your hands to the bone, you can do good deeds and serve on boards and be respected around town and still not know the Lord of life. Come to the light, come to him, come to the giver of all good, come to the one who sees you, loves you, knows you, cares for you, saves you. This is the meaning of sight: to see him and recognize him and like the doubting disciple Thomas, say to him,
“My Lord and my God.” (John 20:28)
Original beginning – not used
I suppose most of you know the story behind the hymn “Amazing Grace,” but just in case, the basic facts are that the author of the text, John Newton, was an English sailor, remarkable for his profanity even among famously profane sailors. He became involved in the African slave trade and later actually rose to be the captain of a slave ship. He underwent a conversion, became an Anglican clergyman, and joined forces with the abolitionist movement under William Wilberforce. Out of these experiences he wrote “Amazing Grace.” Predictably, the story is somewhat more complicated than that—you can get the rest of it on the Internet. For our purposes today, I just want to note that the line in the hymn, “was blind and now I see” is a direct quote from the ninth Gospel of John.
What’s really amazing about the hymn is that it has become so widely popular. I can’t think of many more incongruous spectacles than that of secular people enthusiastically singing “amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.” In this age of “self-esteem,” who thinks of himself or herself as a wretch? The Episcopal Church got rid of that language a long time ago; its been decades since we’ve called ourselves “miserable sinners” and said “there is no health in us.” Yet here we are cheerfully singing about ourselves as wretches. The humor in this is matched by the humor in the story from John’s Gospel—but of course the story is deadly serious, too, as we shall see.