On the Sunday of the Blind Man
Sermon preached by Dn. Jeff Smith on Sunday, June 2, 2019
Today’s Gospel reading about the man born blind that I’ve just read is the 3rd of three readings all from the Gospel of John in the post paschal cycle. Prior to this cycle we are still finding the empty tomb with the myrrh bearing women. And next week, we begin another cycle leading toward all saints and Pentecost. So these three weeks are like a post paschal interlude. These three weeks are all specific meetings between Jesus and an encounter with another person, another human being. Each encounter has a baptismal element, they all involve water and granting of new life. They are all healing moments. They even feel a little like post resurrection encounters, go figure.
The first encounter is between Jesus and the paralyzed man at the pool of Bethesda, where Jesus asks, and “do you want to be healed?” an important point, Jesus doesn’t just heal the paralytic, he asks for his consent first. And of course, the Pharisees were upset then that Jesus had healed a paralyzed man on the Sabbath day, they question him, but the man doesn’t know who Jesus is until he meets him later. The second encounter – last week - is between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, where Jesus offers her living water, and she becomes an apostle to Samaria. And today we see Jesus create a healing balm allowing his very own DNA to come into contact with the blind man’s eyes, after which Jesus commands him to go wash in the Pool of Siloam, where his eyes are opened. The result is a man whose character, form and appearance, has changed. He isn’t recognized by his friends and neighbors. They say, “Isn’t this the one who used to sit and beg?” No, that must be someone else. The man says “I am he.” His servitude is over, and he gains newfound courage standing before the Sanhedrin.
Today, the blind man is brought before the Pharisees who conduct a much more elaborate investigation this time, about whether one who breaks the Sabbath and the Law, and is therefore a sinner can cure, heal, or produce a miracle on the Sabbath. There is a division among them, and Jesus is on trial, a sort of pre-trial before the crucifixion. First witness: the man’s parents are dragged forward to identify him. This can’t be the same person, it must be fraud. But they are afraid of being questioned, so they defer to their son. “Yes, the man before you is our son, but we don’t know how he gained his sight. He will have to speak for himself.” Again and again, they question the man to point of frustration where he says, “Why do you keep asking me what he did? Do you want to become his disciples too?” Now, is that sarcasm or an invitation, it’s really hard to tell. The blind man tells the Pharisees after they insult him that “if this man – Jesus – where not from God, he could do nothing.” He is resolute. And they reply “you were steeped in sin at birth, how dare you lecture us!” So there he stood, accused of being born in sin, ashamed of his very birth, and cast out. Even Jesus’ disciples ask, “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” Someone has to take responsibility for his suffering and impairment. Jesus replies, “Neither sinned. There is no sin here.” His blindness is not the result of sin, but happened so that the work of God will be made manifest.” That’s a remarkable statement regarding God’s time, not ours. This man was born blind, and lived his whole life without sight just so that he would encounter Jesus at this moment to demonstrate the power of God. Then Jesus says to his disciples, “Let us then do the work of God while it is day.” Here is another reference to light overcoming darkness.
What a contrast this trial is to the man’s second encounter with Jesus, who again speaks healing words, saying you have now seen the Son of Man with your own eyes, and he replies by worshipping him. It is a stark contrast between accusation, insult and exclusion on the one hand vs. healing, vision, insight and mercy on the other. By granting light to this man for the first time, Jesus shows that he is the Light of the World. When Jesus says, “I am the light of the world,” this is clearly in the style and fashion of St. John the Evangelist.
The Pharisees basically admit in sarcastic rhetoric that they themselves are the blind ones. They ask Jesus, “Are we blind, then?” When they ask Jesus, “are you saying we are blind?” Jesus is not very compassionate. He doubles down by replying, “If you were blind, then you would have no sin, but because you see, then you have no excuse.” If you were blind, you could claim ignorance and innocence, but you actually see what you are doing to harm others with your rules, so therefore you are guilty. Those who judge are therefore judged. Jesus says, “For judgement I have come into this world, that those who do not see will see – those born blind will see – and those who see – those who bind others with the law – will be blind.
This past semester, I took a course in “non-violent communication,” in which we learned that all conflicts are basically a dance of needs, and when we view a conflict, the best question to ask is, “what needs are trying to be fulfilled in this dialogue?” Since the Pharisees are clearly cast as the bad guys, let’s start there. What are their needs that lead them to where they find themselves casting judgement on the poor and the weak? What do the Pharisees want? In our class, we were given a list of human needs to work from…
The most obvious is the need for power and control. The Pharisees want to preserve their own security, which is a basic human need. They want to preserve the consistency, the stability, the order and structure of their religion and their faith, all of which Jesus threatens by healing on the Sabbath. By calling Jesus a sinner for breaking the law, they are trying to preserve their sense of structure, which they feel crumbling before Jesus’ healing power. The Pharisees desire to matter. They don’t want to become irrelevant, which is what might happen if the law can be interpreted without them. They may want to preserve their sense of community that they have built by excluding “sinners.” Jesus’ presence in their midst provokes fear that their structure and the meaning they have constructed will be taken away and they will be left naked. Clearly, facing Jesus makes them feel insecure.
And Jesus does not give them a pass. He offers them sight, but it comes with brokenness, not the security of their man-made structure. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: A broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. Psalm 50.
And if we step out from the story, we can see how easily this all of this applies to us. How easy it is to ignore Jesus and carry on with our lives governed by our fears. But Jesus offers us a way out, as the Light of World, we are called to look upon him and see the King, the true ruler of this world, whose kingdom is clearly visible and within reach. All we have to do is reach out and call him, “Maranatha, Lord Jesus,” and receive him today in the Eucharist. Amen.