I have already wasted too much of my life looking for things which haven’t actually been lost. As I get older, it only going to get worse. A typical scenario would go like this. It is Sunday morning, and I am about to leave for church. I can’t find my keys. I run around the house looking high and low. Often, Alison will say something helpful like – “You’ve got the biggest bunch of keys I’ve ever seen. I don’t know how you keep losing them.” There is some truth in that. Eventually, I’ll find them, often sitting openly in plain sight. But in my anxiety at being late, I haven’t been able to see what’s right in front of my eyes.
Today, we have read a story about people who couldn’t see what was in front of their eyes. As we’ve been reading stories from John’s Gospel over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been stressing the relational aspects of them. I’ll admit that that’s a bit harder to see in this story. This is not so clearly a story about relationship. But there are many different relationships in it, and they are complicated relationships, and that imparts a level of reality, a level of authenticity to this story. There are no easy relationships here. This is a story about real life.
The central character is a man born blind. In a very literal sense, he cannot see what’s in front of him. A bit like in the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, which we looked at last week, this is an apparently chance encounter, though I think it is most likely that there was intention on Jesus part. The man is not expecting anything. He knows nothing of Jesus. He asks for nothing. Jesus could have passed by as so many others must have done.
But he didn’t. He stopped. But he doesn’t approach the man directly. Rather, he stops because his disciples ask him a question. A question about sin. Who sinned? This man or his parents? Jesus seizes the opportunity to teach. Physical impairment is not caused by sin, he tells them. God loves rather than punishes. God suffers along with those he loves, rather than meting out suffering. It was a radical message for the disciples. And it is a message that we still need to hear, because the assumption of a link between sin and suffering still lingers. We still sometimes think that suffering must have been deserved. But that’s not what Jesus teaches.
After this conversation, Jesus, embodying the love of God, responds to the humanity of the blind man. He reaches out to help. It is the beginning of a profound change for the man. First, he gains his sight. That, you might think, was enough. I think we often, rather naively, assume that when Jesus healed people, everything was sorted out, that everyone rejoiced and said how marvellous it all was. But this story tells a different tale, a much more nuanced, complicated tale, and, in doing so, it tells us quite a bit about how difficult it can be if, or when, Jesus makes a difference in our lives. And it challenges us to ask if that’s why we resist changes, and often keep Jesus at arm’s length.
The first thing that happens is that the man’s neighbours don’t recognise him. Is this the blind man, or just someone who looks like him? It is as if he had been reduced to just one recognisable characteristic – his lack of eyesight. They only know him for one thing. Without that, they didn’t know him. I think that must lead us to ask if we also think so reductively about others. I suspect we do, and know people only for one thing. God, though, knows the fullness of our characters, and calls us to do likewise.
The now formerly blind man may have begun to wonder if blindness had been easier than trying to explain his changed circumstances, his gaining of sight. As we read on in the story, we see he was having a hard time trying to justify himself. He hadn’t asked for this. How could he have known how it had happened? He didn’t even know anything about the person who had done it. He certainly wasn’t asking for trouble. But that’s what he got.
Some Pharisees objected that this had happened on the Sabbath, the day when no work was to be done. Whoever did it must have been wicked, they reasoned. But that didn’t seem right to the newly seeing man. Hadn’t he just experienced something really good? Hadn’t he just received an extraordinary gift? He wasn’t going to go along with the views of the Pharisees who wanted to condemn an infraction of the rules and overlook a great good that had been done. He reasons – this man must be a prophet, a good man – and he bravely tells the Pharisees so. It is the beginning of understanding.
But the Pharisees are having none of that. They try to discredit the man. They drag his parents in
and try to make out that the claim to have received sight was fraudulent. The man’s parents manage to stand up to the Pharisees, up to a point. They are scared of these people in authority. They are scared that if they go against them too much, they will be put out of the synagogue, effectively cast out of their community. It is a powerful threat. It can be really hard to go against religious orthodoxy, whatever that orthodoxy is, even when it is wrong. That’s where cults get their power. Even in normal churches, you can find people who use their own version of right belief to bully and exert power over others.
Though they are not getting terribly far, the Pharisees try again to get the formerly blind man to recant, to disown whoever healed him. They pile more pressure on him. But it has the opposite effect. The more pressure they put on him, the more the man argues back. He argues that Jesus must be from God, because what Jesus did was unambiguously good. Then he goes further. He declares himself to be a disciple of Jesus.
He does this because he has been reasoning, working out in his own mind who Jesus must be and what his actions must mean. He’s on the same journey as Nicodemus. He has seen that Jesus is good. I am standing on the side of good, he tells the Pharisees, no matter how difficult you find that to fit in to your theology and rules.
Sensing that they are losing the argument, the Pharisees resort to temper and drive him out. The truth is too uncomfortable. It is only then that Jesus comes back into the story. The formerly blind man makes his third confession of belief. He has gone from thinking of Jesus as a prophet to describing himself as a disciple, to now declaring his belief that Jesus is Lord. It is at this point that he sees fully what is before his eyes. Sight, both physical and spiritual, has been received.
But not by all. Some eavesdropping Pharisees objected to the implication that they, in some senses, could not see. They couldn’t accept that they were, in fact, unable to see that was in front of their eyes. Because what was in front of their eyes was a big challenge, a challenge to the old ways of thinking, a challenge to their tradition, a challenge to their authority, a challenge to their privileged position in society. They couldn’t deal with challenge of change, of accepting a new and deeper truth. Accepting change in the light of new understanding is a challenge to us all, perhaps particularly in the church. We’d often rather stick with what we think we know, even if what we know is no longer relevant, no longer adequate to the times we now live in.
So the Pharisees, in a sense, could not bear to see what was in front of their eyes. And neither could the man’s parents. They couldn’t see what was in front of their eyes because they were afraid, afraid to accept something different. They were under pressure, pressure to conform, not to do anything that would disturb the established order. It is only the blind man, the man who is given his sight, who sees, not only with his eyes but with his mind, his understanding, who does what we are all required to do, to work out for himself who Jesus really is. It is the blind man who teaches us to see.