Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
March 26, 2017; 4th Sunday in Lent, Year A
Isaiah 42:5-12; John 9:1-41
“One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”
If you see a word that begins with “presby,” chances are it has something to so with our Presbyterian tradition. Besides the word “Presbyterian” itself, there’s also the word “presbytery” — our regional governing body. There’s the word “presbyter,” which is simply the Greek word for “elder.” In our system, a presbyter is a minister or elder elected to vote in a presbytery meeting. We even had a computer bulletin board a few years back called “Presbynet.” (I used to be a member.)
But there’s one word that begins that way that has nothing to do with our church, nor any other. It’s the word “presbyopia.” It’s a medical condition: and, if you’re over the age of 50, chances are pretty good you’ve got it.
“Presbyopia” literally means “old eyes.” It’s the fuzzy vision most of us get as we grow older. It leads us to start using eyeglasses for reading, and eventually for everything else.
As surely as presbyopia is about old eyes, our Gospel lesson this morning from the ninth chapter of John is about new eyes: specifically, the eyes of a certain blind man whom Jesus heals.
We just heard his story from John, chapter 9. Now, let’s go deep.
Jesus is walking down the road with his disciples. They come across a man “blind from birth.” Seeing him, the disciples ask their Master a theological question: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
Now, let’s stop the narrative and take note of the human factor. For this man is more than a theological case study. He’s a human being, with feelings and hopes and dreams. Because he’s been blind from birth, his hearing is probably very acute (as is true of most blind people). That means the man heard what they just asked about him.
How do you suppose the disciples’ question makes him feel? It’s probably a question he’s heard many times before. Most people assumed, in those days, that any serious health problem or disability was a punishment from God. Blaming the victim was all too common. This man has grown up, in other words, with all the world telling him he’s been cursed.
Now, for most rabbis, the answer to that question would have been easy. The man’s been blind from birth, so how could it be his own sins that made him blind? It has to be the sins of his ancestors.
But Jesus doesn’t provide this usual response, the one the blind man’s expecting to hear: the one that gives him a cold feeling in the pit of his stomach each time he hears it. Jesus answers, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.”
That’s a break from tradition. The man is all ears. Then, Rabbi Jesus goes to say, “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”
Now, don’t read too much into that. Jesus isn’t saying God is some sort of monster, who visits blindness upon a newborn baby just to create a teaching aid. It’s more like he’s saying, “Don’t even ask that question: but wait and see what happens next.”
Then we come to the part of this story you could call “the ick factor” — the particular means Jesus chooses to restore the man’s sight. Jesus spits on the ground and makes a muddy poultice that he spreads on the blind man’s eyes.
In the Gospels, Jesus uses a wide variety of methods to heal people. Sometimes it’s with a touch. Other times it’s with a mere word. In Mark, chapter 10, Jesus heals a blind man named Bartimaeus by simply saying, “Your faith has made you well.”
So, what’s with the spittle and the mud? Why does he choose this primitive medical treatment?
I think the answer may have something to do with the disciples’ question. Sure, they’re voicing the prevailing wisdom of their age, but they’re also incredibly insensitive to the feelings of the man before them. The man sits there in the darkness that is his life. He’s acutely aware of the footfalls of everyone coming up to him. The voices he hears may be mocking or — if he’s lucky — kind. It’s not unusual for passersby to spit on him — cursed by God as he surely is, on account of his disability.
So, when he hears the sound of Jesus drawing up a great wad of spittle, he’s expecting the worst. Maybe he cringes, waiting for the insult about to come.
But this teacher does something different. Something unexpected. Jesus uses the spittle to make a poultice of mud and gently spreads it over the man’s blind eyes. Then he tells him to go wash it off, in the Pool of Siloam.
At this point, the story continues for a time without Jesus in it. That’s unusual for John’s Gospel. The second half of this story is the longest stretch when Jesus himself is not at center stage. John tracks the story of Jesus very closely, but for this little while, the action shifts to follow the blind man and what happens to him.
John tells us the man does as Jesus instructs, washing his face in the Pool of Siloam. Once he’s done, it’s as though he’s got new eyes. For the first time in his life, he can see!
Now, you’d expect this miraculous news would set off general rejoicing in the land, but quite the opposite happens.
One feature of most human communities — and not a very positive one — is that they don’t adapt especially well to change. There’s a well-established protocol in that community, a sort of pecking-order, and Jesus has just turned it on its head. Anchoring the bottom of that pecking order, for all his life, has been the man blind from birth. If you wanted someone to spit on, he was your man!
But suddenly, Jesus’ miracle has changed all that. And those at the top of the religious pecking order — the Pharisees — are not too happy about it.
Now, I need to stop here and say a word or two about the language John uses. All throughout this passage — and others like it — he freely names “the Jews” as the bad guys. He says in verse 18, “The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight.” A little later, in verse 22, he says the blind man’s parents “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.”
This makes no sense at all, and here’s why: Jesus and his disciples are Jews. So are the blind man and his parents. What sense does it make for Jews to fear Jews?
John was writing at a troubled time. His audience was an early Christian church striving mightily to distance itself from Judaism. Not long before, the Romans had brutally put down a revolution in Jerusalem. They destroyed the Temple. Those who persisted in the Jewish faith, in this second generation following Jesus’ resurrection, were facing all sorts of persecutions. John wanted to keep the Romans off the backs of his own Christian people: so, at many points in his narrative, he identifies “the Jews” as villains who did all sorts of terrible things, including killing Jesus.
The consequences of his choice of words have been tragic, ever since. Later generations of Christians — overlooking the obvious fact that Jesus and his disciples were Jews — practiced anti-Semitic persecutions, citing passages like these as justification. Passages like this one were used to justify the Good Friday pogroms that happened year after year in Czarist Russia, and even the Nazi holocaust. I believe we Christians have a moral obligation to own that terrible history: and to be careful about our language as we talk about who killed Jesus.
What John’s really saying, of course, is that a certain faction within Judaism opposed Jesus — a certain party within the religious leadership. For that reason, when I read the Gospel of John, every time I come across the words “the Jews,” I do a little translation in my mind. I replace it with “the religious leaders.” That’s really what the Bible’s talking about.
Now, back to the story. These Pharisees are alarmed at Jesus. They’re suspicious of his religious reform movement that’s growing bigger by the day. And so they call the formerly blind man before them, for cross-examination.
The Pharisees have heard that Jesus performed this miracle on the Sabbath. They want to find out exactly what Jesus did, to see if he was violating the Law in doing so.
Now if Jesus had simply said to the man, “Your faith has made you well,” there would have been no problem. But there was this matter of the spittle-and-mud poultice. When Jesus made that simple concoction, he was working. On the Sabbath. Gotcha, Jesus!
Or, so some of the Pharisees think. How could a man who worked on the Sabbath be God’s instrument? But other Pharisees looked at what he’d just done for the blind man, and asked themselves, “How could he not be God’s instrument?”
“There was division among them,” says John. Maybe the reason Jesus made the poultice to begin with — rather than simply saying “Your faith has made you well” — was to confound the Pharisees!
The religious hardliners won’t let it rest. Maybe the whole miracle is a hoax. Maybe the man wasn’t really blind to begin with. And so they pepper the formerly blind man with questions. Who does he think Jesus is, they ask him?
“He is a prophet.”
That’s a powerful claim, linking Jesus with the likes of Elijah and Moses. They’re not too happy about it. So, they switch to a new approach. They try to undermine the man’s testimony. They call in his parents.
“Is this your son?”
“Yes it is.”
“Tell us how it is he’s no longer blind.”
“We have no idea. Why don’t you ask him?”
And so they call the man in a second time.
“Tell us this man who healed you is a sinner!”
“Is he? What would I know about that? All I know is I once was blind, but now I see!”
They start to question him again about how, exactly, Jesus healed him. But he says, “I already told you that. Why are you asking again? Do you want to become his disciples?”
It’s kind of a snarky answer, but you can hardly blame the guy. He’s had enough of this. The greatest thing in his life has just happened, and these people are more concerned with the handful of mud than the blind eyes that can now see! “If this man were not from God,” he tells them, “he could do nothing!”
Whereupon they drive him from their presence, condemning him as a sinner.
It’s now that Jesus comes back into the picture. Having heard what the Pharisees did to the man he healed, Jesus seeks him out. Most of the time, in the Bible, people come to Jesus for healing, but this time the doctor goes out looking for his patient. When he finds him, he asks him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”
“Who is he? Tell me, so I can believe in him.”
Jesus says, “You have seen him, and the one speaking to you is he.”
I don’t know which is more remarkable, under the circumstances: the first half of that sentence — “you have seen him”(you, this man formerly blind) — or “the one speaking to you is he.” They’re both miraculous: two sides of the same coin.
The man says “Lord, I believe,” then falls down and worships him.
New eyes. That’s what the man gets from his encounter with Jesus. New eyes in the physical sense; and new eyes in the spiritual sense as well.
And what about us? What sort of new eyes do we need?
I’m not talking, of course, about bifocals, or cataract surgery. I’m talking about our outlook on life: the ways we see with the eyes of the soul.
When you and I look at the people around us, those we encounter every day, do we see them as they’ve always been: as small-minded, petty or otherwise flawed? Or do we see them as God sees them: human children with infinite potential?
When we look at people different from us — people who come from another ethnic heritage, or another religion, or a different sort of community — do we assume certain things about them based on old prejudices? Or do we approach each encounter open to whatever God’s ready to show us?
When we look at the physical world around us, do we see it only as a scientist or engineer is taught to see it: a place governed by physical laws alone? Or do we see it as a place where God rules, a place where miracles sometimes happen? Do we hear in birdsong a hymn of praise, and see in the sunset a benediction?
When we call Jesus Christ to mind, do we see him only as a historical figure: a wise teacher, an ethical example, a superstar who had a lot of fans in his day? Or do we see him as a risen Lord who walks beside us, who speaks to us of love and compassion, who guides us in the way we should go? Do we see him as our Lord and our savior?
He can be those things to us: our Lord and our savior. He wants to be those things for us. He seeks us out, as he sought out that formerly blind man, long ago. He asks us if we, too, believe in the Son of Man — and if we know the one speaking to us is he.
Do you know that, in your life? Do you really know it, deep in your heart? If you want to know it, then pray to him for the gift of new eyes. For it is a gift he is more than eager to give you.
Let’s pray that prayer now:
Lord Jesus, Son of Man,
there are so many ways we live our lives in darkness,
so many ways we miss the mark,
so many ways we fall short of your glory.
We simply do not have it in us
to reach across the chasm separating us from you.
But you come to us in the silence.
You lift us from all our fear.
You allow us to hear your voice.
You claim us as your choice.
May we learn to be still and know you are here. Amen.
Copyright © 2017 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.