Will the Real Blind Man Please Stand Up? (John 9:1-41)

Note: This sermon was preached as a dialogue between John York and Rubel Shelly.

John
: Rubel, this is another one of those Sundays when I get up here and feel like Winston and Greg and the Worship Team have already done our job for us. What a powerful way to open our eyes to the story in John 9 this morning!

I'm reminded of my buddy Ken Greene's comment about this text. He says, "Bad theology always leads to insensitivity." When we misunderstand God's intent for us humans, when we misunderstand God, we end up treating one another badly.

Our story starts out today with Jesus' closest associates looking at a human being that, from his birth, has been looked upon and treated as a non-person. Remember that physical ailments and deformities like blindness dropped one out of that society - and they have the same effect in some even today. There was no place for such people except as beggars sitting beside the road hoping to receive enough alms to survive for another day. That this man had survived at all is quite amazing. Jesus comes along as the "light of the world," and, in many ways, this chapter is designed as an illustration of that identity. By the time we reach the end of the chapter, I suspect we'll all be asking ourselves "Just who is really blind in this story?"

It is difficult for us to hear John's story because we are so accustomed to the portrayal of Jesus in the other Gospel accounts. Particularly in Luke, Jesus is the one sent from God for the express purpose of giving sight to the blind (Luke 4; cf. Isa. 61). In John's account, the disciples have experienced the miraculous capabilities of Jesus, but they don't seem to expect a miracle when they come upon this man.

It is curious that the disciples somehow seem to know that this particular man's blindness dates from his birth, not from a later accident or loss of sight. Does he have a sign around his neck? No eye-sockets? The tragedy is that when they look upon this man, they do not see a person, they see a theological question: "Jesus, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?"

The response of Jesus seems both clear and confusing at the same time. "Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him" (9:3). Rubel, haven't I heard you fuss about the traditional translation of this verse? It had to do with punctuation issues, if I recall. Care to explain?

Rubel: In my opinion, our English translations of the Gospel of John - the King James Version, American Standard Version, Revised Standard Version, New International Version - all create a problem in this text. No, I think I want to be a bit more emphatic. I'd say they create an interpreter's nightmare here. More than presenting the blind, lame, or leprous as non-persons, these readings invite us to see this man as an object of divine abuse and manipulation. I can see that with the fickle gods of the Greeks, but not in the One True God.

All these translations put commas or semicolons where I think a period belongs. And it forces the text to say something that I believe runs contrary to the tenor of the Word of God. Take the New Revised Standard translation John just read, but look again at these opening verses.

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" (9:1-4).
This rendering leads readers to hear Jesus saying, "No, this fellow isn't being punished for sin. He was born blind. Can anyone really think he sinned in his mother's womb? Neither has he suffered this affliction because of something he parents did wrong. God isn't 'getting them' by 'getting him. But he is blind because [and this is the implication I resent so from these versions!] my Father, the Holy Spirit, and I knew that I'd someday need a poor klutz to heal in order to show how powerful we are!"

God deliberately created the unimaginable heartache for this man's parents when he was an infant doomed to a sightless world? He put both them and him through an adolescence of helpless dependency? He made this poor man into a beggar and subjected him to the ugly and wrong-headed judgments of people like these disciples? Sorry! I don't believe that about God. I find the notion both absurd and abhorrent.

What would any of us think of a physician who poured boiling oil on one of his own children so he could demonstrate a wonderful new technique of skin grafting? By analogy, who would praise a God who blinded even one innocent baby for the sake of having a subject for miracle-working activity at Jerusalem? I think that goes against everything the Bible says about the nature of God as loving and benevolent toward his creatures.

The Greek text of John originally had neither word divisions nor punctuation. Paper was expensive, and they didn't leave "white space" on the page. Where to supply commas, periods, semi-colons, or question marks is a decision made by editors and translators of those ancient documents. Look at the difference made in the understanding of this text if I put a period where the NRSV puts a semi-colon and then a comma where it has a period.

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 that he should be born blind. But 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" (9:1-4).
Forgive me for taking so long with this and for getting so exercised over a "minor point of punctuation." But I think it is quite a significant issue. I just felt the need to exonerate a friend of mine who - in my opinion - gets a bum rap here! The flood of Noah's day was an "act of God" to punish, but - the language of insurance policies to the contrary notwithstanding - to call every flood an "act of God" is downright blasphemous. Neither is it right to lay the responsibility for a spontaneous abortion, a stillbirth, birth defects such as blindness, and every other random misfortune of living down here on God. He is our deliverer, not our tormentor.

John: All right. All right. I see your concern and am sympathetic to it. The point of this story is not to shift the blame for the man's blindness from the man and his parents to God. But I fear we may suddenly be guilty of the precise problem that the disciples had in the first place. We've suddenly become interested in a theological problem rather than in a person. The great irony of this entire episode in John is that while Jesus is trying to make this man fully human - restore his sight so that he can be a full participant in community and family and religious life among his people - no one but Jesus ever sees a human being.

Rubel: Ouch! That's not the line I meant to cross. But you're dead-on right. Debating theology can be a fascinating distraction to caring about hurting people.

John: Let's just look at Jesus for a moment in the story. Once more in verse 5, he declares himself to be the light of the world. To demonstrate his nature as the light source, there is this purposely exaggerated healing narrative. Spitting on the ground, making mud, smearing it on his eyes, sending him to a pool to wash. John even stops to explain that the name "Siloam" means "Sent." The blind man manages to get to the pool. Ever wonder how? There were no seeing-eye dogs; I doubt he had the number of steps measured or directions memorized. The man washes and, for the first time ever, sees. For the first time in his life, he can enter the community of the fully human! He can see the water that is dripping from his face and hands. He returns to his neighborhood and can study the faces of neighbors whom he has only known by voice before.

But the neighbors' reaction also underscores this man's problem: "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?' " (9:8-10). Hello! Is anyone interested in celebrating the man's eyesight?
Rubel: So rather than throw a party, the neighbors decide they need to take him to the religious authorities to get some kind of ruling on the case. We know from prior experience where this will lead. Turns out the healing was on the Sabbath, and the Pharisees are far more interested in the breaking of Sabbath - all that spitting and clay-making - than in the human being standing before them. Once they learn that Jesus worked on the Sabbath, they are sure he couldn't be from God. Suddenly we are back into the debate that started the chapter. "Who is the sinner in this story now?" Jesus! He worked on the Sabbath!

John: None of this makes sense to the blind man. "How could a sinner give me sight?" But there is also another whole dimension to the sight of this man. Jesus didn't heal this man because of his faith. He healed him because he had compassion on him. As the story proceeds, the man's understanding of Jesus changes. To this point he only knows that a man named Jesus healed him. He doesn't know where Jesus is. He certainly doesn't recognize him as Messiah. When forced to say who Jesus is, he says he is a prophet. Do you hear the multiple levels of meaning at work in the story? By now we readers know that sight and blindness are not just physical circumstances. Who are the blind and who has sight? Who can see the light of the world, and who is blinded in darkness?

Rubel: I think the reaction of his parents in the aftermath of the man's healing is interesting too. They don't want to "offend" the religious authorities. They feared being thrown out of the synagogue and blackballed in the community. The spiritual giants - or should I say gnats - who were willing at this point to do anything to discredit Jesus had decided "that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue" (9:22b).

When this thing got rolling, Jesus' critics set themselves to deny that the man claiming to have been healed was really the (formerly!) blind beggar so many had known for all these years. So they pulled in his parents and pressed them to say it was all a hoax. Boy did they ever try to stay out of the middle of this one! "That's our boy who was born blind, all right. But he's a grown man," they said, "and you'll have to let him speak for himself about how he got 20/20 vision."

All the hubbub apparently steeled this nameless man's backbone. When the inquisitors gave up on the parents, turned back to the man, and pressed him to repudiate Jesus as a sinner - a liar or, perhaps, someone working miracles by the power of Satan (cf. 7:20; 8:48) - he would have none of it. I like his answer: "I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see" (9:25). When the pressed harder to know how Jesus did it, he really got in their faces and asked, "I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples?" (9:27). Ouch! And did they ever turn on him then.

John: Suddenly, their response thrusts us back into the debate in chapter 8, when the Jews kept wanting to hold up their heritage of Abraham and Moses as some sort of apologetic to deny the truth of Jesus being God enfleshed in their midst. "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." Ironically the blind man isn't his disciple yet! The absurdity of the response to his sight actually serves to push the man's faith toward Jesus and away from them. So this conversation ensues:

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 (9:30-34).
After being sub-human all of his life, this man can see. For the first time ever, he could fully participate in the faith of his people. But on the very first day that he was eligible for acceptance into the community of faith, the religious leaders excommunicate him!

Rubel: Now who's blind? Now who can really see? The story concludes with Jesus finding the man after he is excommunicated, and - with significant spiritual insight - it is actually at this point that the man truly sees. Remember that he never actually saw Jesus in the first encounter. Seeing the one who gave him sight for the first time, he responds to him in faith.

John: I love this final scene because it is here for the first time that the man actually declares his faith in Jesus as Lord. The physical sight brought nothing but trouble to this man's life because bad theology led to insensitivity. No one was interested in the person and within his Jewish heritage the man was actually worse off in the end than in the beginning! But the real truth of his life was the light of the world! And the darkness could not overcome it! Listen once more to the closing arguments:

Jesus said, "I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind." Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, "Surely we are not blind, are we?" Jesus said to them, "If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, 'We see,' your sin remains" (9:39-41).
That last sentence takes us back to the early question of the disciples, "Who sinned, this man or his parents?" It turns out that sin and blindness do go together. Only it is not blindness of eye but blindness of heart that leaves one in sin.

Rubel: John, I think this is one of the most revealing texts we've come to yet in our study of "The Path to Faith" as marked out in John's Gospel. It tells me that unbelief isn't a matter of inadequate evidence. It isn't always the failure of some believer to model Christ to a mate or children. That happens, of course! But sometimes people remain in their unbelief because they refuse to - if I may use biblical language - "see with their eyes and hear with their ears and so be saved." God doesn't coerce anyone's faith. And it reminds me that good theology always shows itself by affirming the dignity and value of everyone to God.

John: The sad truth is that sometimes the blind are the ones who are most self-assured about how well and clearly they see everything. This story is about light taking away darkness. It is also about what we humans are trying to see. The story suggests that anytime we see doctrine first and people second or not at all, we may be going blind. It is easy to fall into the trap of the neighbors and the parents and the religious leaders and be so concerned with the politics, rules violations, and the theological dilemmas that we miss the people Jesus died for.

Rubel: The good news of the text is that Jesus is the Light of the World. He offers sight to every last one of us blind folk - whatever the cause of our blindness! But we can receive our sight only when we open the eyes of our minds and hearts to him. We have the light necessary to see ourselves and our world properly only when he is the source of light by which we are reading all things!

John: The blind receive their sight and see the Son of God in the flesh. Once we see Jesus, we will also receive his eyes for the world around us. The vision test comes when we encounter other people: those who are still blind see a problem to be solved, and those with sight see a person to be loved.

Rubel: God says to every one of us today, "I see you! Whatever your circumstances, I am here for you." He also asks each of us this: "Do you want to see me?"

It's time to be honest with yourself now. Is he the light of your world this morning? Or is it more comfortable in the darkness? Probing issues rather than loving people? Trying to figure it out instead of letting him love you, receive you, and heal you?




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