Father Nicholas Lang
The Fourth Sunday in Lent
I have a magnet on my refrigerator that depicts a man on the phone with his secretary and asking for any messages he received. “Yes,” the secretary says, “Jesus called. He wants his religion back.” Some people, especially Bible literalists, tend to blame vulnerable populations for bad things that happen. You may recall how this played out during the AIDS crisis and again after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson had a lot to say about why these things happened and whom to blame.
This morning we encounter a man who was born blind. The disciples immediately ask Jesus who it was who sinned so badly to cause such a punishment. Was it his parents?
Or was it the man himself? Jesus makes it crystal clear: When human beings try to make such connections on their own, they nearly always get it wrong. What Jesus says and does in this passage provides the single most striking case against a cause and result relationship between sickness or other crises and sin.
As if this poor man had not suffered enough humiliation having to beg on the street corner, now he becomes the object of glib conversation about his morality. But there’s more embarrassment to come—even after he is cured. His neighbors no longer recognize him when he returns from the pool of Siloam. Even his parents distance themselves from their son out of fear of reprisal from the religious authorities.
In fairness to these people, we should acknowledge that restoring the sight to a person born blind, especially in the first century—simply didn’t happen. And according to Jewish law of that day, it certainly shouldn’t happen on the Sabbath.
When the Pharisees became privy to the fact that Jesus has reportedly given the blind man his sight, they decided to undermine this so-called healing by calling Jesus a "sinner" as well because, by their definition, he had broken Sabbath law. Their logic: you cannot break God's law and at the same time be one sent from God.
This doesn't work for them, however, because as the Pharisees knew well, no one other than a servant of God could cure a man who had been blind from birth. And what made their argument fall apart was that this blind man was standing, fully-sighted, right in their midst—acknowledging that he could see.
Then he really ticked them off. When the Pharisees, pressed him, whom they regarded as a nobody, a beggar, a nuisance, he essentially told them that they would not
recognize God even if God bit them on the nose. So, the Pharisees in their outrage disparage him as one born in sin—they out him as illegitimate and they drive him out of the congregation. Yet, one more humiliation for this man.
What is different about this healing? Unlike in other healing stories, this blind man did not approach Jesus. Jesus approached him. The miracle here did not occur with a gentle touch of the hand but in an earthy, messy way—mixing dirt and saliva and smearing that glop on this man’s eyes. The man never saw the face of Jesus. He only heard his voice, but he followed the orders and went to the pool to wash.
Can we imagine what that must have been like for him—still blind, with that mushy, wet mess dripping from his eyes—having to navigate his way to the pool? Do you think anyone stepped up to help him? Yet he persisted. He went to that pool in spite of the difficulty getting there and the uncertainty of the outcome.
There is a sequel to this miracle—itself a kind of miracle. It happens after the man, sighted restored, has been expelled from the religious community by the Pharisees. Once again, Jesus goes after him, seeks him out, and not the other way around. Now the man’s vision has improved more than in just a physical way. Now he really sees Jesus: “Lord, I believe,” he declares.
This recognition of God’s grace in his life did not come in the temple or at an altar. It did not involve the priests. It happened outside the boundary of religion and in defiance of the rules of the religious society of the time. This passage is a huge caution to those who attach personal or global misfortune and catastrophe to the sins of others.
The Pharisees, through their convenient dismissal of both Jesus and the blind man as sinners, remind us that it is possible for those in religious authority to use sin to turn people away, people who may just have something important to teach us. By God's grace, none of us get what we otherwise deserve and in healing so many, many people Jesus affirms that none of these folk suffered because of the will of a harsh God or because they sinned.
But it is the blind man that teaches us something very unique: our part in the healing process is less about having faith—no where in this story does it indicate that the blind man believed anything.
It is about being completely open to God’s invitation to be healed, to receive God’s grace—even when it comes through earthy things like bread and wine as messy as a mix of dirt and spit. God’s ways are sometimes very strange to those who cannot see even with 20/20 vision.
Fred Borsch, retired Bishop of Los Angeles, writes in his book Power in Weakness: “The Gospel stories are full of surprises, not the least of which are the people who now claim to put their faith in Jesus: the man who once could not talk, another who was crazy, the foreigner who insists the Lord healed his daughter, the head of the local tax office.
“Somehow one would expect to pick up the Gospels and find there, for the most part, good common sense. Instead, there are unexpected occurrences and often outlandish parables…in a world where it was often assumed that wealth and status were signs of God’s approval and illness and poverty of divine disfavor, striking reversals take place. In God’s realm, things do not work out the way we might expect. Impossible things sometimes happen to improbable people.”
God does not look at our outer appearances. God looks at the heart.