At the centre of John’s Gospel, which is filled with stories of darkness and light, blindness and sight, truth and lies, John tells the story of a man born blind and Jesus’ encounter with him on a sabbath day. From birth the man, a beggar, had known only darkness without sight or light in his life. The disciples saw him and asked:
Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? (John 9:2)
Jesus saw differently. He saw a man who literally cannot see him. Through his ministry and actions, Jesus tells us those who live in darkness cannot, through their own strength of will, see God who has come to them in Jesus Christ. We cannot make it happen, will it into being. Rather, God in Christ sees us in the darkness of the human condition and God settles in with us, abides with us, waiting patiently until we are open to seeing God.
The disciples ‘see’ the same man as Jesus, and they ask a question about his sin, because this is how their sight was formed, how the world has taught them to see. They don’t see a man. They see a sin. In Jesus’ time, blindness was viewed as a punishment by God for sin, either the individual’s or for a new born baby, of the parents. The disciples see the man through the first century lens of shame, as also happens to those who are poor; they are blamed for their circumstances. Many of our welfare laws work on this premise.
We still hear this thinking today, when we ask what have we done to deserve this terrible tragedy. We attribute it to God’s will, as though this explanation is comforting in the midst of random, senseless violence, tragedy and suffering. I would rather ask you instead, do you really think the loving God made known to us in Jesus Christ is the God who would visit random suffering and tragedy on us?
In response to seeing the man living in darkness, Jesus turns it into an opportunity for testimony to the light. Neither the man nor his parents sinned, rather his blindness becomes the occasion for God’s works to be revealed in him. Jesus shows us very clearly, sin consists not in being born blind, but in choosing not to see. (John 9:39-41)
Here is a man who cannot mistake darkness for light. His condition does not allow him the pretense of sight. This means if the light should happen to shine in his life, the light can only come from God. As Jesus has already told his disciples:
‘As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’ (John 9:5)
The pharisees and those focused on rules operate out of fear their own privileged lives will be turned upside down, as their worldview is shown to be unethical and bigoted. Jesus repeatedly transforms the theological question into a community’s ethical imperative, with such clarity it implicates all of us who would call ourselves Christian. The man was born blind not because of sin, but so the work of God might be revealed in him. In other words, don’t talk about what is wrong with the world, blaming others and God while trying to avoid any blame; rather, engage with the world and those who are struggling, until it is transformed into a focus for the works of God.
How quick we are to let Jesus do the work in the world, abdicating any responsibility we might have to be the difference in times of brokenness and tragedy. No-one who sees the blind man and identifies with the faith of this Christ, and hears this story, can be exempted from the personal and communal responsibilities to address the misfortunes of our own times, the discrimination, hatreds, judgements, cruelty and ‘othering’ of those we dislike and wish to blame.
Then in the story, sadly the blind man, now able to see, sees the discrimination and unkindness made visible by the light. His parents are rejected by the pharisees, he’s thrown out of his community, disbelieved, doubted and rejected because he disturbs their peace.
How often do we do that, when evidence does not suit us and our understanding of God’s story? We hold so fast to rules which give us certainty and safety at the expense of someone else. We get tired of walking with Jesus who is always in the company of the rejected, scapegoated and marginalised. Its not our fault, we say, its not our responsibility, can’t we focus on something else please?
Sadly, there is no joy for the man in his hometown about his good fortune. People are afraid of what they do not understand. We don’t let our imaginations soar with God, only with humanity’s fear. When we feel threatened, we find it hard to be imaginative, except over what drives and thrives in fear. The good news may be too difficult to see in its fullness and with hope, when those living in fear or wanting to control it so tightly find it obscures their vision. We resist grace because grace changes us and change is painful. We may choose not to see, but it is relentless, searching and intrusive and persistent. The presence of God changes people, ready or not.
Its important to remember adapting to new truths is always difficult. Jesus told his disciples he still had much to tell them they were not yet able to bear (John 16:12). New truths are particularly difficult for those who live within traditions reaching back centuries. What do we do when God works outside our theology, our traditions and our structures? Often those with less invested in maintaining the status quo will see the new realities much more quickly than others.
Some churches use our institutional life as an excuse for not participating in the restorative work of God, or in the prophetic dimension of living the Gospel. We ask to wait for a better time, we don’t want to hurt someone or offend, we want to stay safe. Leave the change to someone else. Our religious authorities try to drive out those who ‘see’ in new ways. Too often the voices of the rising generation are silenced in faith communities. The experiences of us as older generations cancel out the experiences of the younger.
Something happened to this blind man beyond being given sight. Jesus, on hearing what the authorities and neighbours did to the man, went looking for him. On seeing Jesus clearly as God’s Son, he became a child of God, born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:12-13). Jesus searched him out, transforming his vision and his life. ‘I was blind and now I see’ (John 9:11,15,25) says the man.
May we too, have the gift of sight with God’s grace. The Lord be with you.
Jarvis, C.E., Johnson, E.E. [Gen. Eds]. 2013. Feasting on the Gospels John, Vol. 1 Chapters 1-9. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, USA.