“The New-Sightedness of Grace”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
John tells three chapter-long stories—each a defining moment in his account of Jesus’ ministry. Last week, Jesus encountered the Samaritan woman. This week he heals a man born blind. And next week, he’ll resuscitate Lazarus.
With each act Jesus performs, the religious leaders dig out more of the tomb in which they will bury Jesus. And while he seems aware of the implications of his actions, as the Christ, Jesus cannot not continue his prophetic work. With each action, he exposes more of the futility of self-serving religion, and its suicidal inclination to align itself with violent political power in order to “save” itself. Salvation happens, but only through the most paradoxical and unexpected turnabout.
More about in three weeks. For now, let’s recall this revealing moment of grace.
As Jesus walked along, he saw a man who was blind from birth. 2 Jesus’ disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned so that he was born blind, this man or his parents?”
3 Jesus answered, “Neither he nor his parents. This happened so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him. 4 While it’s daytime, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming when no one can work. 5 While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
6 After he said this, he spit on the ground, made mud with the saliva, and smeared the mud on the man’s eyes. 7 Jesus said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (this word means sent). So the man went away and washed. When he returned, he could see.
8 The man’s neighbors and those who used to see him when he was a beggar said, “Isn’t this the man who used to sit and beg?”
9 Some said, “It is,” and others said, “No, it’s someone who looks like him.”
But the man said, “Yes, it’s me!”
10 So they asked him, “How are you now able to see?”
11 He answered, “The man they call Jesus made mud, smeared it on my eyes, and said, ‘Go to the pool of Siloam and wash.’ So I went and washed, and then I could see.”
12 They asked, “Where is this man?”
He replied, “I don’t know.”
13 Then they led the man who had been born blind to the Pharisees. 14 Now Jesus made the mud and smeared it on the man’s eyes on a Sabbath day. 15 So Pharisees also asked him how he was able to see.
The man told them, “He put mud on my eyes, I washed, and now I see.”
16 Some Pharisees said, “This man isn’t from God, because he breaks the Sabbath law.” Others said, “How can a sinner do miraculous signs like these?” So they were divided.
17 Some of the Pharisees questioned the man who had been born blind again: “What do you have to say about him, since he healed your eyes?”
He replied, “He’s a prophet.”
18 The Jewish leaders didn’t believe the man had been blind and received his sight until they called for his parents. 19 The Jewish leaders asked them, “Is this your son? Are you saying he was born blind? How can he now see?”
20 His parents answered, “We know he is our son. We know he was born blind. 21 But we don’t know how he now sees, and we don’t know who healed his eyes. Ask him. He’s old enough to speak for himself.” 22 His parents said this because they feared the Jewish authorities. This is because the Jewish authorities had already decided that whoever confessed Jesus to be the Christ would be expelled from the synagogue. 23 That’s why his parents said, “He’s old enough. Ask him.”
24 Therefore, they called a second time for the man who had been born blind and said to him, “Give glory to God. We know this man is a sinner.”
25 The man answered, “I don’t know whether he’s a sinner. Here’s what I do know: I was blind and now I see.”
26 They questioned him: “What did he do to you? How did he heal your eyes?”
27 He replied, “I already told you, and you didn’t listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples too?”
28 They insulted him: “You are his disciple, but we are Moses’ disciples. 29 We know that God spoke to Moses, but we don’t know where this man is from.”
30 The man answered, “This is incredible! You don’t know where he is from, yet he healed my eyes! 31 We know that God doesn’t listen to sinners. God listens to anyone who is devout and does God’s will. 32 No one has ever heard of a healing of the eyes of someone born blind.33 If this man wasn’t from God, he couldn’t do this.”
34 They responded, “You were born completely in sin! How is it that you dare to teach us?” Then they expelled him.
35 Jesus heard they had expelled the man born blind. Finding him, Jesus said, “Do you believe in the Human One?”
36 He answered, “Who is he, sir? I want to believe in him.”
37 Jesus said, “You have seen him. In fact, he is the one speaking with you.”
38 The man said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshipped Jesus.
39 Jesus said, “I have come into the world to exercise judgment so that those who don’t see can see and those who see will become blind.”
40 Some Pharisees who were with him heard what he said and asked, “Surely we aren’t blind, are we?”
41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you wouldn’t have any sin, but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains. (John 9:1-41 — CEB)
Born blind, the man has felt the heat of the sun on his skin, but he’s never seen by its light. He’s tasted the earthy goodness of bread, but he’s never watched a field of grain dancing in the wind. He has smelled the flowers of spring, but he’s never even imagined the variety of color.
In Jerusalem, Jesus’ disciples call his attention to the man by asking a question they believe to be both rational and justified: Whose sin caused this man’s blindness?
That’s not how God works, says Jesus. Then he says something that I find just as troubling as the idea of a retributive disability. Jesus suggests that the man’s blindness occurred “so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him.” Most translations render this text in a similar way. And it’s the kind of thing that invites the fatalistic declaration that “everything happens for a reason.” Personally, I consider that a theological forgery. The “everything happens for a reason” mentality allows one to claim not only excess and ease but domination over others and over the earth as rewards from God and, thus, to create exclusive communities of privilege. It also allows people to distance themselves from suffering. I’m sorry, one can say, but everything happens for a reason. So, you must deserve it. You just have to pray, and God will show you why you’re blind or sick, or why you live in poverty, or oppression, or grief.
I’m hardly against prayer, but I have no patience with callous indifference, and even less with outright abuse. Physical, emotional, and spiritual suffering are real and constant burdens which all of us experience in one way or another. And the experience of suffering has an element of chaos in it. It’s an experience of formlessness and void. Maybe that’s why human beings often try to understand suffering by trying to blame the one who suffers, or their parents, or God.
For this part of the story, I find The Message helpful. In that paraphrase, Jesus answers the disciples saying: “You’re asking the wrong question. You’re looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do. We need to be energetically at work for the One who sent me here, working while the sun shines…For as long as I am in the world, there is plenty of light. I am the world’s Light.”
I hear Jesus saying, No one purposed this man’s blindness. But the Creator is the ultimate opportunist who will use any manner of emptiness and anguish to demonstrate grace and to create new life.
For the sake of wider context, let’s back all the way up to Genesis 1. “When God began to create the heavens and the earth—the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea…” (Genesis 1:1-3 – CEB) And in Genesis 2, after organizing the chaos, God uses soil and God’s own breath to form a human being, a living thing. And when the Creator creates life, all the elements—light, water, earth, and air—share a purpose. They sustain what God has created through love and called “good.”
Love is our tradition’s word for God and for what we trust is the Creator’s defining characteristic—an eternal yearning and pursuit at the heart of the universe for the union and wholeness of all things.
So, when faced with the chaos of the blind man’s anguish, and the cold curiosity of the disciples who want to cast blame for the man’s suffering, Jesus follows the Creator’s creative lead and reaches down and gathers some earth. He adds his own spittle and breath to make a paste with it. And after smearing the paste on the deep sea of the man’s blindness, he tells him to go wash it off. These details recall the darkness covering the deep in the creation story, the passing through the waters of the Red Sea, the blind wandering of exile, and then deliverance into the light of the Promised Land.
In the light of this act of transforming grace, the law-bound Pharisees see only that Jesus healed on the sabbath. And the darkly comical banter that follows reminds us of Nicodemus asking Jesus, “How are these things possible?”
To the Pharisees Jesus says, You can’t see what’s going on because your legalism keeps you in a state of dis-unity with God’s grace. My work may help the blind to see, but it also reveals that you, who are sure that you see and know everything, well, you’re as blind as those born into blindness.
Now, miracle stories are always about more than the miracles themselves. So, what else is there for us to see in this story?
In John 9, we meet a man who, from birth, was burdened with a blindness that excluded him from wholeness, that is to say, from relationship and community. Neither he nor his parents did anything “wrong.” So, while punishment was not part of the recipe for his suffering, grace was the recipe for his restoration to community. And when even one person experiences restoration, the whole community is invited to experience healing. And isn’t that a kind of microcosm of Jesus’ own story?
From birth, Jesus is burdened with unassailable grace, with creation-embracing compassion and an unquenchable thirst for justice. And yet, as Love Incarnate, he discovers that, through no fault of his own, he will face relentless opposition, exclusion, and persecution.
There’s no satisfactory answer to the question of why a good life invites such suffering. But, maybe a blind world needs the consistency of the suffering of so-called sinners, and the categories of Us and Them for life to make sense.
Out of the dark chaos we create, God is creating something as new to the world as life was to the formless void when God began creating billions of years ago. God is still creating, and the new thing is always unfolding. As with sight to the man born blind, it’s often something that just happens to us. It comes as a gift of grace. It also comes to us when we, like Jesus, embody compassion, justice, and joy, especially when and where it doesn’t seem to be deserved. And isn’t that what makes it grace? Isn’t that what makes it gospel?
We cannot forge “salvation” through fearful and violent “everything-happens-for-a-reason” manipulation. Nor do we need to wait until we’re dead. Lent invites us to name our blindnesses, to surrender them to God, and to welcome the new-sightedness of grace today.