John 9: 1-41
Fourth Sunday in Lent/ 30th March 2014
Jesus said to the man born blind, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind” (John 9:39). Sounds harsh, doesn’t it? Born to judge; born for judgment.
What do you hear in these words? What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear or read the word “judgment”? My guess is that our thoughts go to a courtroom scene, a trial, a judge, the accused, and a verdict. With the word judgment we think “condemnation.” For many, this is the image of Jesus, the image of God they carry within them: God/Jesus as judge, before whom one is always guilty. “I came into this world for judgment….”
We might be tempted to ignore this verse altogether. Can’t we just read over the part about judgment? Let’s focus instead on the positive aspects of the story, the healing, giving sight to a made born blind. That’s the image of Jesus you might prefer: Jesus as healer.
Yes, the text is about healing; but it’s not really about healing.
Yes, the Pharisees get upset with Jesus healing on their Sabbath; but it’s not really the healing that troubles them.
Yes, it’s about a man born blind; but it’s not really about physical blindness.
It is, but not completely.
His blindness and his healing are metaphors for something else. His blindness and healing and the reaction of those around him, those who knew him one way and had trouble recognizing him or accepting him another way, is at the heart of this text. This man’s condition becomes the occasion for something to be discovered about God, “that God’s work might be revealed in him” (John 9:3), as Jesus said.
This is a story about seeing—seeing God’s work in the world, discerning the movement of God; it’s about honestly acknowledging what we can see and honestly admitting what we cannot see, what we’re blind to, what we simply won’t see.
That’s why I think we need to start with Jesus’ words about judgment in John 9:39. The Greek here is krima. Even though it’s the root for our English word “crime” or “criminal” it doesn’t always have a negative association in Greek, it doesn’t always mean condemnation. Krima is related to another Greek word krisis, both words can be translated as “decision, choice, selection, verdict, interpretation, a dispute, an event,” a time when something is decided. It’s a moment of decision, discernment, a kind piercing through to the truth of the matter, to know what is and is not true. We might say it means “to get real.” Jesus came into the world so that we might get real, so that those who are not real may become so and those who think they are already real may learn that they’re not. And the metaphors used to describe our perception of the real are sight, seeing, moving from blindness to sight or sight to blindness.
In order to see the real—to see who Jesus really is, to see what God is doing in the world, to see what God is doing in our lives…all these require radical vision. A kind of reframing is required, a refocusing, a change of some kind is needed. Without “new eyes” we can’t see what’s in front of our eyes. And all of us need help seeing what’s right in front of us.
I was reminded of this last week. I turned 50 last Sunday. When I arrived at my study I was greeted by fifty, large, gold balloons. They were everywhere (mostly stacked high in the bathroom). There were streamers suspended on a string through the center of the room. There was a large basket on the doorknob with a message in it. The message contained directions to a scavenger hunt. Fifty clues corresponded to fifty items that were placed throughout my study. If I return all fifty items, in the basket, they will be exchanged for a birthday gift. So, this week I’ve been following the clues and trying to find the fifty items. It’s remarkable what we see and what we don’t see, even when it’s staring at us. Such as, the jar of olives placed on a cup holder beside the bathroom sink. I didn’t see a jar of olives because I wasn’t looking for it. Or the can of sardines I eventually discovered tucked between two books. Or the bag of party mix for Angus, my cat, propped on top of a bookcase. I didn’t see them because I didn’t expect to see them there. Or magnets on a light switch plate that I walked past all week, but didn’t notice until Wednesday. I found another magnet on my desk lamp on Thursday afternoon while working on this sermon—it was staring at me all week, but I didn’t see it because I didn’t expect to see it.
It’s similar to what happened at the Pool of Siloam. The man who had been blind from birth, who was there daily to beg, looking for help, waiting for a miracle to occur, the man who was a fixture there at the pool becomes unrecognizable because they expect to see a man who is blind and cannot see the man who now can see. They only knew him as a blind man; they couldn’t “see” him as a man with sight. The man was blind to them. “That can’t be him,” they said, “he’s blind. This man can see. It must be someone who looks like him.” But the former blind man has to keep saying, “No, I am the man. I am the man.” But how, they want to know. Their incredulity prevents them from seeing what’s right before their eyes.
So they find him and then go to the Pharisees. Instead of rejoicing over this man’s newfound sight, their piety and religious observances hinder them from seeing the work of God. They, too, only see what they’re looking for—they’re out to find, looking for those breaking the Law, violating the Sabbath. That’s what they want to see and that’s all they see, they can’t see the miracle before their eyes.
And then they get involved in a theological argument. Rationality hinders them from seeing. He was originally born blind. How can he now see? We need proof. The Pharisees go to his parents, but they’re feeling intimidated by these theologians. “He’s of age; ask him [yourselves],” his parents say. So they interrogate the man a second time and figure that all of this has something to do with sin: what faithful follower of Moses would violate the Sabbath? And you were born in sin, how can you teach us? And so it goes and so it goes. We see what we want to see. What we see is what we get.
The Jewish theologian Martin Buber (1878-1965) told this tale: “Rabbi Mendel once boasted to his teacher Rabbi Elimelekh that evenings he saw the angel who rolls around the light before darkness, and mornings the angel who rolls away the darkness before the light. ‘Yes,’ said Rabbie Elimelkh, ‘in my youth I saw that too. Later on you don’t see these things any more.’”
We might think we have pretty good vision, that we’re observant, pay attention to detail, but there are things we can’t see, because we don’t expect to see them. Sometimes we don’t have a framework to give sense to what we are seeing. Often our frameworks of meaning, our perspectives are just wrong; sometimes our frameworks of meaning, our perspectives are not big enough to make sense of our lives, therefore they hinder us from seeing. Our expectations, our assumptions, our preconceived images about things, people, even God, get in the way of our seeing things and people and even God. Indeed, this is the role of a prophet, who has a different set of eyes, who invites us to see things we’re blind to. This is also why the prophets are rejected, even crucified, because we don’t always see what we need to see.
We all have blind spots and until we incorporate them into what we see, by remembering that we can’t see everything, that we don’t know everything, until we acknowledge that we all see in a mirror dimly (1 Cor. 13: 12), we remain in darkness. This means that we can have sight but be blind; it also means we can be in the dark, but have sight. Those who are blind, who recognize they need help seeing, that they need the light in order to see, are the ones who can really see. What’s needed is discernment. We need to know: are we blind or can we see? We need to judge, we need to discern: are we blind or can we see?
In Annie Dillard’s Pulitzer-prizing winning book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, she dedicates an entire chapter to the art of seeing. So much of being a seeker, being a pilgrim, being a prophet is about seeing. Dillard is an extremely wise teacher regarding what it takes to really see the world, to see its beauty, the mystery in the face of one’s neighbor, to see divinity pouring through creation. This book had a profound influence on me right after college and it changed the way I see the world, and myself, and helped me to sense the presence of the Holy that fills creation.
Dillard quotes at length from a fascinating book by Marius von Senden, called Space and Sight. It’s the story of what happened after Western surgeons discovered how to perform safe cataract operations. These are stories of people of all ages who had been blinded by cataracts since birth. Prior to surgery they had no sense of space; form, distance, size were meaningless. “Those who are blind from birth…have no real concept of height or distance,” she writes. “A house that is a mile away is thought of as nearby, but requiring the taking of a lot of steps. …The elevator that whizzes him up and down gives no more sense of vertical distance than does the train of horizontal.” Some are so disturbed by what they see they prefer to walk with their eyes closed. What they see oppresses them because they have no way to frame it with meaning.
One girl, a twenty-one year old was “dazzled by the world’s brightness and kept her eyes shut for two weeks. When at the end of that time she opened her eyes again, she did not recognize the objects [around her], but, ‘the more she now directed her gaze upon everything around her, the more it could be seen how an expression of gratification and astonishment overspread her features: she repeatedly exclaimed: ‘O God! How beautiful!’”
Toward the end of the essay Annie Dillard writes, “…there is [a]…kind of seeing that involves a letting go.” Every form of seeing requires this. The blind man had to let go of his blindness. His friends couldn’t let go of their perceptions of him. The Pharisees couldn’t let go of their expectations of what God could or could not do. To see the real means that we have to let go of the unreal, the not-real, the false assumptions, the illusions, and fantasies that so often fill our lives.
“The secret of seeing,” Dillard says, “is, then, the pearl of great price.” We may pursue after it, but in the end it’s always a gift. And when it happens we discover that we’re standing, like Moses, on holy ground. That’s what David Whyte is describing in his poem “The Opening of Eyes,” that moment, “It is the opening of eyes long closed.”
“How did he open your eyes?” That’s what they asked the man born blind. That’s what everyone wants to know, especially those who can’t see or won’t see or who want to “use” Jesus’ magic for their own ends.
“As long as I am in the world,” Jesus said, “I am the light of the world” (John 9:5). By the power of the Holy Spirit, he’s still in the world. He’s still opening eyes. How did he open yours? What’s your relationship to Christ as light? What is he showing you?
Dillard shared, “I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam.” That’s the most that any of us can do.
 Cited in Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (HarperPerennial, 1974), 32.
 Marius von Senden, Space and Sight: The Perception of Space & Shape in the Congenitally Blind Before & After Operation (New York: Methuen Books, 1960).
 Dillard, 38.
 Dillard, 31. Emphasis added.
 Dillard, 33.
 Dillard, 35.
 Dillard, 35.