John 9:1 As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" 3 Jesus answered, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned that he was born blind. Rather, in order that God's works might be shown (revealed in detail) in him, we must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world." 6 When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man's eyes, 7 saying to him, "Go, wash in the pool of Siloam" (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.
24 So for the second time [the religious leaders] called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, "Give glory to God! We know that this man [who healed you] is a sinner." 25 He answered, "I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see." 26 They said to him, "What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?" 27 He answered them, "I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?" 28 Then they were verbally abusive, saying, "You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29 We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from." 30 The man answered, "Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31 We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32 Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing."
Many of you know my dad was also a pastor. In that period of time and in our area of the country, United Methodist clergy did not drink any alcohol – of any kind, in any amount, for any reason. Growing up, our family would vacation on the Jersey shore, staying in camp grounds near the beach. One summer we got to know a family whose tent was close to ours. Sitting around the fire one evening, they asked my mom and dad if they wanted a tonic. My dad assumed that was a mixed drink and so he politely declined explaining that they didn’t drink. “You don’t drink Pepsi,” the man asked, puzzled. It turns out that, in some parts of New England, they call soft drinks “tonic.” Who knew?
Language is a tricky thing, right? For all of us, as we encounter people from different countries or even different regions of the US, we hear expressions or specific words used in ways that seem odd to us and we aren’t sure how to translate them.
And that is also a factor when it comes to scripture. Over the years, I’ve heard some people say of the Bible, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” Oh, but that it were that simple. Even without throwing culture into the mix, ancient Hebrew and Greek are hard to translate. They did not have punctuation and space wasn’t inserted between the Greek words. In short, sometimes translators have to take a guess; a well educated guess, to be sure; but a guess, none the less.
Now, how we translate the early verses of this morning’s gospel story has an enormous impact on our theology and how we live out our faith. As the story opens, the disciples notice this blind man and inquire from Jesus the cause of his being born blind. They assume that the cause is sin, in part because there are places in the Hebrew Scriptures where suffering is directly attributed to sin. But notice: Jesus rejects that interpretation. He says very clearly, “neither this man nor his parents sinned that he was born blind.” That’s reassuring, but what follows is where things get tricky.
One way of translating what follows seems to imply that this man was born blind so that Jesus could one day use him as Exhibit A in his healing ministry. That, in my opinion, is only slightly better than the assumption that he is being punished for sin. But there is an alternative translation that, though perfectly justifiable from the Greek, is rarely chosen and that translation – which I used today – seems to imply that Jesus is earnest in demonstrating God’s work in the lives of those who suffer and are judged for their suffering. He says, “in order that God's works might be revealed in [this man], we must work the works of him who sent me…”
Now, to fully appreciate the extent of this man’s suffering and the transformation brought about through his healing, we need to understand how ancient Mediterranean people understood vision. Like us today, they believed that light was necessary for vision. However, they believed that, instead of external light entering the eye through the cornea, vision resulted from light exiting the body; light that originated not outside the body, but from within the person, specifically the heart. So, in their opinion, if someone was blind, they had a darkened heart and were considered to have an evil eye. In other words, this man had bigger problems than vision loss. He was judged to have a dark, evil or envious heart and, therefore, was to be shunned. His condition was more than physically limiting. It had social and spiritual implications. What a terrible way to have to live and Jesus changes all that when he restores the man’s sight.
And that seems like it could be the end of story, right? A “happily ever after” ending. But, it’s not. There’s much more to the story and there isn’t sufficient time to read it all, but here’s the summary.
This man’s neighbors and those around quickly recognize that this man is no longer blind. And they are baffled. They begin to drill the man: what happened, how’d it happen, who was involved. Now remember, when Jesus gave the man the instruction to go wash in the pool, the man was still blind. So he doesn’t know what Jesus looks like, he can’t give a description; really doesn’t know anything about him. But, something “supernatural” has happened so they drag the guy off to see the “supernatural experts,” the religious leaders, specifically the Pharisees. And that is when we learn that the day on which Jesus healed this man was – wait for it: the Sabbath! Healing was considered to be work and work was not to be done on the Sabbath… although, curiously, Jesus has, as I’ve already mentioned, made abundantly clear that all the work he does is the work of God. Hmmm. Maybe God isn’t the stickler for rules that some people think he is.
The Pharisees drill the man, then they drill his parents, and then they drill the man again. And, while they are seeking to do all they can to intimidate the man, he only grows bolder in speaking truth to power. He doesn’t embellish the story. He doesn’t fabricate anything. He admits to what he doesn’t know. But he stands firm on what he does know. This man [Jesus] has healed him and how could such a miracle have been performed apart from God. Sabbath or no Sabbath, this man must surely be working with God. At the beginning of this story, Jesus stated that he is working the works of his heavenly Father. Now the man has basically said the same.
Now, what’s interesting within this story is how the Pharisees choose to interpret what’s happened. They seem to have little interest in the good work that has taken place in this man’s life. They are focused on sin. They’re convinced that Jesus is a sinner because he performed a healing on the Sabbath. They’re convinced that the man is a sinner because he was born blind. They can’t seem to get past who he used to be and what that implied – that he was born entirely in sin.
And that, I think, is a danger for all of us. If we take seriously the translation I offered this morning, then we are never given a clear reason for the man’s blindness… and isn’t that troubling? In my many years as a pastor, I’ve discovered there are few things more disturbing to people than when something goes wrong without any discernible reason or cause. Yet, it happens; every day I’d say. And, if we wanted to, we could drive ourselves crazy trying to get to the bottom of it.
But what if we could release that desire to explain the inexplicable and, instead, became more focused on transformation and healing; became awake and more aware of the ways that Jesus is working good in our lives and the lives of others – saints, sinners and everyone in between. That’s what we profess as Methodists anyway. We call it prevenient grace.
When the man in this story is being drilled by the religious leaders, as they attempt to intimidate him and push his back to the wall, this is the reply he gives, in verse 25: “One thing I know, that though I was blind, now I see.” The man recognizes that he doesn’t need to have an answer for everything. He knows that, whoever and however he used to be, now he sees and sees himself as a fortunate recipient of God’s good work through this guy Jesus and he’s not afraid to say so.
And I wonder if this story can inspire us to do the same. Friends: I believe that somewhere, somehow, in some way, Jesus has done good work in your life and you are not the same as you were before. It doesn’t mean you’re perfect. It doesn’t mean you know or understand everything. But as Franciscan priest Richard Rohr writes, “It’s more about waking up than about cleaning up.” What if we could become more awake and more aware of the ways that Jesus is working good in our lives and what if we, like the blind man, had the courage to share our story of the good work Jesus has done in our lives?
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