1 Samuel 16:1-13, Psalm 23, Ephesians 5:8-14, John 9:1-41
This chapter is a set-piece, it’s like a stage play in one act, a perfect little drama, with tragedy and comedy, and with a protagonist in the classic sense: the beggar, the man born blind. It’s dramatic but it’s also theological. The story develops the themes of the Gospel of John: of light and life, of being born again, of seeing the Kingdom of God or not seeing it, of believing that Jesus is the Messiah or not believing it, of sin and guilt and judgment, and who gets judged and how that judgment comes.
One act in the three scenes. A first scene, a long middle scene, and a final scene. On the street, in the synagogue, and back on the street. The beggar is in all three scenes, but Jesus is not; Jesus is absent for the long middle scene, and the absence of Jesus is part of the plot. We have to deal with the absence of Jesus too. Where is Jesus when I need him? Where is God when I need God? As the Children of Israel said last week, "Is the Lord among us or not?" Have we been abandoned again?
The drama opens with the disciples trying to establish the guilt behind the beggar’s blindness. It is a natural response to suffering to look for cause and effect in sin. On whom to lay the blame and therefore fix responsibility? We do this as a nation with the homeless and the poor. Park Slope people do this all the time: if a kid is having problems; we ask what the parents are doing wrong. We make this kind of judgment all the time. Jesus passes over it. No one is to blame and everyone’s to blame, no one is responsible and everyone’s responsible. Does that mean that Jesus does not judge? No it doesn’t. But he does judge differently than we do. So let’s see how this plays out.
Jesus mixes clay and spit with his fingers and puts the mud upon the beggar’s eyes and tells him to go wash. Why the mud and spit? We are not told why. The beggar goes off and when he comes back he can see. But he can’t see Jesus because Jesus has gone off somewhere. The neighbors try to sort things out and the beggar reports the simple facts, but where Jesus went he does not know.
We are not told why they brought him to the Pharisees. Maybe it was to get him admitted into the synagogue. This begins the middle scene. It has three parts: the Pharisees interrogate the beggar, then they interrogate his parents, and then they interrogate the beggar again, when they get into an argument with him and throw him out.
Their interrogation is not unreasonable. They have a judgment to make, and they have to establish the facts. The healing happened on the Sabbath Day, which broke the rules. First, you can do medicine on the Sabbath Day only if it’s an emergency, and this was not. Second, mixing mud and water counts as doing work, which is prohibited. So, was the healing of this beggar done in sin?
They do what judges do. They consider what evidence to admit and what to rule out, and they consider matters of fact and matters of law. The law stands, the facts can be argued, and the evidence is open to interpretation. To the beggar, the fact that he can see now proves that Jesus must be a prophet and that he must come from God. To the judges, the beggar’s claim proves no such thing, and the benefit of his seeing is extraneous, and that it was done on the Sabbath is ipso facto damaging evidence. The law was broken, a misdeed was done, a sin was committed, someone is guilty. If the beggar defends the sin, and the sinner, then he is guilty too, and so they cast him out. He is un-synagogued.
The judges have narrowed their eyes: What point of law is here at stake? They disregard those facts of the case that do not touch their point of law. And they do not think it is for them to look upon the heart, but only on the act. Would we say that they are blind? Shouldn’t they be? Should the figure of justice wear a blindfold? Is the purpose of justice to restore the moral balance of the world, or is the purpose of justice the restoration of persons and the claiming of God’s shalom?
These judges are just looking at the balance and restoring it. They are not looking at the future. They keep their vision narrow. But the beggar is seeing more and more. Till now he’d only known his parents by their sound and smell but now he watches their faces as they yield to their fear and abandon him. He looks around. He’s alone in this. He watches his judges. He begins to see through them. With his sight he gains insight. But insight is a costly gift. He gets thrown out.
The final scene. Back out on the street. The beggar has lost everything. He doesn’t yet see everything. Jesus must reveal himself to him. Jesus got it going, now Jesus has to finish it. Jesus comes to find him in his abandonment. Jesus questions him, "Do you believe in the Son of Man?" The beggar is a little cagey now, he’s learned to look both ways, and he questions Jesus back: "Who is he sir, that I may believe in him?" This must have delighted Jesus, because his answer is a little comic: "You’ve seen him; he’s talking to you." Does he look Jesus in the eye? He makes his confession, "Lord, I believe," and worships him. That’s a big deal. That’s the first time anyone’s ever done that to Jesus. He must see that Jesus comes from God. This is the high point in the Gospel of John so far.
Some of the Pharisees observe this scene, but they can’t see anything from God. They have been getting blinder all along. Whenever the beggar had been saying, "I don’t know, I don’t know," they were saying, "We know, we know." We know all we want to know, don’t show us any more. And so at the end, back out on the street, they ask the question that needs no answer: "Are we also blind?" It is their own self-condemnation. Jesus doesn’t have to judge them. They have judged themselves.
Jesus says, "If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains." Your sin remains. You’re guilty. At the start he had shown no interest in judging the guilt of the beggar or his parents, but here at the end he does pronounce a judgment. His judgment works by people judging themselves. He doesn’t sit up in heaven giving this judgment on this person or that judgment on that person. His method is simply to offer himself and in reference to himself he lets you judge yourself. He gives you the freedom to judge yourself, and the responsibility. He takes the guilt away, so that in freedom and security and peace with God you can judge yourself.
Why do you choose not to see? Because you don’t want it to be true? Because it contradicts your worldview and it counters your commitments? Because it messes up your plans and it threatens your security? Because to acknowledge it requires your conversion, and that you recalculate all of your working calculations? To refuse this is the sin, which is why not-seeing can be sin.
But not-seeing is not the real guilt. It’s refusing to admit your not-seeing. Blindness is not the problem, it’s the denial of your blindness. So here it is not sin that is the problem, it is the denial of one’s sin. Your refusal to be guilty is what makes you guilty. That’s the paradox of the gospel that you have to return to time after time, because it contradicts our public systems of law and order. In the American system, your lawyer will advise you not to admit your guilt, even if you have to make a deal. In the gospel system, the best thing you can do is to admit your guilt, even if you don’t see it all, and admit without any excuses and without any interest in the guilt of anybody else.
You admit it to be free of it. The point of confessing your sin and guilt is not so that you fix your gaze on it but to clear it away. The reading from Ephesians tells you to keep your eyes on what is pleasing to the Lord. Don’t look too much at your sin or gaze on your guilt. You just have always to say, My guilt is worse than you think and worse than I can see myself, and I make no excuse, and I won’t argue if you call me "totally depraved," I won’t contest it, but you know what, I know a secret, and I’m keeping my eyes on what is pleasing, and fruitful, and full of light.
The purpose of Lent is to undo us. The Easter season is to redo us, but Lent is to undo us. See yourself for the joke that you are. You can choose to be the fool of a comedy or the hero of a tragedy. You see how this little drama of the beggar is a comedy? It isn’t mockery, it is a comedy of love. It tells us how to look upon each other. It tells us that we will notice in each other the total collective guilt of humanity, yes, but then to see each other as God sees us, as wonderful characters on the stage-floor of God’s grace and shining in the spotlight of God’s love. The most important thing that you can learn to see in another person is the love of God upon that person.
Copyright © 2014, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.