Fourth Sunday in Lent John 9:1-41

Missing the Celebration

It is surprising that no one in this parable seems to be happy for the man born blind. By virtue of his handicap, he would have been isolated from the rest of the community and from ordinary relationships. He would have been limited to sitting at the edge of the village and begging. In one brief encounter, Jesus removes the man’s blindness. You would think that this miracle of healing would be cause for celebration.

But no one seems to be celebrating.

His parents are mindful of the edict from the authorities that anyone who proclaims Jesus of Nazareth to be the Messiah will be thrown out of the temple, so they back away and refuse to answer any questions. Some of the Pharisees focus on the distinction that this healing constituted an act of labor on the Sabbath, because clearly nothing else is more important. Other Pharisees admit that the healing at least seems to indicate that Jesus is not a sinner.

Some of the neighbors say that since the man is not blind, he can’t possibly be the blind beggar. Others question the mechanics of how his sight was restored. But no one seems to be celebrating the hundred-and-eighty-degree turn that this man’s life has taken. With one simple action, Jesus has restored not only the man’s sight but his standing in the community. He has given him a future that he could never have imagined.

The man born blind has at least grasped the essentials. “I was blind; now I see,” he says, paving the way for one of the best-known hymns in all of Christian history. The lack of celebration in this narrative points to one of its realities: there is more than one kind of blindness, and several kinds are on display here.

John Newton, the author of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” has described his own metaphorical blindness. The short answer, which many of us know, is that he once was a captain of slave ships until he converted to Christianity and renounced the slave trade. The more complicated truth is that even after embracing Christianity, he continued in the slave trade for another thirty years. It was not until late in his life that he admitted that slavery was “a stain upon our national character.” For John Newton, as for so many of us, confronting and dealing with the ways in which we are blind are ongoing and sometimes lifelong struggles, struggles that we cannot hope to win without the presence of Christ.

For the man born blind, his blindness was complete and absolute, his healing instantaneous and his vision utterly restored. For you and me in our walk with Christ, our various blindnesses probably look more like John Newton’s. Even as we become aware to areas in our lives that need growth, and habits and practices that we need to break, we all have our blind spots. And it is only in our relationships with others and with God that our vision can begin to clear.

It is vital, it is absolutely necessary that each of us has, throughout our lives, relationships with people who love us enough to hold us to account, to observe where our vision is limited and obscured and to coax us along – gently or sometimes not so gently – and to hold us in prayer that our vision might begin to clear. We need individuals like that in our lives, and we also benefit tremendously from being members, over the long term, from a community like this one, in which we care about each other and pray for each other and check on each other and, yes, to love each other enough to observe and name both our own blind spots and theirs.

It seems that many of the people in this narrative are more concerned with the mechanics than with the miracle itself. “How did this happen?” they ask. Over and over the man born blind explains about Jesus and the mud. But in caring so much about the how, they are blind to the cause for celebration. Someone they know and love has been healed. His life has been turned around. There is so much over which to rejoice, and they’ve lifted the hood for a look at the wiring.

Still others are blind in that their only concern is that someone has violated the Sabbath laws. In Judaism as in most major religions, every religious instruction or proscription comes with practical exceptions. In his novel Saturday the Rabbi Went Hungry, author Harry Kemelman has a member who refuses to take his medicine because he is fasting for Yom Kippur. “The regulation to fast doesn’t apply to medicine,” the rabbi explains. But these Pharisees, learned in Jewish law, are overlooking the truth that every religious guideline gives way before compassion, before loving relationship. They cannot celebrate that a man’s life has been restored because all they see is the broken commandment.

Even the man’s parents, who have excellent cause for celebration, are cowering in fear. They don’t want to be thrown out of the temple for admitting that this teacher is a legitimate miracle worker, not a faker, not a scam artist, but a legitimate miracle worker, one who has opened up a world of possibilities for their son. He might now find a job! He could even get married and continue the family lineage. But they are so focused on the risks of excommunication that they see nothing else.

In the novel Mary Coin, a character says: “Seeing is about looking past surfaces of predetermined historic and aesthetic values.” How often do you and I see what we expect to see? How much do we focus on the surface and on our own predetermined beliefs? And what do we miss as a result?

“I was blind,” says the man born blind, “but now I see.”

“I once was blind,” writes John Newton, who took many years for his vision regarding the slave trade to clear, “but now I see.”

We each of us have limits to our own vision. How we see the world determines what we miss. What would happen if, instead, we chose to celebrate with those who are glad? What would happen if we weren’t so quick to class ourselves as beyond needing the help that only Jesus can give? And, most important of all, what can happen when we come to Jesus and admit that we are blind?