The Fourth Sunday in Lent | By the Rev. Dr. Jo Ann Barker
1 Samuel 16:1-13 | Psalm 23 | Ephesians 5:8-14 | John 9:1-41
Not many years ago as a sign of my getting older, when I went to the eye doctor I was given a prescription for glasses: bifocals, as both my near vision and far vision were deficient. It took awhile to adjust, both physically and mentally, but I could see very well with my new eyes. I have since had cataract surgery which made my seeing even better.
The folks in John’s Gospel surely did have a different understanding about vision problems than we do. There were no glasses and no hope of a cure of any kind. This fellow Jesus runs into has been blind from birth, certainly a more serious situation than mine. Not only is he not able to see but he is living with the social stigma that it’s his fault! And if not his fault then his parents! And the cause is that he or they have sinned! The Pharisees, and all the Jews for that matter, have judged him harshly and marginalized him as not worthy to participate in normal society. His peers from the day of his birth have condemned this poor man.
Then along comes Jesus. He turns this whole situation on its head. Jesus performs the wonderful liturgy of spitting, forming mud, applying it to the man’s eyes then having the man wash it off with water. Now the man is miraculously able to see! The condemnation is lifted. Well not exactly. How human this story and how sad! We wish the people around this man could rejoice with him about his cure but instead they give him the cynic’s view: “How can this be? How did he do it? Are you going to be his disciple? We are Moses’ disciples! We still say you were born in sin, even if you’re cured.” Friends like that, who needs enemies?
The irony of this multifaceted story is that the people who have 20/20 vision – the religious experts – are the ones who remain resolutely “blind” at the end of the story. They appear oddly like unaware people today. Most don’t know they are unaware because the skills required for awareness are the same skills required to recognize awareness.
So who is really blind? You be the judge. What’s worse? Physical blindness or spiritual blindness? Getting glasses didn’t cure those things that I cannot see that are keeping me from the love of God and of other people. In this age of science and technology we even more than the Pharisees believe that we have all the answers. We believe that we know who is living right and who is sinning mightily. Our prejudices against each other are astounding! The color of skin, gender, sexual orientation, political bias, and social status still fog our love for one another. Our self-righteousness about our own denomination in the Christian community, much less other world religions, blinds us to God’s love and compassion for every person. Our scorn for the world’s poor and condescending attitude toward them leaves little room for the light of Christ trying to burst into our consciousness. Who is blind? You are and so am I.
John Milton, seventeenth century English poet, most famous for his work Paradise Lost, was physically blind. When his enemies mocked his blindness the poet responded, “I prefer my blindness to yours. Yours is sunk into your deepest senses, blinding your minds, so that you can see nothing that is sound and solid. Mine takes from me only the color and surface of things, but does not take away from the mind’s contemplation what is in those things true and constant. Moreover how many things are there which I would not see! How many of which I can be debarred the sight without repining. How few left which I much desire to see! Vile men who mock us! The blind have a protection from the injuries of men, and are rendered almost sacred.”
This long story of Jesus healing the blind man is intentionally the gospel of this Sunday right in the middle of Lent. As we faithfully tend to our spiritual life, readying our souls for the glory of the Resurrection on Easter, we are opening ourselves to receiving from Jesus whatever it is we need. We need to see because we are blind.
The most famous blind person probably of all time was Helen Keller. Her story is amazing especially the moment she was opened to the possibility of new life. Here’s what she says in her own words, “We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered. Someone was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motion of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness of something forgotten – a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing through my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.” [Helen Keller, The Story of my Life (New York: Doubleday, 1903), p. 23]
We linger in our barriers and we don’t even know it. We think we can change ourselves but we are blind to the reality that God is in charge and only God can move us from the prison of our blindness. We’ve worked hard to be something great but all God wants is for us to stop, let him pour the water in our hand, and spell out the word that will give our lives meaning and connect us to people in love.
[Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, himself blind from birth, concluded that] one is blind to the extent that a person must devise alternative techniques to do efficiently those things that a person with normal vision would do. The Gospel of Jesus is that the Holy Spirit is the alternative technique that heals and lifts our vision. We are all “visually impaired,” but with a blindness that no ophthalmologist can touch. Only God’s grace can undo that malady. That one day we can say with the blind man in the gospel, One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.