Mud in the Eye | 4th in Lent

John 9:1-41

1 As Jesus walked along, he saw a man who was blind from birth. 2 Jesus’ disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned so that he was born blind, this man or his parents?”

3 Jesus answered, “Neither he nor his parents. This happened so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him. 4 While it’s daytime, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming when no one can work. 5 While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6 After he said this, he spit on the ground, made mud with the saliva, and smeared the mud on the man’s eyes. 7 Jesus said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (this word means sent). So the man went away and washed. When he returned, he could see.

8 The man’s neighbors and those who used to see him when he was a beggar said, “Isn’t this the man who used to sit and beg?”

9 Some said, “It is,” and others said, “No, it’s someone who looks like him.” But the man said, “Yes, it’s me!”

10 So they asked him, “How are you now able to see?”

11 He answered, “The man they call Jesus made mud, smeared it on my eyes, and said, ‘Go to the pool of Siloam and wash.’ So I went and washed, and then I could see.”

12 They asked, “Where is this man?”

He replied, “I don’t know.”

13 Then they led the man who had been born blind to the Pharisees. 14 Now Jesus made the mud and smeared it on the man’s eyes on a Sabbath day. 15 So Pharisees also asked him how he was able to see.

The man told them, “He put mud on my eyes, I washed, and now I see.”

16 Some Pharisees said, “This man isn’t from God, because he breaks the Sabbath law.” Others said, “How can a sinner do miraculous signs like these?” So they were divided. 17 Some of the Pharisees questioned the man who had been born blind again: “What do you have to say about him, since he healed your eyes?”

He replied, “He’s a prophet.”

18 The Jewish leaders didn’t believe the man had been blind and received his sight until they called for his parents. 19 The Jewish leaders asked them, “Is this your son? Are you saying he was born blind? How can he now see?”

20 His parents answered, “We know he is our son. We know he was born blind. 21 But we don’t know how he now sees, and we don’t know who healed his eyes. Ask him. He’s old enough to speak for himself.” 22 His parents said this because they feared the Jewish authorities. This is because the Jewish authorities had already decided that whoever confessed Jesus to be the Christ would be expelled from the synagogue. 23 That’s why his parents said, “He’s old enough. Ask him.”

24 Therefore, they called a second time for the man who had been born blind and said to him, “Give glory to God. We know this man is a sinner.”

25 The man answered, “I don’t know whether he’s a sinner. Here’s what I do know: I was blind and now I see.”

26 They questioned him: “What did he do to you? How did he heal your eyes?”

27 He replied, “I already told you, and you didn’t listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples too?”

28 They insulted him: “You are his disciple, but we are Moses’ disciples. 29 We know that God spoke to Moses, but we don’t know where this man is from.”

30 The man answered, “This is incredible! You don’t know where he is from, yet he healed my eyes! 31 We know that God doesn’t listen to sinners. God listens to anyone who is devout and does God’s will. 32 No one has ever heard of a healing of the eyes of someone born blind. 33 If this man wasn’t from God, he couldn’t do this.”

34 They responded, “You were born completely in sin! How is it that you dare to teach us?” Then they expelled him.

35 Jesus heard they had expelled the man born blind. Finding him, Jesus said, “Do you believe in the Human One?”

36 He answered, “Who is he, sir? I want to believe in him.”

37 Jesus said, “You have seen him. In fact, he is the one speaking with you.”

38 The man said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshipped Jesus.

39 Jesus said, “I have come into the world to exercise judgment so that those who don’t see can see and those who see will become blind.”

40 Some Pharisees who were with him heard what he said and asked, “Surely we aren’t blind, are we?”

41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you wouldn’t have any sin, but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains. (CEB)

Mud in the Eye

Some scholars hold that the Gospel of John plays out on two levels. In one sense, it’s telling the story of Jesus. In another, it’s using the stories of Jesus to tell us what’s happening to the early Johannine Christian community. The story of the man born blind is one of those events that speak to the reaction of synagogue leadership to those Jews who confessed Jesus to be the Christ. It reveals the struggles of the early church which was, by and large, a Jewish group. Verse 9:22 tells us that those who confessed Jesus as the Christ were being expelled, or cast out, of the synagogue. John even used a word that is unique to his Gospel, ἀποσυνάγωγος (aposunagogos), to explain what was happening.

Now, this was no small thing. The synagogue had become, in many ways, one of the centers of Jewish life. We Americans like to compartmentalize things. For us, there’s religious life, work life, and family life. There’s personal time, entertainment time, and games and programs (often having to do with children). If you’re a kid or youth it’s simpler: it’s just school life, and not-in-school life.

There are probably a few more categories in there, but you get the picture. We compartmentalize these things as if they’re separate from each other. That was much less the case in first century Judaism. There was no compartmentalization of work, family, and religious life because faith and religion defined those things and how you did them. They were a part of your religious faith. The synagogue would have been the center of your community. It was an extension of your family. Everyone was part of the local synagogue. To not be part of the synagogue meant you didn’t have the connection and protection of the people around you. So, for a Jew to be cast out of the synagogue would have been devastating. It would have expelled such a person from everything.

There are two possibilities for expelling people. If we want to give the synagogue leaders the benefit of the doubt, we might consider that it was meant as a tough love kind of thing for the good of the person being expelled and for the community of faith. Much like excommunication, which the church practiced later on, expulsion from the synagogue may have been intended to make the expelled persons repent and come back to the kind of life, correct belief, and faithfulness the synagogue leaders expected. The idea of excommunication from the church was that, if we refuse to allow this sinner to be in communion with us, they’ll realize what they have given up by choosing their waywardness over our community, and they’ll want to come back. It was an oddball way of taking care of church members and the faith community through forced separation. There’s little evidence that it was particularly successful, and I doubt Jesus—the one who welcomed prostitutes and other sinners into the kingdom community and demanded that we forgive seven times seventy—would have particularly approved of the practice, but the church did it anyway.

The other possibility, is that expulsion from the synagogue was meant to squash the spread of Jesus’ teachings and discipleship-making through fear. Unfortunately, in the context of John’s Gospel, exercising control through fear was exactly what the synagogue leaders were doing. We’re told that the parents of the man born blind, feared the Jewish authorities… because the Jewish authorities had already decided that whoever confessed Jesus to be the Christ would be expelled from the synagogue.” (John 9:22, CEB). So, even if the authorities meant for the expulsions to be an oddball way of caring for their members and faith community—like excommunication became in the church—the result was that people were afraid. The practice of expulsion forced people to choose between their established community whose leaders refused to believe Jesus is the Christ, and belief in Jesus as the long-held Messianic hope that their religion had been expecting since the days of Moses. (c.f. Deuteronomy 18:15).

It’s not entirely unbelievable that the authorities dismissed the man born blind and his testimony. One of the prevailing theologies of Judaism is Deuteronomic theology. It’s the idea that there is a reason for everything. And let me tell you, it’s not a Methodist theology. It wasn’t the theology to which Jesus adhered, either. As the disciples are walking by the man born blind, they asked Jesus to explain the situation. “Rabbi, who sinned so that he was born blind, this man or his parents?” (Jn. 9:2 CEB). You see, according to this kind of theology, there had to be a spiritual explanation for the man’s blindness. Deuteronomic theology does not allow for happenstance. Someone had to have sinned for this to have happened. The Jewish authorities assumed the man born blind was a sinner who was being punished by God with blindness. His blindness was evidence of his sin and probably that of his parents.

So, they assumed someone was at fault for the man’s blindness. It’s similar to the question we ask every time there’s a bad diagnosis or when some terrible accident happens: What did I, we, he, she, they do to deserve this? It’s the same theology of Job’s friends. They insisted that Job must have done something really bad, and that he absolutely deserved all the horrors that came upon him.

The answer Jesus gives his disciples is this: Nothing. No one caused this man’s blindness by sinning. It’s not about how bad people are. Yes, sin is something we can do, but sin is also an infection that affects the whole world. The whole of creation has been disfigured by sin, and that is what led to sickness, maladies, and death. The effects of sin touch each and every one of us, whether we actually do sinful things or not, because we’re human and we live in a broken creation. Bad stuff just happens because of the adverse effects of sin. That’s what Jesus has come to fix. This bad stuff won’t exist in the restored creation where we’ll be gathered together in a new heaven and a new earth.

To prove his point, Jesus spit on the ground and made mud, which he applied to the man’s eyes. Then, Jesus told him to go wash in the pool of Siloam. The man obeyed, and he could see. Can you imagine his amazement at being able to see for the first time in his life? It should have been a joyful moment, a moment of restoration to a full life in the community. He could see! And no one would be able to hold him at arm’s length because they assumed he or his parents were sinners whom God was punishing with the man’s blindness.

But that’s not what happened. What’s interesting is that the neighbors and people of the city no longer recognized him. They asked the question: Isn’t this the guy who used to beg? And he kept insisting, “I am the man” (John 9:9, CEB), but the people weren’t convinced. Some of them suggested it must be the guy’s doppelganger. I mean, these people must have walked by him for years and never actually looked at the beggar sitting in their midst. This is an example of a community failing to be what it should have been for this man when he was a blind beggar. They didn’t know him. To not know this man when he could see means that they so completely ignored him in his blindness that he was never really a part of their community anyway. I imagine there are probably people in our community whom we ignore like that.

Then, enter the religious authorities: people like me. When the man born blind was brought before them and had relayed his story of his sight being restored, some of them got bent out of shape because Jesus healed this blind man on the Sabbath. Some said, Jesus didn’t follow the rules, therefore, he could not possibly be a man who is faithful to God or who is doing works on behalf of God. Others questioned how a man who is a sinner could perform a sign like this. So, the authorities defaulted to not believing the man born blind really had been born blind. It tells us they had been no better than the neighbors who, apparently, never really saw this man in his blindness and never took the time to get to know him. He was born blind, but every day that he begged for alms in their midst, everyone else was unseeing.

They had to call his parents in to verify that this really was the same person who used to beg on the street. Can you imagine this happening? The ridiculousness is beyond belief. But the possibility of its reality makes me ask myself who I might be ignoring in the same way. Who are the people I don’t see due to whatever circumstance of theirs differs from mine?

What follows is this wonderful conversation between the religious authorities and the man born blind where he uses their own logic against them. They declare that they know Jesus is a sinner, and the formerly blind man sings Amazing Grace. They demand to know again what Jesus did to him and he, interpreting their wanting to know as desire to become disciples of Jesus, says, “I already told you, and you didn’t listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples too?” (John 9:27, CEB), which tells us this man has already chosen his path to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

The authorities had nothing left but insults and arrogance. They said: “You are his disciple, but we are Moses’ disciples. We know that God spoke to Moses, but we don’t know where this man is from.” The man answered, “This is incredible! You don’t know where he is from, yet he healed my eyes! We know that God doesn’t listen to sinners. God listens to anyone who is devout and does God’s will. No one has ever heard of a healing of the eyes of someone born blind. If this man wasn’t from God, he couldn’t do this.” They responded, “You were born completely in sin! How is it that you dare to teach us?” Then they expelled him” (John 9:28-34, CEB).

They expelled him, but it seems like he was never really a part of the community anyway. How does our Christian community at First United Methodist Church measure up to that one? Who are the people we don’t see? We are called to be disciples of Jesus Christ who live in community that seeks out and welcomes everyone. If there’s any judgment of who is in or out that needs doing, we can trust God to take care of it in God’s own time. Our response to God’s acceptance of us is to accept others. A community that confesses Jesus Christ can do nothing less.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher

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