Lent Week 4: Blind Religion

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As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

After saying this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means “Sent”). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.

His neighbors and those who had formerly seen him begging asked, “Isn’t this the same man who used to sit and beg?” Some claimed that he was.

Others said, “No, he only looks like him.”

But he himself insisted, “I am the man.”

“How then were your eyes opened?” they asked.

He replied, “The man they call Jesus made some mud and put it on my eyes. He told me to go to Siloam and wash. So I went and washed, and then I could see.”

“Where is this man?” they asked him.

“I don’t know,” he said.

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had been blind. Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud and opened the man’s eyes was a Sabbath. Therefore the Pharisees also asked him how he had received his sight. “He put mud on my eyes,” the man replied, “and I washed, and now I see.”

Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.”

But others asked, “How can a sinner perform such signs?” So they were divided.

Then they turned again to the blind man, “What have you to say about him? It was your eyes he opened.”

The man replied, “He is a prophet.”

They still did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they sent for the man’s parents. “Is this your son?” they asked. “Is this the one you say was born blind? How is it that now he can see?”

“We know he is our son,” the parents answered, “and we know he was born blind. But how he can see now, or who opened his eyes, we don’t know. Ask him. He is of age; he will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders, who already had decided that anyone who acknowledged that Jesus was the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. That was why his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”

A second time they summoned the man who had been blind. “Give glory to God by telling the truth,” they said. “We know this man is a sinner.”

He replied, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!”

Then they asked him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”

He answered, “I have told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples too?”

Then they hurled insults at him and said, “You are this fellow’s disciple! We are disciples of Moses! We know that God spoke to Moses, but as for this fellow, we don’t even know where he comes from.”

The man answered, “Now that is remarkable! You don’t know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly person who does his will. Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”

To this they replied, “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!” And they threw him out.

Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”

“Who is he, sir?” the man asked. “Tell me so that I may believe in him.”

Jesus said, “You have now seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you.”

Then the man said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him.

Jesus said, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.”

Some Pharisees who were with him heard him say this and asked, “What? Are we blind too?”

Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.

–John 9:1-41

Every once in a while you have occasions where current events and the liturgy intersect quite nicely.  This week is one of those times.  More on this later.

For those of you who are just joining in, we are in the middle of a season called Lent.  This is the six weeks and change before Easter.  This is forty days but it’s really forty-six days but it’s really forty days because the Sundays of Lent are “free days” which don’t really count as part of the Lenten season.  OK.  I know.  That can be extremely confusing to someone who hasn’t grown up in a liturgical Christian tradition and isn’t used to all of this.

At any rate, we are now in the fourth week of Lent.  Which means we have two more weeks to go until Easter.

One of the traditional readings for the fourth week of Lent is a story which many of you probably know quite well, the story of Jesus healing a man born blind.  We begin with Jesus and his disciples going along, and they come across a blind man.  John tells us that this man was blind from birth.

Naturally, the disciples’ first reaction is that somebody had to have sinned in order for the man to be in this state.  Either he sinned and fell into disfavor with God, or his parents or grandparents or somebody further up the family tree sinned and brought the whole family into God’s disfavor.  That’s just how first century Jews thought about such things.

Jesus is quick to set them straight.  “Neither this man nor his parents sinned…, but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.”  (John 9:3)  Surprising.  Nobody sinned here.  God didn’t cause this, but He is going to use it.  To first century Jews, such a view of things was completely unheard of.

Next Jesus smears some mud on the man’s eyes, and has him go wash up in a pool called Siloam, which, as John informs us, means “Sent”.  There is a connection with the creation story here.  God created man out of mud, and now Jesus, the Creator in the flesh, is fixing what was wrong with this man, creating sight in him with a little dab of mud.

So the man returns seeing for the first time in his life, but Jesus is nowhere to be seen.  Now things are about to get real.

You see, Jesus did this on a Sabbath, as John informs us.  Why?  It isn’t that he was a Sabbath-breaker.  He was always in the synagogue on the Sabbath.  And those meals he was always eating with sinners and tax collectors?  A lot of them were probably Sabbath meals.  Jesus kept the Sabbath perfectly, both in letter and in spirit.  What he didn’t keep were all the crazy religious traditions that had sprung up around keeping the Sabbath.

When God removed Israel from the Promised Land and sent them into exile in Babylon, one of the issues involved was that they had a shitty record of keeping the Sabbath.  There were a whole lot of other commandments which the Israelites did not keep, but this was one of the biggies.  When Israel returned home, they vowed that things would be different.  Never again would they stray from God’s commands, and so provoke His anger against them.

The Pharisees, who came to power during this time, came up with all sorts of rules and traditions to ensure that the law would be kept.  Concerning the Sabbath, they spelled out 32 specific kinds of work which you were not supposed to do.  One of these was kneading clay.  This had to do with making bricks.  In Egypt the Israelites spent centuries as slaves making bricks to support the Pharaohs’ grandiose building projects.  The whole point of the Sabbath and the not-making-bricks thing was that God has delivered them and now they get to rest from all that.  But in the alternate universe in which the Pharisees lived, simply spitting on the ground and making mud was kneading clay, and therefore work, and therefore breaking the Sabbath.

So part of Jesus’ point in doing this miracle on a Sabbath is to tweak the noses of Israel’s supremely misguided religious elite.

Of course there is an investigation.  According to Mosaic law, if you had some illness which necessitated that you remain outside the camp (i. e. leprosy) and you were healed, you would show yourself to the chief priests and they would examine you and give the OK for you to come back into the community.  When the formerly blind man’s family brought him before the Pharisees, they were complying with this part of the Mosaic law.

But when it comes out that this was done on a Sabbath, things begin to get real.  Initially the Pharisees cannot accept that the person who did this is Jesus.  He doesn’t keep the Sabbath, he must be a sinner.  What does the formerly blind man think?  Here is how this parses out for the Pharisees:  God only works through those who keep His Law.  This guy does not keep the Sabbath, ergo he does not keep the Law, ergo he cannot possibly be from God.  So he can’t possibly be Jesus; he has to be somebody else.  This man had to have been mistaken.  But no, he insists, this really was Jesus.

Failing there, the Pharisees haul in the man’s parents.  Surely this guy was a look-alike.  Surely he hadn’t really been blind.  The parents insist that he was their son, and that he had in fact been born blind.  But that is as far as they are willing to go.  They have no idea how he came to see, and they are not going to talk about it.  You see, the Pharisees had pre-decided that Jesus was not the Christ and that anyone who dared to confess him as such was to be put out of the synagogue.  The parents had heard about this, and they were not going there.

So they call the formerly blind man in a second time, put him under oath, and demand that he deny Christ.  They want to make a liar out of him; liars never tell the same story twice.  But not only does his story check out, he shows that he gets it:  “If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” (John 9:33)  Along the way, he tweaks the Pharisees’ noses: “Do you want to become his disciples too?”  The Pharisees are not too crazy about that.  They remind him that he was born in utter sin (presumably because he was born blind), insult him, and finally throw him out of the synagogue.

How blind religion can be, with all its rules and do’s and don’ts.  I promised you that we would get back to current events intersecting with the liturgy, and now, here we are.

Last week World Vision’s US office announced that it would, in limited circumstances, hire gays.  Your reaction was immediate and visceral.  Some of you, around two thousand or so, who had previously been World Vision supporters, pulled your support.  Others of you took to the airwaves, the blogosphere, and social media to denounce World Vision in the strongest possible terms.  World Vision heard you; in just two days they reversed this decision.  Hope you’re happy.

Everyone knows that gays are sinners, and sinners of the worst kind.  Any so-called Christian organization that hires them is not doing the work of God, and God is not pleased with them.  Anyone who supports such an organization is opposing God and perpetuating sin of the worst possible kind.  Such thinking is no different from the Pharisees who believed that God only works through those who keep His Law and that anyone who healed on the Sabbath was a Sabbath-breaker and a sinner.

So many people in our day and age say things like “I’m spiritual but not religious”.  Meaning:  I respect and appreciate God things but God people give me the willies.  Who can blame them?  I sure can’t.  Many young people are turned off to Christianity because of the way in which we evangelicals engage with the gay community.  This World Vision thing just dumped several truckloads of nitroglycerine on that fire.

Our ways of being religious get in the way of people seeing Jesus.  This is why so many people say “I’m spiritual but not religious”.  But Jesus operates in complete freedom from all of that.  Sure, there are God’s laws, and Jesus kept them perfectly.  But he will not allow himself to be subjugated to man-made religious tradition masquerading as the law of God.

Yes, the man born blind was steeped in sin from birth; the Pharisees had that right.  So are each and every one of us.  So were the Pharisees.  But they couldn’t and wouldn’t recognize that; nor would they recognize the rescue from sin that Jesus offers to each and every one of us.  Their religious rules wouldn’t permit it.

We now return to our story.  The formerly blind man has been booted out of the synagogue.  Jesus hears of it, and goes to find him.  Notice that.  He did not find Jesus.  Though he could now see just fine, he had never laid eyes on Jesus and did not have a prayer of knowing what he looked like or how to find him.  Jesus had to find him.

And the man believes.  He trusts Jesus at his word that he is the man who gave him sight.  This is what Jesus is to all of us.  To those of us who think that we can see just fine, thank you very much, Jesus is a light that blinds.  To those of us who are honest enough to admit that we are blind, Jesus gives us sight.

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