Jesus has just healed a man who has been blind from birth, and instead of rejoicing and marveling at this mighty act, the religious leaders of the day are appalled.
For them, the miracle of sight is overshadowed by the fact that the healing occurred on the Sabbath, a violation of Jewish law.
The leaders call the once-blind man to the synagogue to question him. The man patiently explains what happened.
He was sitting on the side of the road, begging from passersby, as he does every day, when he hears a group of men stop and talk about him.
“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” he hears one of them ask.
The blind man sighs. Almost as bad as being blind is the assumption that the handicap is punishment for something he or his parents did wrong. Instead of sympathy, his blindness evokes fear and scorn from those who don’t want to be tainted by associating with a sinner.
The disciples’ question may strike us as insensitive and outdated in this age of science. But even today it is commonplace to equate suffering with sin.
“What did I do to deserve this?” we cry when horrible events happen in our lives. The question is more than a fear that we are being punished for past deeds.
At a deeper level, the question may reflect a desire for control in a confusing and chaotic world.
Which is more frightening – a world in which a baby is born blind because of her parents’ sins, or a world in which a child is born blind for no reason at all?
The blind man wonders what sin this rabbi will say was committed, what act caused this life of loneliness and darkness.
The rabbi’s answer startles the man. “Neither he nor his parents sinned,” Jesus responds. “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”
Now that answer may sound as cruel to us as if the man had indeed been punished for his parents’ sins. Is Jesus suggesting that God inflicted this man with blindness so that Jesus will now have a chance to show off his healing skills?
Or does Jesus mean that we should not get bogged down in the unanswerable question of why suffering happens, but should instead look to see how God can be revealed even in seemingly hopeless situations.
Perhaps something in the tone of Jesus’ voice convinces the blind man that here is one who could relieve his suffering. Because when Jesus spreads mud on the man’s eyes and tells him to go wash, he obeys.
“And I received my sight,” the man tells the Pharisees.
The once-blind man does not know where Jesus is now or even what he looks like. He has never seen Jesus. He has only heard the rabbi’s voice, felt his touch, and followed his directions.
Some of the Pharisees are not satisfied with the simplicity and obvious goodness of the man’s story. They argue that Jesus cannot be a man of God because he does not observe the Sabbath. They ask the man born blind what he thinks about Jesus.
The man’s answer is simple and direct.
“Jesus is a prophet,” he says.
The religious leaders are not satisfied.
“Don’t give credit to Jesus for your sight,” they say. “Give glory to God. We know that this Jesus is a sinner. After all, he has broken the law.”
But the man who had been blind is seeing more and more. He who has spent his life ostracized as a beggar, held up as an example of sinfulness, will not let the religious authorities intimidate him now, or force him to repudiate the truth that he knows.
“I do not know whether Jesus is a sinner,” he tells them. “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.
“Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”
The religious leaders respond to this testimony of faith by expelling the man from the synagogue.
When we hear this story, we wonder how these religious leaders could be so blind to the obvious.
A man who had been blind is now able to see because of Jesus. How could anyone be so caught up in the law – in rules and regulations – that they would condemn someone for bringing healing and sight? How could anyone fail to realize that this is a good thing?
It is all too easy for us to hear this story today and condemn the Pharisees as ignorant and evil.
But the Pharisees are not bad people. We would probably be delighted to have them in this congregation. They are leaders – committed to the community, serious about their faith, and students of scripture. They know the law and the importance of worship.
The Pharisees’ problem may be that they know too much.
There is a spiritual danger in knowing nothing about matters of faith and morality. But there is equal danger in knowing – or thinking one knows – everything about faith and morality, of thinking that one has all the answers, of being too certain.
In that, the Pharisees would fit in well in today’s religious climate. I read an article recently entitled, “The Certainty Epidemic,” bemoaning the rampant certainty in our midst, particularly in religion and politics, an atmosphere in which “a public change of mind becomes national news.”
Episcopal Bishop Jack Spong reminds us that certainty in religion too often leads to arrogance and even to deadly violence. There is nothing loving or live giving in certitude, he says.
Certainty leads to blindness, an inability to recognize that another’s way of seeing may be valid, and an inability to see one’s own shortcomings and sinfulness.
That is the case with the Pharisees. So quick to label the blind man and Jesus as sinners, they do not see their own sin – that of pride.
They already know; therefore they don’t need to – indeed, can’t – learn.
Their pride in their ability to see has left them blind to what God is obviously doing in their midst.
“I am the light of the world,” Jesus says before he heals the man born blind.
We who profess to follow Jesus are to live, as Paul says, as children of light. But we must also remember that we are in constant need of God’s healing and conversion to deeper faith and courage.
We are presented with a choice. We can be blind in our sin. Or we can admit our own blindness, and be given new sight, insight, and faith.
But as this story tells us, the gift of sight often comes with a price. The blind man is thrown out of his community because he stands up for Jesus and the truth that he has seen.
The formerly blind man’s testimony challenges the Pharisees’ beliefs about God, and they are afraid of that challenge.
Our beliefs about God are precious to us because they give us a sense of who we are and our place in a chaotic world. When our beliefs are threatened, as the Pharisees’ were, our instinct is to put up our defenses and resist.
When we do that, we may actually be missing an invitation to take a sacred journey, where we let go of the need to be right and trust God regardless of what we feel we know or don’t know, writes theologian Peter Enns in his book The Sin of Certainty.
“Correct thinking provides a sense of certainty,” he says. “Preoccupation with correct thinking reduces the life of faith to sentry duty, a 24/7 task of pacing the ramparts and scanning the horizon to fend off incorrect thinking in ourselves and others.
“A faith like that is stressful and tedious to maintain,” he says. “Aligning faith in God and certainty about what we believe and needing to be right – these do not make for a healthy faith in God.”
Enns calls certainty a sin because “it keeps the Creator captive to what we are able to comprehend. It works off fear and limits God to our ways of thinking.
“God does not like being boxed in. By definition, God can’t be,” Enns says. “I believe we are prone to forget that.”
As God says through the prophet Isaiah, “I am doing a new thing. Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”