Opening the eyes of the blind

Lent 4

John 9:1-41

Marian Free

May the God who opened the eyes of the blind, open our hearts and minds to see what he is doing in our lives and in the world today. Amen.

When I was in theological college and our year group were doing the hospital chaplaincy course, we were asked to write a number of verbatims of the conversations we had with the patients we visited. A verbatim is a word for word record of what was said by each party. The object of the exercise was to help the writer to re-visit the conversation and to understand how what they did and did not say affected the direction of the conversation. A verbatim helps the student to see in what way his or her own issues may have crept in and influenced the exchange.  For example, someone who is the child of an alcoholic may discover that whenever he or she is pastoring to someone who is an alcoholic, they tell their own story instead of listening to the person they are visiting. The verbatim may reveal other ways in which the visitor may be limiting the conversation or preventing the one being visited from sharing what is important to them.

Of course, most of us in the course of our lives have wished something unsaid, wished we had used more sensitive language in a difficult situation. We don’t need a verbatim to tell us that we could have done better. In a social situation we hope our friends will forgive us our awkwardness and we trust that we can learn from our mistakes. For those whose profession requires them to listen to others, a thorough examination of their conversation technique can make them a much more effective listener, ensure that they recognise their weaknesses and enable them to learn techniques that will improve their skills.

Thank goodness Jesus was not required to attend theological college! Verbatims of Jesus’ conversations would have revealed him to be deliberately obtuse, failing to listen, being directly confrontation and having a tendency to railroad his conversation partner for the purpose of getting his own message across. As we have seen in the last two weeks, Jesus doesn’t respond to Nicodemus’ flattery or to the questions of the woman at the well. Instead he talks about “being born from above” and “living water” – teasing and confusing them in the hope that they will move, with him, beyond the obvious and the external to something deeper and more spiritual.

In any other situation, we might think that, even though we are talking about Jesus, it is the height of rudeness to speak as he does. However, hopefully, we understand that the purpose of the gospel is to bring readers to faith. The author of John’s gospel is using Jesus’ conversation as a literary tool to help his audience understand that faith in Jesus is a life-transforming experience that moves a person from one realm of existence to another, from the earthly to the heavenly, from the physical to the spiritual. For this reason, the style of the conversation doesn’t matter. What matters is that the reader’s life is changed, by what they read or hear.

Today’s gospel is very different from those of the last two weeks, but it is still possible to observe that it is through conversation that the author of John makes his salient points and moves his readers to a particular conclusion and a new way of being. The healing of the blind man and the ensuing conflict with the Pharisees is not so much an account of healing but a revelation as to who Jesus is and an expose of the ‘blindness’ of the Pharisees who fail to recognise him. John’s gospel is using the account of the healing of the blind to open the eyes of all who read or hear it such that they understand that Jesus is the Saviour (the light) of the world. It is intended to move them from the superficial, to a deeper, more meaningful existence.

The Pharisees and their followers were good people who kept the commandments. However, they had become so sure of themselves and so confident in the way that they practiced their faith that they did not allow any room for God to reveal Godself. They relied on a person’s external behaviour to tell them about that person’s relationship with and position before God. They were so sure that they knew what to do and what not to do, that they were unprepared for the person of Jesus. Jesus did not fit into their nicely prescribed rules and regulations, he didn’t toe the line that they had drawn, he didn’t belong to their “in group”. Nothing in their rigid and rule bound practice of faith had prepared them for the person who God sent to save them.  He didn’t have any of the characteristics that they had come to associate with someone who came from heaven, he was just a man, and worse than that, he was a man who broke the commandments of God. How could such a man be someone sent from God?

To this extent, the Pharisees were blind. God, in Jesus was present among them, yet, because Jesus did not fit the pro forma that they had developed, not only did they fail to recognise him for who he was but they labelled him a sinner. This, according to Jesus provided ample evidence of their inability to see. The Pharisees were so bound to their literal interpretation of the law, so confined by their narrow outlook on life and faith, that they could not see the goodness of God in Jesus’ action of healing. All they could see was someone who broke the Sabbath law.

In his conversations with Nicodemus and the woman at the well, Jesus is obtuse, using unfamiliar expressions and ideas to force them into a new way of seeing things. When Jesus speaks with the Pharisees in today’s gospel, he is much more direct, Their attitude, revealed in their refusal to accept what he has done confirms that they are firmly established within the earthly realm and completely unable or unwilling to risk venturing into the spiritual realm. The Pharisees are comfortable in their neatly prescribed life. They have rule books to tell them what to do and how to behave, they simply cannot cope when the spirit breaks through and disturbs their settled existence. In their minds. anything which doesn’t fit the world as they have defined it, doesn’t belong – even if it is a man who is able to heal the blind.

Two thousand years after Jesus walked the earth, we must be careful that we do not allow habit and complacency to close our minds to the possibility that God is active in the world. We must allow the gospel to keep us on our toes, to tease and confuse us, such that we retain an openness to God’s revelation. We must always be alert and expectant, hoping to be surprised by God and seeking a life that is determined by the spirit and not by the demand and restrictions of the material world. If we say that “we see”, we can be certain that we see nothing at all. If we allow God to open our eyes, we will see and experience more than we could ever imagine.



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