Seward United Methodist Church
Monday, December 10, 2018
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Spiritual Blindness

John 9:1-41

 All through the Gospels, and especially in John, we see theology taught through stories.  In this case, the story reveals something about the meaning of sin through the idea of spiritual blindness.  

 Jesus is in Jerusalem.  It might be during the Feast of Tabernacles, which is mentioned in chapter 7.  And he encounters a man who has been blind since birth.

 There weren’t many career options for the blind.  There were no seeing-eye dogs.  No association for the blind.  No Braille.  Pretty much, your career choices were begging or begging.  And in Jerusalem, the best place to beg would be near the Temple, since people would be more likely to have charitable thoughts there.  So we know where the story takes place.

 There also wasn’t much hope for a person born blind.  If you had your sight and lost it, there was at least some hope it would recover, either naturally or through medicine.  But if you were born blind, the only hope was divine intervention.  Only God could create something new:  Sight in eyes that had never seen.

 But the disciples are mostly curious about the cause of his blindness.  Whose sin caused him to be blind?  His sin or his parents’ sin?  This would have been debated among Jewish scholars of the time.  

 Those who said it was his parents’ sin would point to Exodus 20:5, where God says, “I lay the sins of parents upon their children to the third or fourth generation.”  

 Now you might think, “Well, how could it have been his sin, if he was blind from birth?”  The answer was that in the first century, some Jews believed in the pre-existence of the soul, that our souls exist before we were conceived.  And they would go on to suppose that the soul could sin before we were born.  In case you’re wondering, there is nothing in Scripture to support this idea.  It actually came from Greek philosophy which had crept into Jewish culture by the first century.  

 Both answers to the question of “Whose sin?” are based on a theology of retribution, which was widespread in first century Judaism.  A theology of retribution basically says that God punishes sinners and God rewards the righteous every single time.  If you suffer, then you must have sinned.  Even if you suffer from birth, some sin must be behind it, either your sin or your parents’ sin.  

 But a theology of retribution is problematic.  First, it ignores that much of the suffering we experience in this world is the result of living in a creation that has fallen away from its original goodness and grace.  Sometimes we suffer for our own choices, sometimes we suffer for the choices of others, but sometimes we just suffer because the world we live in has been corrupted.  

Second, the theology of retribution sees no redeeming value coming out of suffering.  And that’s an issue because one of the central events of our Christian story is the crucifixion, and redeeming value comes out of that suffering.  

Finally, the theology of retribution is problematic for the life of discipleship.  If righteousness is always rewarded and wickedness always punished, then everyone would want to obey God for the sake of rewards or to avoid punishment.  There would be no opportunity for loving God and obeying him out of devotion.

But the theology of retribution is still alive and well today.  This is what the “health and wealth gospel” is.  If you are obedient enough, faithful enough, then God will reward you with good health and abundant wealth.  If you suffer, it’s because you don’t have enough faith or enough good works.  So while this theology is flawed and contrary to Jesus’ teachings, it’s still alive and well.

Jesus denies it.  “He wasn’t born blind for his own sins or his parents’ sins, he was born blind that the glory of God could be seen through him.  While there is still day, we must do the work assigned to us.”  Almost no one worked at night in the first century, except soldiers and watchmen.  “While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”  

Jesus heals the man, but he does in a strange way.  He uses spittle and dirt to make mud and places it on the man’s eyes.  In Hebrew culture, spittle was gross, so perhaps this was motivation for him to obey Jesus’ command to go and wash in the Pool of Siloam.  He is “sent” there, and coincidentally, the name Siloam means “sent.”  The method of healing means that he doesn’t see Jesus after regaining his sight.

The Pool of Siloam was located at the southern end of the city of Jerusalem, a distance from the Temple.  It was the most reliable water source for the city.  When the city was founded, its water source was the Gihon Spring, east of the city, in the Kidron Valley.  But a spring outside the city walls was problematic if the city were put under siege.  There were cisterns in the city, but they were unreliable.  So when the city was threatened by the Assryrians, King Hezekiah built a tunnel to bring the spring inside the

city walls.  The tunnel was an engineering marvel for the time.  It is 583 yards long, over a quarter-mile, and it was dug from both ends, meeting in the middle.  What’s really remarkable is that the tunnel was dug in a zig-zag to make it harder for the enemy to get into the city that way. No doubt that made it harder to meet in the middle, as well.

  The healing miracle is so remarkable that some people can’t believe he is the same man.  They take him to the Pharisees for an answer.  But rather than being astounded by the miracle, the Pharisees are upset about the circumstances.  Jesus did this on a Sabbath.  According to their traditions, there were 39 types of work forbidden on the Sabbath.  One was kneading, like kneading spittle and dirt into mud.  Another was healing.  You could keep a person from getting worse, but you couldn’t heal on the Sabbath.  But even the Pharisees were divided.  “How could he do such a miracle if he were not from God?” some asked.

They ask the man, “Who is he?”  The man answers, “He must be a prophet.”  Earlier he just called Jesus “the man they call Jesus.”  Now he calls him prophet.  His appreciation for Jesus is growing.

The Pharisees doubt the miracle, so they call in his parents.  “Is he your son?  Was he really born blind?”  But the parents are reluctant to answer.  The Pharisees have threatened excommunication from the Temple and synagogue for anyone who calls Jesus Messiah.  In their worldview, to be cut off from the Temple and synagogue means to be cut off from God.  Some of the first readers of John’s Gospel faced excommunication from the synagogue if they followed Christ, so this story is also meant as encouragement for them.  “He is of legal age; ask him.”  

So they go back to the man, “Give glory to God,” which was a formula for an oath demanding a truthful response.  “We know Jesus is a sinner.”  

“I don’t know that.  All I know is I was blind but now I see.”  Being an evangelist for Jesus doesn’t necessarily mean we have all the answers.  It means we testify truly about the things we have seen and experienced.  

They ask again, “How?”  And he answers, “I already told you.  Do you want to become his disciples, too?”  Perhaps that was spoken a little bit tongue in cheek.  Well, the Pharisees weren’t pleased.  “We are disciples of Moses.  We know God spoke to Moses.  We don’t even know where this Jesus guy came from.”

And here we come to the crux of the chapter.  Verses 30 to 33 are a syllogism, which is a conclusion drawn from two accepted premises.  First, God doesn’t listen to sinners but only those who do his will.  Proverbs 15:29 says, “God is far from the wicked but he hears the prayers of the righteous.”  Second, no man can open the eyes of one born blind.  Only God could do such a thing.  From these two accepted premises comes a conclusion:  Jesus must be a righteous man, who came from God, or he couldn’t do it.  

According to the logic of the Pharisees, the argument is airtight.  And we all know that when you can’t win an argument, you just insult the person you’re arguing with.  Politicians do it all the time!  “You were born in sin.  Who are you to lecture us?”  And they throw him out.  

Jesus finds the man.  He may be excluded from the synagogue, but he is not excluded from God.  God has sought him out.  “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”  And he answers, “Yes, Lord.”  The progression is complete.  Jesus has gone from being “the man called Jesus” to prophet to “a man from God” to Lord.  

“I have come to judge the world, giving sight to the blind.”  Judgment is based on our response to Jesus.  “Sin” is defined here as the refusal to believe in the One God has sent and to submit to him.  

The Pharisees ask, “Are we blind then?”  And Jesus answers, “Yes, because you claim you can see.”  The Pharisees, who presumed to pass judgment on others, pass judgment on themselves by refusing to believe in Jesus.  Sin and spiritual blindness are two sides of the same coin.  Both are the refusal to acknowledge the truth.  Part of the essence of sin is our response to God.  If we think we know it all, if we think we have it all together, if we imagine we have no need for God, or if we refuse to submit to God and his word, then we are blind.  And we can only see when we begin by acknowledging our blindness, by admitting our need for God and submitting to him.  

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