Who is blind?

A sermon on John 9:1-41 and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

April 22, 2014 | Web First | Number 9
Werner De Jong | Special to Canadian Mennonite

John 9 tells a story of blindness and sight. With the exception of Jesus, all the characters in this story are blind in some way.

Blind disciples: ignorance and prejudice

The story begins with a blind man, whose very presence reveals the blindness of others. As Jesus and his disciples walk together, they pass a man who had been blind from birth. The disciples quickly reveal a lack of understanding: “Rabbi, who sinned: this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 

Their question reflects the blindness of ignorance, a blindness that holds fast to the falsehood that suffering is always a result of sin. Perhaps it is also a blindness of prejudice, because it is most often the poor who suffer, and it is easy to judge them. But Jesus answers his disciples, “You are asking the wrong question. You are looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause and effect here. Look instead for what God can do” (John 9:3, The Message). Then he healed the blind beggar.

Jesus graciously invites his disciples to see in a new way. He does not judge their ignorance but provides them with new perspective. In place of blaming the blind man or his parents, he gives them another option: the option of blessing, of compassionate healing. This new way of looking at suffering is a gift for Jesus’ disciples. He helps them to see the blind man as a human being in need, rather than a sinner to judge.

This brief exchange has powerful implications for us. Consider, for example, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is meeting in Edmonton this weekend. The commission is listening to the stories of First Nations people who have suffered in residential schools. I have been attending and have heard devastating stories of verbal, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. Many survivors said, “I have turned to drugs and alcohol to numb my pain.”

Many people judge natives. We blame them for the deep-set problems in their communities. Instead of judging, instead of blaming, what if we look upon the indigenous people with the eyes of Jesus, and see their suffering as an opportunity to bless?

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is teaching us some important ways in which we can be a blessing: by listening to the stories of those who suffered at the residential schools; by acknowledging the terrible injustices they have suffered at the hands of the Canadian government and many churches; by acknowledging that as non-aboriginal people we have benefited by the injustices that First Nations people have suffered. The land they lost is the land we live on. The system that deprives our aboriginal neighbours of opportunities to flourish is the same system that benefits non-aboriginals.

Jesus comes to us, just as he did with his first disciples, to offer us new vision, the vision of blessing rather than blaming. What a gift to see others in light of the coming of the Light of the World! 

Blind neighbours: a closed world

We can imagine the buzz in the neighbourhood after Jesus healed the blind man. Everyone had to come and see for themselves. Such a thing was unheard of!  When they find the healed man, some of the neighbours ask, “Is this really the man who used to sit and beg?” Others say, “It’s him all right!” Others object, “It’s not the same man at all. It just looks like him.”

This last group of neighbours represents a common kind of blindness, perhaps the most common of all: eyes that are closed to the renewing presence of God among us, eyes that refuse to believe in miracles, eyes that cannot imagine that desperate situations can ever be transformed. Even though their eyes see the same beggar they had seen day in and day out for many years, some of his close neighbours do not recognize him. To recognize him meant acknowledging a miracle, and they are not prepared to do that.

Jesus doesn’t meet these neighbours. In fact, after he heals the blind man, he drops out of the story altogether until the very end. But his action confronts them. The man who was healed cannot be ignored. In fact, his very presence among his neighbours is a gift. The healed man is a sign of God’s love and goodness. He is a sign of hope. He is a sign that impossible situations can be overturned. He is a sign that we are not locked into closed systems.

Jesus came to open up eyes that are blind. He came to offer us new perspective. Instead of looking upon the difficulties in this world with despair, Jesus leaves us many signs of his presence, to encourage us to see the renewing power of God.

This weekend as I listened to the stories of those who suffered in residential schools, I was struck by the hope expressed by some of the survivors. A number of people said: “I have hope for the future. I have learned to forgive, and in that forgiveness I have found new life.”

I was moved when the moderator of one sharing circle, himself a survivor of the residential school system, said, “I want to address all of the non-aboriginal people in this room. I want you to know that we reach out our hands to you across the lakes; we stretch out our arms to you around the mountains, just like we did when the first settlers arrived. We welcome you to walk with us and to journey with us.”

Such an expression of grace, given by one who has suffered so much, on behalf of a people who have suffered so much, is a powerful sign of hope.

We have the invitation of this native moderator as a sign of hope, together with the expressions of forgiveness by many residential school survivors, all of which are signs that God gives us, signs that God can work miracles of reconciliation.

Jesus comes to us to offer us new vision, the vision of hope rather than despair. What a gift to see our problems and this world’s problems in light of the coming of the Light of the World! Hope rather than despair—this is among the wonderful gifts that Jesus longs for us to see.

Blind Pharisees: prideful religion

After the former blind man tells his neighbours the story of how Jesus healed him, the neighbours bring him to the Pharisees. The Pharisees grill him on how he had come to see. So he tells them about Jesus. Unlike the man’s neighbours, the Pharisees do not deny the miracle. Instead, they deny that Jesus could have worked the miracle through the power of God. Why? Because Jesus healed the man on the Sabbath. As some of the Pharisees say, “Obviously this man can’t be from God. He doesn’t keep the Sabbath.” 

The Pharisees are also blind. They are blinded by their religious understanding. They value rule keeping above acts of compassion. Their religious rule keeping gives them a feeling of pride, of superiority over others. Later on in the story, after interviewing the man’s parents, the Pharisees call him before them a second time. Speaking of Jesus, the blind man says to them, “If this man didn’t come from God he wouldn’t be able to do anything.” This infuriates the Pharisees, who respond with contempt, “You were born in utter sin; who do you think you are trying to teach us?” Their pride comes out, loud and clear: “We have nothing to learn from you. You’re nothing but a sinner.” 

I am again reminded of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I heard church leaders confess that their denominations were sometimes guided by institutional pride. I heard the residential school survivors tell stories of church leaders working at the schools, who told them, when they were still small children: “You are worthless. You are dirt. You are savages. You are heathen. You must learn English and never speak your language again.”

Not everyone who served in the residential schools was abusive or prideful. Many people served out of the best of motives, and many served faithfully and well. But others did feel superior. They were all working in a prideful system that said to First Nations people, “Our culture is better than yours. If you want to worship the Creator, you need to look like us, to dress like us, to speak our language.” It is a pride that says, “We have nothing to learn from you.” It is a supremacy that says, “You are not as good as us, so it’s okay to assimilate you from your inferior culture into our superior one.” 

At the end of the story, when Jesus reappears on the scene, he personally encounters the Pharisees. They say to him, “Do you think we are blind?” Jesus answers, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.”

There is a strong measure of rebuke in Jesus’ words, but there is also the offer of a gift. The gift is the offer of a new way of seeing. Jesus invites the Pharisees to look upon the world through eyes of humility, instead of seeing through pride-filled eyes. You are guilty, he says, because you claim to see, because you think you know more than others do, because you think you are superior. But if you were humble and acknowledged that you cannot see, you would not be guilty.  

The danger of religious pride is ever-present. It is tempting to look at those who look and worship differently than we do and to think or even say, “Our way is better than your way.”

Jesus comes to us in grace, just as he did with the Pharisees, to offer us new vision, the way of seeing through humble rather than prideful eyes. What a gift, in light of the coming of the Light of the World, to see others as equals and not as inferiors!

Blind parents: fear

There is still one more set of blind people to consider in this story. When the people do not believe that the blind man had truly received his sight, they call for his parents. “Is this your son who you say was born blind?” they ask. “How then does he now see?” “Yes, he is our son,” they reply. “But we don’t know how he came to see. He’s old enough. Ask him yourself.” 

The parents answer like this, according to John, because they are afraid of the Jewish authorities. The leaders had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be Messiah was to be put out of the synagogue.

The parents are inflicted with the blindness of fear. They are afraid to point to Jesus as the healer. They are afraid of the consequence of doing so. They don’t want to be ostracized or to lose their community. They don’t want to be thrown out of the synagogue.

Their fear is understandable. But their own son shows them another way, the way of courage.

The wonderful irony in this story is that the person who sees better than anyone is the man born blind. He gradually comes to see Jesus and is not afraid to bear witness even to his partial understanding: “He is a prophet” (v. 17); “Whether he is a sinner I do not know. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see” (v. 26); “If this man were not from God, he could do nothing” (v. 33). Upon this last utterance, the Pharisees throw him out of the synagogue for daring to promote Jesus.

One of the most inspiring things about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was to witness the courage of the survivors: the courage to tell their stories publicly; the courage of their determination to fight injustice. A number of individuals said, “I will not allow this to happen to my children and to my grandchildren.” 

We also heard stories of parents who are still battling their demons, parents who were abused and who in turn abused their children. Their children, those who spoke up, did not necessarily blame them. They tried to understand why their parents treated them as they did, which only makes their courage all-the-more inspiring.

Jesus calls us to overcome the blindness of fear and instead, with courage, to join him and others in the journey of peacemaking: the journey of loving our enemies, the journey of forgiving those who hurt us, the journey of fighting injustice, the journey of overcoming evil with good. This journey requires great courage. What a gift, in light of the coming of the Light of the World, to have vision guided by courage and not by fear!

Perhaps the most gracious part of the story comes at the end when Jesus, upon hearing that the former blind man has been cast out of the synagogue, offers him fullness of sight. “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” Jesus asks him. “Who is he, sir, that I may believe?” “You have seen him, and it is he that is speaking to you.” To which the man replies, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him.

From beginning to end this is a story of grace. It opens with the healing of the blind man’s physical sight and it ends when his spiritual eyes are opened. All throughout the story God gives people opportunities to see in new ways.

In grace may Jesus remove our blindness, the blindness of ignorance, prejudice, despair, pride and fear. In grace may Jesus give us all the gift of eyes that look upon this world with blessing, hope, humility and courage. In light of the coming of the Light of the World, may we become more like Jesus. Amen.

Werner De Jong is senior pastor of Holyrood Mennonite Church in Edmonton, Alta. This is adapted from a sermon he preached there on March 30, 2014.

—Posted April 22, 2014

For more TRC coverage see also:

‘The truth was hard’

Anabaptist church leaders offer statement to residential school survivors

A modest proposal for truth, reconciliation

‘A foolish act of love’

Poem: Truth and reconciliation

‘Four directional thinking’ on indigenous-settler relations

American Mennonites attended past TRC event

One thing lacking (sermon)

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