Fourth Sunday in Lent (19 March 2023)
“Open to Change: Open His Eyes”
JoAnn A. Post
As Jesus walked 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?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.
The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”
They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.” The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.” So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 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.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.
Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.
Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.
She frightened me. My mother’s cousin who lived next door to my grandparents in our hometown. Until I was old enough to understand her condition, my mother’s cousin frightened me.
Marie was a small, silent person with misshapen legs and feet. She sat slumped in a wheelchair—not a sleek, uber-portable wheelchair but a heavy wooden one with a high caned back and enormous steel wheels. She mostly sat in the bay window looking out on the street, or, on sunny days, in the driveway. Her silence, her shape, her hulking wheelchair—they were all terrifying to a small child.
When I was older I learned that Marie was a lovely person—gentle, kind, inquisitive. She had been born with spina bifida, a condition that, 100 years ago rendered her completely disabled. In fact, her parents, my mother’s aunt and uncle, had been advised to institutionalize her at birth. They were told that she wouldn’t live, and, if she did, would be nothing but a burden.
Clearly, Marie’s parents dismissed that advice. Marie went to school through middle school. She attended family gatherings. Until they grew too old to do so, her parents lifted her and carried her and tended to all her needs. Marie lived into her 50’s—an unheard of life span for someone with her condition in that era. But then, most children like her didn’t live in a home as loving and courageous as hers, either. Most children like her were were not seen as lovingly as she was.
I wonder what Marie’s life would be like with a similar diagnosis in our day. Actually, I have an inkling. A family friend’s daughter was diagnosed with spina bifida in utero just last year. The baby underwent a prenatal surgical procedure, and another immediately after birth. They anticipate that she will live a full, independent life. And regardless of her physical condition or the length of her life, she will live a life full of love and kindness and hope. What more could a child want? Her parents don’t see her as different or disabled; they see her as a gift from God.
It has not always been so. If it was grim for Marie 100 years ago, imagine what it was like to be “less than perfect” in the first century, in Jesus’ day. And, of course, because of poor nutrition and zero prenatal care, physical and cognitive impairments were far more common than they are now. It was also commonly held that illness, disfigurement, disability of any kind was a sign of punishment, of sin, of judgement.
That’s why the blind man whom Jesus accosted in this morning’s gospel reading was begging at the city gate. Maybe his parents took him there every morning and retrieved him every evening, providing him with a safe home. It is equally possible that they had disowned him, that he ground out a living on the street, in the company of others deemed sinful, shameful, unwelcome. To quote this morning’s text from Isaiah, he may have been abandoned to live among people like him who were “weak, feeble, blind, deaf, lame, speechless.” (Isaiah 35.3-10)
Here’s something else we know that would have been surprising to those who tossed coins in his basket. The man may have been blind but we know that he was also smart, articulate, theologically astute, even sassy. (Not unlike the Woman at the Well whom we met last week.) After the shock of being able to see (“here’s mud in your eye”) and the disappointment at what he saw (angry people), he quickly leapt to his own defense.
While Pharisees and neighbors and even his own parents bickered about him—didn’t he used to be blind? this can’t be the same guy! who did this? I don’t know, ask him!—he kept trying to get their attention. “I can hear you, you know!”
This text is rich with nuance and challenge, but time does not allow us to properly parse and study it. Instead, let’s consider this single aspect. Blindness. The inability to see. It can be both a physical condition and a spiritual one.
The Man Born Blind discovered something sad that we have also learned. Sometimes it is God’s people, Jesus’ followers, church-going people who are most blind to God’s work in the world.
Though we talk a lot about grace and mercy, welcome and inclusion, congregations can be the least welcoming of places.
Last summer, my husband and I attended a Lutheran church in our synod while on vacation. Though we looked like and walked like and sang like everyone else in the room, not a single person spoke to us. I didn’t expect the red carpet, but a ‘hello’ or a fist bump would have been nice. Maybe I’d accidently worn my invisibility cloak that morning? And how would they have treated visitors unlike them?
In my own experience, a seminary classmate who was legally blind was discouraged from pursuing ordained ministry. Another who had a significant stammer was similarly shunted off to the side. Who would want a pastor who couldn’t see, who couldn’t speak? In my home congregation, a young woman with Down’s Syndrome was almost denied her First Communion because her “condition” rendered her “unworthy.”
Egregious! Impossible! Shameful! Yes, indeed. And we all do it.
We are all guilty of closing both our hearts and our doors to people whose perceived difference or inability makes us uncomfortable. Some among us are clinically blind or deaf or differently abled. And others among us are spiritually so. Unable or unwilling to see, to hear, to welcome the world into which Jesus would lead us.
Which is the greater “disability”—living with a clinical diagnosis or in a spiritual sinkhole?
Meanwhile, little Lillian is about to be baptized. Lillian, who dances in her parents’ laps every Sunday morning, who holds her older brothers in the palm of her hand, who captured our hearts the first time we saw her. Because of the family in which Lillian is being raised, because of the congregation in which she is being baptized, Lillian knows nothing but love. If it were up to us or to her brothers, she would be carried everywhere, her feet never touching the ground, a veritable Queen of Sheba.
It is no secret that she is the favorite daughter in her home. Today God names her “favorite” in her baptism, as well. Best loved. Most cherished. God loves Lillian even more than her parents do, if that is possible. Would that her world would always be so safe, her welcome, so warm.
But safety is not the reason we have children, is it? Bubble wrap protects only packages, not people. Lillian will one day see a world in which not all children are loved, in which not all adults are safe, a world in which “difference” and “disagreement” are four-letter words.
I think of an episode in “Winnie-the-Pooh and Tigger Too” (1974) in which Tigger has climbed to the tippy top of a spindly tree where he is whipped back and forth in the wind, becoming nauseous and disoriented. He finally falls to the ground, groaning, “I’m see sick from seeing too much.”
Lillian may one day grow See Sick, as well. She may one day see too much. Too much division. Too much dissension. Too much judgement. Too much of all the things from which we protect her now. With sorrow, she may one day echo the refrain of the Man Born Blind: “I once was blind but now I see.” (And wish I didn’t.)
But sight, seeing the world as it truly is is not necessarily a bad thing. Such sight may be a good thing, if it spurs us to action.
In these Sundays of Lent we are considering change. Change out there. In here. In our hearts. And as dramatic as the change around us may seem, it is nothing like the whiplash experienced by the Man Born Blind, or by those who fought his sight—the church elders and nosy neighbors and terrified parents who suddenly discovered they were as blind as he once was.
We are all being changed, whether we like it or not. We are seeing and being seen. And, as is true of so much of our lives, what we see may frighten us. It need not. Miracles of sight are all around.
This morning a Man Born Blind sees clearly.
This morning Lillian sees only love.
This morning I remember Marie who saw the world from a wheelchair, and who was seen by her parents with love.
We were, all of us, once blind. To what is Jesus opening our eyes?