Fourth Sunday of Lent — Dr. Joel Marcus

Gospel: John 9:1-41

Collect: Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


 The story of the man born blind in John 9 is one of the most artistic compositions in the Gospels. John loves to set up a story as he does here: to show Jesus confronting a single representative individual with his incomparable claims about his own person. Think of Nicodemus in chapter 3. Think of the Samaritan woman in chapter 4. Think of Doubting Thomas and Mary Magdalene in chapter 20. And then think again about our story of an unnamed blind man in chapter 9.

This, like the story of the unnamed Samaritan woman in chapter 4, shows a person gradually developing a higher and higher view of Jesus. The Samaritan woman starts out by calling him a “Jew,” probably in an uncomplimentary way—Jews and Samaritans, the author tells us, did not get along, and that’s an understatement. Later, when Jesus uses his ESP to comment on the Samaritan woman’s unorthodox living arrangements, she calls him a prophet. Later still, she tentatively broaches with her townspeople the possibility that he might be the Messiah. And, by the end of the story, they are thanking her for introducing them to “the Savior of the world.” From Jew to prophet to Messiah to Savior of the world: you can see the progression of faith here.

Similarly, our blind man, after his healing by Jesus, starts out by referring to him as “the man called Jesus.” Then, when he is questioned by the hostile authorities, he proposes that Jesus might be a prophet. Finally, towards the end of the story, Jesus seeks him out and leads him to the point of acknowledging him as the Son of Man—a title of majesty that, in John’s time, was used to designate the coming judge and redeemer of the world. Here again, we see a progression in faith, from calling Jesus a man, to calling him a prophet, to calling him the Son of Man.

It is probably significant that both the Samaritan woman in chapter 4 and the blind man in chapter 9 are unnamed. Since they are anonymous, we can identify with them, we can read their story as our own. In fact, we are probably meant to do so.

So let’s attempt to read this story of the blind man as our own. Are we, then, meant to see ourselves as blind? Is that really such an obvious way to evaluate ourselves? Don’t we rather, on the contrary, reverberate with what Jesus’ opponents say towards the end of the story: “Surely, we’re not blind, are we?” Isn’t that the more natural response? Why, we are very perceptive people! We are used to being told that we are very smart. When we were at school, and we would speak in class discussion, our professors would say, “That’s a very good point.” Some of us have advanced degrees from exalted institutions of higher learning, some of which also have very good basketball teams! How could anyone think that we are blind?

And yet, the story seems to be inviting us to reflect on our perceptual deficits, on our inability to see things the way they truly are. Notice Jesus’ response to the Pharisees, the very last words of the passage: “Since you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” The greatest obstacle to a new way of seeing can be our conviction that we see things aright.

We think we can see. We think we can see the path before us—our own path, or the path of our family, or the path of our country. Then something sneaks up on us and—WHAM!—right in the stomach, and we see that we hadn’t been seeing at all.

For many of us, Election Day last November was one of those moments. You can probably think of other, more private, moments in your own life like this too. Suddenly the scales seem to fall from your eyes and you see something vital—something, maybe, that you really don’t want to see, that you suddenly realize you have been trying very hard not to see for a long time.

I can think of a couple of experiences like that in the past ten years. They each began with the doorbell ringing, and somebody walking into the room and telling me something that was totally unexpected and yet totally logical, and that turned my life upside down. How do you describe such an experience? Is it a blessing or a curse?

Maybe it’s both. You thought everything was going okay. Then you see that “everything’s okay” was only a sham. And, on some level, it’s good to see through the sham. But it’s also true that we have our defenses, including our defensive blindness, for a reason.

Still, our story seems to suggest that it’s better to see than not to see, even if seeing has its price. The blind man in our story is immediately thrown into a situation in which his new vision is challenged by those who have a vested interest in it not being true. John portrays his transition from blindness and passivity to enlightenment and action in an artful way. The blind man is described as a person who formerly sat begging at the side of the road. Now he springs into action as he is called to give an account of what has happened to him.

And what an account he gives! Not in an overbearing way; he doesn’t jump up and down and say, “Look at me! Don’t you realize what an awesome thing has just happened?” But when he’s asked, he calmly insists on the sober truth of what he’s experienced, and he does so with a sly, subversive wit.

He doesn’t claim to know more than he knows; he knows how to say, “I don’t know.” For example, when asked where the man who healed him is, he says, “I don’t know.” Then, when the religious authorities insists that this faith healer must be a sinner, because he heals on the Sabbath, the formerly blind man professes not to know whether this is true or not. But he then adds drily, “There’s just one thing I know—I was blind, but now I see”—the source, of course, for John Newton’s immortal hymn line from “Amazing Grace.” And when the authorities persist in questioning him, he twists the knife even further: “Why do you ask me again? Do you want to become his followers also?” And this sort of lip, naturally enough, gets him tossed out on his ear.

So there’s a price to seeing, and to bearing witness to what we have seen. But the price, our story suggests, is worth it. And it is worth it because of what we become when we testify to the truth we have seen.

Near the beginning of our story, Jesus says to his disciples: “We must work the works of him who sent me, while it is day.” Why this strange and awkward syntax? Why not, “I must work the works of him who sent me?” (as several ancient manuscripts actually read—but this is probably an attempt by scribes to smooth out the syntax of the sentence)? Or “we must work the works of him who sent us”? Why, instead, this awkward alternation between first personal plural and first personal singular, between “we” and “me”: “We must work the works of him who sent me”? Probably because Jesus is including his disciples in his own work; as he will say later in the Gospel, ”The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do, and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father.”

Now that Jesus is gone from the earth, we are all he has left to finish his mission. Like it or not, we’re the best thing he’s got to work with. And that is why we must be stripped of our illusions, as he was stripped of his; and why we must be shocked out of our blindness, so that we may begin to see with his eyes of faith; and why we must suffer as he suffered, so that the world may see that his suffering love is still powerful in this world. And this stripping is what this season of Lent is all about.

The blind man starts out by referring to his healer as “the man called Jesus”; he ends up bowing before him as the all-powerful Son of Man. This is the journey of faith that we have made also. We begin by adoring the baby Jesus; we end up bowing before the resurrected Lord. Even if we do not enter the church through the front door, in our childhood, it is usually the humanity of Jesus that grabs us first.

I know that what first attracted me personally to Jesus was his humanity, which was intertwined with the image of his suffering love. I glimpsed that image in pictures I saw, like some of the deeply moving paintings of the suffering Christ by Georges Rouault (some of which are now on display, by the way, at the Nasher Museum and Duke Chapel). To one of these paintings I saw attached the expression, “The Man of Sorrows,” a phrase I had never heard before, but which moved me strangely. Funny how a simple expression like that can stir something up inside you.

I also saw this image of suffering human love in the façade of a Catholic church I used to pass on the street in downtown Chicago, St. Peter’s in the Loop. I would pass the church, by the way, en route to my therapy sessions with a psychiatric social worker with Jewish Social Services downtown. I know this may surprise you, but I was kind of a screwed up kid, and I developed a hacking cough in fourth grade, which turned out to be psychosomatic; my parents figured out that it was psychomatic when they noticed that, if there was something I was absorbed in, like a chess game, I coughed less. The therapist was a really nice guy, and we always played a game of chess at the end of our session, and by the time I quit seeing him, a couple of years later, I usually won. (Now I wonder if maybe he let me win.) He also, come to think of it, was kind of a man of sorrows—a heavy smoker, and he had a sad face, and he drank innumerable cups of coffee as we talked–maybe a substitute for something else he had been in the habit of drinking. So he was kind of a sad man, but he was kind.

Anyway, on my way to see him, and also coming back, I would pass St. Peter’s, which featured a gigantic crucifix, with a serene but sorrowful Christ hanging from a huge cross, which towered over the sidewalk. The half-closed eyes of this huge figure seemed to follow me as I hurried by, and I felt strangely discombobulated by the encounter.

And I heard the reverberations of this same image of suffering love in some of the hymns and spirituals we sang in my secular high school choir, especially this one fro;m John Jacob Niles:

I wonder as I wander out under the sky,

How Jesus the savior did come for to die.

For poor on’ry people like you and like I,

I wonder as I wander out under the sky.

And, in the end, something broke through to me. I went up the ladder of perception, as the blind man and the Samaritan woman had done, as innumerable other people had done before me, as you may have done also. We begin to see Jesus as something more than a man. So in the end we can say, like the blind man, “The man called Jesus touched me, and I see what I didn’t before.”

And it is probably not a coincidence that Jesus tells the blind man in our story to go and wash in the pool of Siloam, or Shiloach, which means “sent.” To be healed by Jesus is to be sent, as Jesus was sent; and to do, through his power, the works of the one who sent him. May the Lord evermore give us this bread. Amen.