Sunday, 26 March 2017

Lent Week 4 Sunday (Year A)

Readings: 1 Samuel 16:1b, 6-7, 10-13a; Psalm 22(23); Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41

John 9 is masterly in showing how those who cannot see are led to ever clearer sight and those who think they can see become uncertain, confused and eventually blind. The central characters are Jesus and the man who was born blind. The blind man’s journey takes him from darkness to light. He comes to see not just the things around him, which he had not seen before, but the reality of Jesus.  At first he refers to him simply as ‘the man called Jesus’. Under pressure from the Pharisees he comes to see further: ‘he is a prophet’. Further pressure leads to him saying ‘if this man were not from God, he would not be able to do anything’. Finally, meeting Jesus now as one who can see, the man is asked whether he believes in the Son of Man. ‘Who is he that I may believe in him’, he asks. Just as he revealed himself to the woman of Samaria so now Jesus says ‘You have seen him, the one speaking to you is he’. And the man believes, and worships, ‘I do believe, Lord’.

The people wonder whether it is the same man or not. Their confidence in the testimony of their own eyes is shaken. It looks like the man who was born blind, and some are certain it is he, but others are not so sure: ‘it only looks like him’. Appearances and reality become confused, and people’s confidence in the testimony of their eyes is weakened.

But the parents and their son speak confidently of what they know without exaggeration and without ambiguity. They seem to be holy people rather than sinners, since they are simply honest and are not moved by the intimidation of the powerful. The parents of the man born blind are involved from the beginning, referred to in the opening question of the disciples: ‘who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ This confident way of seeing the world, to which both disciples and Pharisees subscribe, is immediately and decisively rejected by Jesus. This is not at all how he sees things: the man’s blindness, far from being evidence of somebody’s sin, is rather for the sake of making visible the wonders of God.

Like their son, the parents answer simply and honestly about what they know to be certain. They are not prepared to get into theological arguments with the Pharisees but simply speak what they know, what the witness of their own eyes tells them, and they do not lose confidence in that. ‘He is old enough, ask him’, they say. The blind man likewise is not disposed to speculation (which is a kind of imaginary seeing) but stays simply with what he knows to be true. It makes the witness of his faith at the end all the more compelling: here is a man prepared to speak only what he is certain to be true and he has come to believe in Jesus as the Son of Man.

The Pharisees begin with supreme confidence in how they see the world. For them it is obvious that somebody has sinned here, either the man or his parents, and this explains his blindness. His healing by Jesus disturbs their world. Once again he has acted on the Sabbath, but that is only the beginning. They try to force the man, and then his parents, to confirm that the Pharisees’ way of seeing things is correct and that what is going on must be from the evil one rather than from God. The man and his parents resist this pressure as we have seen: a simple and straightforward ‘whatever about all that (theological speculation), what we know is this …’

The Pharisees stand on their authority to teach and interpret the law and so cannot receive the man’s testimony. They must squeeze his experience into their way of seeing and cannot allow what has happened to illuminate the world in a new way. They persist in thinking they are the ones who see correctly and that the man, his parents, Jesus, the disciples – these are all getting it wrong, colluding in sinful activity rather than making visible the wonderful works of God.

But the transformation in their case is as complete as the transformation of the man born blind. He was blind and now he can see. They thought they could see, persist in their belief, and so are blind in a way that is more difficult to heal. The whole story is rounded off by Jesus directly contradicting the premise with which it began: ‘if you were blind you would have no sin’, he says to them, but because you persist in saying ‘we see’, your sin remains.

So what position do we take up in all this? Are we among those confident of their own way of seeing the world to the point of being closed to any new revelation or illumination? Have we identified ourselves so completely with our way of seeing things that it would require a miracle to shift us to something broader, wider, and deeper? In the presence of Jesus, the light of the world, are we among those who reach out for his help in order to see, or do we prefer to stand like bats in the sunlight, relying on our familiar way of seeing, unaware that we are still dealing only with shadows, images, vain speculations?

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