Scripture: John 9, the Healing of the Man Born Blind (text in full at the end).
In the Old Testament, in the book of Amos, God and Amos were having a conversation, and at one point God held something up and said to Amos, “what do you see?” And Amos said, “a plumb line.” And God said, “I am setting a plumb line in… Israel.”
My husband the carpenter knows more about plumb lines than I do, but basically a plumb line is a weight on the end of a string. And the weight takes advantage of gravity, so that when you hold the end of the string, the weight makes the string straight up and down. And when you hold this up against a vertical surface like a wall, it shows whether or not the wall is straight.
So God is setting a plumb line in Israel, spiritually speaking, and the plumb line is Jesus. We see a real-life example of this in our reading from John today. Let’s take a look at the story…
Actually I should back up a couple pages, because the 8th chapter of John sets the scene for our story. In John 8, Jesus is teaching in the temple and the Pharisees decide to test him by bringing him a woman caught in adultery. They ask him, “what should we do about this woman?” The Pharisees think they’re setting a plumb line for Jesus to measure up to: testing him to see if he will live up to that straight line called the Law of Moses. But Jesus turns the plumb line on them. He says, “whoever of you is without sin cast the first stone.” And they have to admit none of them is sinless, so no stones get thrown.
Immediately after this, Jesus says to the crowd, “I am the light of the world.” And the religious authorities accuse him of having a demon. Jesus then says something even more shocking: he says, “before Abraham was, I AM”. “I AM” is the name of God. It’s the way God introduced himself to Moses in the Old Testament. So Jesus is claiming to be God. And the religious authorities pick up stones to stone him for blasphemy, but Jesus manages to slip away.
So having just escaped the Pharisees – with their words and their rocks still freshly in mind – Jesus and the disciples are walking down the road when they see a man who was born blind. The disciples look at the blind man and then look at Jesus and say, “who sinned, this man or his parents, so that he was born blind?”
Back in those days people thought if something bad happened to you in life, it was God’s punishment for sin. And looking at the law of Moses and at Israel’s history, you could see why they might think so. In the Old Testament, God often said things like “if you obey me and worship me only, I will bless you; but if you rebel against me the blessings will be removed.” And the Old Testament is full of stories of Israel rebelling against God and losing battles or going into exile.
But the thing is, the Old Testament covenant was between God and the nation of Israel. It didn’t mean good people always had good things happen to them, or that bad people always had bad things happen to them. Job, for example, had terrible things happen to him, and he was a very godly man.
And this is still true today. I often hear people wonder out loud, for example, whether an illness is God’s punishment for something. The fact is, in a fallen world, sometimes bad things happen to good people, and we don’t always know why.
And that’s the case in our story today. Where it comes to the man who was born blind, Jesus says his blindness has nothing to do with sin whatsoever. He says the man was born blind “so God’s workmanship could be revealed in him.”
And I think that’s something to think about for us as well. When life gets tough, it might be an opportunity for God’s work to be revealed in us. And we can pray for that. In II Corinthians when Paul prays for a cure to an illness, God says to Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” And Paul responds, “So I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” (II Corinthians 12:9)
That’s what’s happening in the life of the blind man. Jesus spits on the ground, makes some mud, puts it on the man’s eyes, and says ‘go wash in the Pool of Siloam’. And the blind man does it, and he comes back able to see. But when he comes back, Jesus is gone – he and the disciples have moved on.
A little side note: this isn’t the only blind man Jesus will heal. But the other blind people will be healed without mud. So why does Jesus make mud this one time? There are a number of possible reasons but I think one of them was that Jesus was challenging the Pharisees’ understanding of the Sabbath (making mud on the Sabbath was considered work, and therefore breaking the Sabbath law). It also sets up a parallel between the healing of the blind man and another healing, the healing of a paralyzed man back in John chapter 5. That healing also happened on a Sabbath, but with different results… and I’ll come back to that in a little bit.
So the blind man returns from the pool able to see, and the whole neighborhood is amazed. “How did this happen?” people ask. “Is this really the same man who used to sit begging?” “Naah, it just looks like him.” And he’s standing there saying, “YES I am that man!!” And he tells them the story of what Jesus did for him.
Then the neighbors drag the him off to see the Pharisees. Why would they do this? They know the Pharisees don’t like Jesus. They know anybody who follows Jesus is in danger of being thrown out of the synagogue – which in that culture means being cut off from the community. So what’s up with this?
The crowd’s reasons were probably mixed. Some people who liked Jesus might have wanted to prove to the Pharisees that Jesus really was a prophet. Others might have wanted to score brownie points with the Pharisees. Whatever they had in mind, the neighbors ended up bringing a lot of trouble on the blind man and his family, who suddenly found themselves being questioned by the authorities.
So the man tells his story to the Pharisees. He says, “Jesus put mud on my eyes. Then I washed and now I see.” And a huge argument breaks out among the Pharisees! It’s interesting to know that Pharisees don’t agree on everything. Some said Jesus couldn’t be from God because he didn’t observe the Sabbath. Others said he had to be because no sinner could do such miracles. And the apostle John says, “they were divided.” The word there is “schism” – like a major church split!
Not being able to arrive at any agreement among themselves, the Pharisees then ask the formerly blind man: “what do you say about him?” They don’t really want his opinion! They’re triangulating, looking for places to throw blame. And the formerly blind man answers, “He is a prophet” – which is not what the Pharisees want to hear. They refuse to believe. In fact now they’re asking the man if he was really born blind in the first place.
By the way, as a side note – verse 18 says “the Jews did not believe…” and verse 22 also refers to “the Jews”. The apostle John is talking about the Jewish ruling council or the Sanhedrin. He does not mean all the Jewish people. The blind man was also Jewish, as was Jesus, and the disciples, and the crowd – in fact everybody in the story is Jewish. I mention this because verses like this have been used from time to time to fuel the fires of anti-Semitism, and that’s a gross mis-interpretation. There is no anti-Semitism here.
So the council calls for the formerly blind man’s parents and questions them. And the parents say ‘yes he was born blind, and yes he is our son, but we don’t know how it is that he can see’. And John comments that ‘his parents said this because they were afraid of the Sanhedrin.’
The parents wrap up their testimony by saying, “our son is of age, ask him.” And the spotlight swings back on the man who has been healed.
The Pharisees now say to him: “Give glory to God!” which is sort of the ancient way of saying “swear on this stack of Bibles”. (Ironically, giving glory to God is exactly what this man is doing, but the Pharisees are missing that completely.)
So they say to him: “Give glory to God. We know this man is a sinner.” They’re demanding that he agree with them. And the formerly blind man realizes he has a decision to make. He can save his own skin, pretend to agree with the Pharisees, and life will be good. Or he can stand up for what he knows is true and risk losing everything he has.
His initial answer leaves the door open to dialogue. He says: “I don’t know whether he’s a sinner. What I do know, is I was blind and now I see.” He’s speaking the truth but he’s is not offending, and if the Pharisees mean well it’s an acceptable compromise of an answer.
But it’s not good enough for the Pharisees. They reject his words and start to bully him. “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” Not like they haven’t heard the story already – twice! And man loses patience and says, “I’ve told you already, but you’re not listening! Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to be his disciples too?”
At which point they start to heap abuse on him. They say, “You are his disciple, we are disciples of Moses. Moses is from God but we don’t know where this guy comes from.” Completely ignoring the fact that Jesus said to them back in chapter 5, “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, because Moses wrote about me.” (John 5:46)
The formerly blind man can see the situation is out of control. The Pharisees are not going to accept a compromise, so he makes his decision. He will stand on the truth no matter what. He says: “Funny thing, isn’t it? You don’t know where this man comes from, but he opened my eyes. We know God doesn’t listen to sinners, but God does listen to the person who worships and obeys him. Never since the beginning of the world has anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God he could do nothing.”
And the Pharisees threw him out.
Standing alone and speaking truth to power is a dangerous thing. People are often willing to stand in a crowd and speak truth to power, but stand alone? Very few people can do it. And we remember them. People like Joseph in the Old Testament. Or Moses, or Daniel, or the apostle Paul. Or Martin Luther, who stood alone against the entire hierarchy of the church. Or William Tyndale, who stood alone against an unjust law, translating the Bible into English, and paying with his life. Or Winston Churchill, who stood alone against the royalty of Europe, saying there could be no peace with Hitler. Or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the pastor who died in a prison camp rather than allow his church to collaborate with the Nazis. Or Rosa Parks, who sat alone on a bus, against an unjust system of prejudice… or Malala Yousafzai, who stood alone against the Taliban.
Just hearing their names is an inspiration.
Speaking truth to power is one of greatest acts of love a person can do. And it’s also one of the most costly. Jesus, when he gave his life, did it to pay for our sins open the door for us into God’s kingdom; but from the Pharisees’ point of view, Jesus died because he was too good at speaking truth to power. They had to get rid of him. (They just weren’t counting on his coming back!)
So back to our story. The formerly blind man can now see, but the people he most wanted to see – his parents and his friends and neighbors – aren’t allowed to see him. He’s been kicked out of the synagogue, and he’s more outcast now than he was when he was blind.
And Jesus hears about it, and he goes looking for him.
Now there’s no guarantee this formerly blind man is going to accept Jesus. Remember the other healing back in John 5 that I mentioned? Jesus had told a paralyzed man to pick up his mat and walk. This also happened on a Sabbath, which riled up the Pharisees because you’re not supposed to carry things on the Sabbath. In this case, later on when Jesus goes and visits him, Jesus says to the man, “Look, you have been made well! Don’t sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.” (John 5:14) And the man immediately runs off and betrays Jesus to the Sanhedrin. Hard as it is to imagine, some people will never commit themselves to Jesus, not even if they witness miracles, not even if they receive a miracle. Miracles are no guarantee of faith.
Contrast this with our formerly blind man. Jesus comes to him and says, “do you believe in the Son of Man?” and he answers, “Who is he, so I can believe?” And Jesus says, “you see him, and the one who is speaking to you is he.” And the man says, “Lord, I believe” and worships.
Jesus then comments on the irony of the situation: “I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”
But wait a minute: this doesn’t seem quite right. A couple weeks ago we were looking at the story of Nicodemus in John 3, and Jesus said, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:17) So what’s this talk about judgement?
Here’s where the plumb line comes in. A plumb line does not judge. A plumb line is what it is: it’s a straight line. But being what it is, a plumb line will show up any flaws, or any crookedness, in what it’s held up next to.
And that’s how it is with Jesus. Jesus does not judge. But simply by being who he is, he shows up any flaws or crookedness in our lives, and in society.
Or to put it another way, Jesus is the light of the world. Those who see, see by the light. Anyone who claims they see – without Jesus – is actually blind.
And that point is not lost on the Pharisees, who say to Jesus, “Surely we’re not blind, are we?” And Jesus says, “If you were, you would have no sin. But since you say ‘we see’, your sin remains.”
That’s the real tragedy of the Pharisees. They spend their whole lives trying to live the way God wanted people to live, but they got so focused on the do’s and the do-not’s, the shoulds and the shouldn’ts, that they missed God himself when he was looking them in the eyes. If they had been able to admit their faults, Jesus would have received them. He did it for Nicodemus. But most of are truly blind.
But our story has a happy ending. Jesus has a new disciple, another soul saved for eternity… and this man loves Jesus very much, and has given up everything to be with him.
So for today, just a few closing thoughts:
First, all of us have weaknesses and issues to deal with in life. Some of us have health issues, some have family issues, some have work issues or financial issues, some of us have all of the above! Having issues is human. Bringing them to Jesus is what God would have us do.
Second, as we trust God, as we walk with Jesus in our lives, we become more the kind of people who, like the formerly blind man, are able to stand alone if necessary and speak the truth in love… even to power.
Third, Jesus is our plumb line. Jesus is the one we need to measure our lives by. Not by each other. Not by our parents or siblings or friends. Not by what other people think we should be. Not even by our own standards sometimes, because we don’t always see ourselves clearly.
When we measure ourselves by Jesus, we may discover some of the things we thought were strengths are actually weaknesses, and some of the things we thought were weaknesses are actually strengths. In fact it’s kind of a true-ism in ministry that the places where we have been injured in life is where we can best minister to others. But in order to do that we need to stand next to the plumb line in faith, and we need to trust that God will show his workmanship in us and through us, in spite of our weaknesses.
So especially in this season of Lent, let’s not hesitate to stand next to the plumb line… and let God do his work in and through us. AMEN.
Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 3/26/17
John 9:1-41 As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3 Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4 We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6 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, 7 saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. 8 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?” 9 Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” 10 But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 11 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.” 12 They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”
13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. 14 Now it was a Sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15 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.” 16 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. 17 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.”
18 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 19 and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” 20 His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21 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.” 22 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. 23 Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”
24 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.” 25 He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 26 They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27 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?” 28 Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29 We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” 30 The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31 We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32 Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34 They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.
35 Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36 He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” 37 Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” 38 He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. 39 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.” 40 Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” 41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”