OT Lesson: 1 Samuel 16.1-13. Gospel: John 9.1-41
There are separate readings provided for this fourth Sunday in Lent if it is kept as Mothering Sunday, as it will be at 10 o’clock, but at this is the only Sunday on which this story from John’s Gospel is read, and I feel it is too important to miss.
We are not told how the man whom Jesus and his disciples saw on this occasion had made it known that he had been born blind, but the disciples clearly knew, had decided there were just two possible explanations. Either the man or his parents were being punished for some sin, and they asked Jesus which of the two? and were surprised by his answer. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind that God’s works should be revealed in him.” I confess I am tempted to think the last part of the answer looks as if the man is being exploited for publicity, but in God’s Kingdom of grace, where so much is just given, much appears to go against our bean counting self-centred ideas of what is fair. Think of the labourers in the vineyard hired at the first, sixth ninth and eleventh hours, yet paid the same. And in compensation to this man had been given a robust spirit, well able, as we shall see later on, to stand up to the Jewish authorities, where his parents were too scared to answer.
Jews of Jesus’ time believed that saliva had curative properties, so when Jesus used his saliva to make mud to anoint the man’s eyelids, he would have understood the intention, and in faith got up and, blind though he was, made his way through the city to the pool, which had the reputation of being a place of healing. He came back seeing for the first time in his life, an after some initial doubts convinced those who had been around that he was the same man who had been seen begging, and that it was Jesus who had cured him. These were the “they” who brought him to the Pharisees in the Synagogue. It is not clear why they should have done so, but the Pharisees didn’t like it because the healing had been performed on the Sabbath. First they tried to prove that no miracle had taken place. Then they tried to convince the deputation that Jesus was a sinner, who should not be followed because he was a sinner who healed on the Sabbath. They called the man back to ask exactly what actions Jesus had performed, apparently hoping to find some action which exactly fitted with their own detailed list of what was forbidden on the Sabbath. In his reply to their question “What did he do to you?” he seems to be trying to make them admit to this by asking if they want to be Jesus’ disciples, which they clearly didn’t.
He goes on to assert “Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind.” I want to spend some time explaining why this is very probably true. I want to do this because sight is such a wonderful gift, and because what I shall describe sheds light on the punch line with which the Gospel ends.
Light enters the eye of any mammal through the curved surface of the cornea and the crystalline lens, and is focussed on the light sensitive cells in the retina. As soon as these cells form they begin to give out electrical signals in response to light that reaches them even in the womb. These signals are passed from cell to cell until they reach the cells that will form the optic nerve, and from these cells fibres, still part of the same cell, grow towards the brain to constitute the nerve. Fibres from adjacent sensors recognise each other because they carry similar signals, and they grow together until they reach a layer of nerve cells within the brain which correspond, one for one, with the sensors in the retina, forming an image within the brain. If the animal grows in total darkness there is not this correspondence, and a meaningful image is not formed; but if all the components described so far are present there is an image within the brain of the scene toward which the eye is directed. It still does not convey any meaning. To derive meaning the image is shared with cells within the visual cortex which analyse the image. People designing an object handling robot that uses an in-built camers to “see” what it is doing have a similar problem. What is presented to the viewer are a number of recognised objects in a three dimensional space related to himself. A baby learns to acquire this meaningful image, partly by reaching out to touch what he sees. It takes weeks of use for this seeing to develop, but it can be switched off in milliseconds, as when someone looks down a microscope with both eyes open, and sees, at will, either the specimen under the microscope or his notebook for recording what is seen. It can be switched off in both eyes, as when Paul became blind for a time after his encounter on the Damascus Road. If any part of this development process including learning to analyse is missing, a person will never see. In very rare cases it seems possible that these development stages can happen without the person ever having been aware of seeing, as seems to be the case with this man. Jesus did not need to know all this neurological detail that I have conjectured to heal the man; only that healing was possible, and that he should act.
The man is emphatic, he says “Once I was blind; now I see.” and he concludes “If this man were not from God; he could do nothing.” And they threw him out. This sounds physically violent, but it is worse than that, they had done what his parents feared, and pronounced him excluded from Jewish society. When Jesus heard they had done that, he sought him out because he could now talk about being the Messiah without the fear of the man being excluded; that had already happened; but his question is still encoded; he asks “Do you believe in the Son of Man.” Now he could see, the man found it harder, rather than easier, to recognise the one who had healed him, so he asks “And who is he Sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus’ reply acknowledges that difficulty, he says: “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” And the man does what he would only do God, or to his Messiah, he worships him.
Seeing requires more than forming an image of what the eye focuses on, the image needs to be interpreted, and really seeing requires more than that, it means more than just observing what takes place. The Pharisees saw that the man had had his sight restored, but they saw it as a sinful act because it had been done on the Sabbath. They held that the detailed rules that they had defined as the meaning of God’s Law had priority over the broad sweep of what God was doing around them, and in doing so had become blind. Many momentous things are happening in the world around us. We need, by prayerful thought, and by study of what is written in the Scriptures, to analyse and interpret what we see and hear, and we need to seek from God the strength to act on what we see. Let us pray:
God, our Father, we see and hear many terrible things happening in the world around us. Help us to see them in the light of your saving purpose for all mankind, and what we should be doing in relation to them. We ask this in the Name of our Lord Jesus, who gave his life for us, and rose again from the dead. Amen.