The Gospel of John contains this amazing story, that’s actually pretty famous. Jesus heals a blind beggar. This story has been on my mind for a couple of months, because of its themes and the question at its heart, the question, “Who sinned?” I’ve been writing this sermon in my head for a couple months and I realized recently that this text just so happens to be the lectionary for this Sunday, so I thought it would be as good a time as any to finally put it out there.
This story comes from John chapter 9, and it begins by saying, “As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.” Now right from the outset, we’re clued in to one of the major themes of this passage. Jesus saw a man who was blind (a person who can’t see.) This passage is going to be about seeing: who can see, who can’t see, and what it means to really see. After Jesus sees him, his disciples ask him the key question of the rest of this chapter: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” This passage is about seeing, and about sinning.
This question was based on an ancient belief, that actually has its roots in the Old Testament, that a physical disability was linked to sin, perhaps your own, or the sins of your parents passed down to multiple generations. Now, this isn’t a universally held Old Testament belief, I would actually argue that the overall witness of the Old Testament speaks against this belief, but it’s important at this point and at every point to remember that we can often all be looking at the same scriptures and reaching very different conclusions. That was true in Jesus’ time, and it’s true today.
And what is this scenario? A disabled man is sitting by the road begging. Now, if you know much about me, you might understand why this passage has been on my mind for a few months. For almost the last year, I’ve begun a new career working in Hollywood for a drop-in center for people experiencing homelessness. It was a steep learning curve and I’ve tried my best to keep up with how to engage with and ultimately help people who live and suffer on the streets, very often with physical or mental disabilities. As I’ve interacted with people at my work, and especially with my friends and peers in talking about my work, this passage has come up over and over in my mind.
Most notably, this question of “who sinned?”, and Jesus’ response, always jumps to the front of my mind; mainly because, in some form or fashion, I hear this question a lot. People ask me something along the lines of, “How do people become homeless?” This can be a very innocent question, or it can be an extremely loaded question. One one hand, it’s important to know how it happens that someone comes to live on the streets if we want to work towards preventing it in the future. But more often, the intent behind this question is more akin to what the disciples were asking Jesus: “Who sinned, that this person ended up this way?”
My suspicion, is that the reason we ask that question, in that way, is because we see something we know to be awful… a person experiencing unimaginable suffering, and we try to make sense of it by blaming someone for it. And unfortunately, that someone is usually them. If we can pin their circumstances on themselves, then we no longer bear the responsibility of helping them. If they are guilty, they become unworthy of our assistance. We use sin and shame to free ourselves from the responsibility of bearing one another’s burden.
The truth about homelessness is that there are a lot of ways to end up there. Asking how people become homeless is like asking how people end up in the hospital. There are a lot of avenues, some of which are irresponsibility, negligence, violence, accidents, bad luck… but you can’t imagine a doctor saying, “Well, it’s your own fault that you’re here, so you’re on your own!” Sure, it might be useful for a doctor to ask how you ended up with your injury or illness, it may in fact help them treat you, but it should not be a determining factor to whether or not you are treated, or how much treatment you receive. Whoever ends up in the hospital deserves to get well, just as everyone who ends up homeless deserves to be sheltered. The question of how they ended up there is at best a distraction, and at worst it’s a life sentence for a person to continue in their circumstances indefinitely.
But not to Jesus. Jesus responds to the question “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” by saying, “Neither.” Now… this should get our attention. As good, doctrinally sound Christians, we know that Jesus can’t be saying that this blind beggar, nor his parents, had never ever sinned. We know better. So when Jesus says neither, he must be instead saying that neither this man’s sin nor his parents are determining factors in his fate. Jesus refuses to look to the past to evaluate present or future circumstances. To Jesus, this blind beggar’s future is not to be determined by the past, nor the present. Remember, this blind beggar was overlooked on a daily basis; the intentional irony here is that the blind man was invisible; to everyone but Jesus, who threw the act of seeing will cause the blind man to see, and expose the blindness of others. But we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves.
Jesus says, “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” Now, we can sometimes get hung up on this between denominations because it sort of sounds like God made this man blind so that Jesus could heal him later and make a big deal out of it. I want to reject that reading on a couple of grounds: one, it sure makes God seem pretty awful to cause a man to be born blind just so that many decades later Jesus could get a good miracle out of it. I think God could come up with something better, and less cruel. Second, it’s not good news to anyone else if this was all some cosmic setup. This man was born blind so that Jesus could heal him and impress everyone… what good is that to others who are blind or in need of healing? Jesus’ healings, if you choose to read it that way, are about showing off what God can do only when God feels like it.
I think instead, we should read it in this past-present-future sense: The disciples want to know who did something wrong in the past to dictate this man’s present circumstance, and have (in doing so) essentially decided this man’s future. Jesus’ response says that his future is glorious, that God’s works have the potential to be revealed in him regardless of anything past or present, and then he brings that future glory into the present moment by opening his eyes. He dismisses even a conversation about the past, and rewrites the present, all because he chooses to see an alternative future, where sin and shame have no bearing on God’s ability to do works of mercy and glory.
I wish that I had more time to go into what happens in the middle part of this story, because there is a lot going on with where Jesus sends him to wash, and it being the Sabbath and how much that ticks off the Pharisees, and just how clever he is in his testimony to them. His parents even get dragged into it, which always complicates things. There’s this powerful moment where they don’t even recognize him and argue amongst themselves whether he’s that same guy they walked past every day. We’re reminded again that they never truly saw him like Jesus did. If they could stand to look at him, they only saw sin, that they were assuming and projecting onto him, so they could ignore him in good conscience. You also wonder if they didn’t recognize him because he had so changed by being able to see. Have you ever seen someone finally let go of a burden or kick a habit or recover from an illness, mental or physical, and they just look like a completely new person? This middle part is also where we get the beloved verse of Amazing Grace from, the “Was blind, but now I see.” Seriously, take the time to read this whole story, slowly, and you won’t be disappointed.
But I have to jump to the end, because as it pertains to “seeing” and “sinning”, the author here is building to a big punchline. The Pharisees ultimately reject the blind beggar and send him off, declaring that he was “born in sin” and has no right to teach them anything. Even with healing staring them right in the face, they are unable to see what has happened, that Jesus might be the Son of God. So Jesus goes and finds the formerly blind man and leads him the rest of the way into understanding, and says this perfectly crafted sentence to really drive home the point: “‘I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”
As a result of Jesus’ ministry, so many people see and understand and are freed and healed for the first time. And, on the other side of the coin, many who try so hard to get it right become blinded because they just can’t get past this fixation on sin. I know that all of you know Christians like that, who think that the Gospel is more about tracking down and weeding out sinners rather than celebrating the life and mercy and glory of God. This is nothing new, it is the tragic tendency of religious insiders to push people out who are the very ones Jesus is intent on healing. The outsiders are brought in, and the insiders hold a sin summit to determine why they shouldn’t be there. Previously, in John 3, Jesus said, “God did not send his son into the world to condemn it, but to save it.” But here, just six chapters later, Jesus begins to bring a little condemnation and judgment in… but not for the typical perceived “sinners”. In John, the judgment comes for people who can’t see “sinners” for what they truly are… a canvas for God to paint a picture of mercy, glory, and endless possibility.
The passage ends with the Pharisees saying, “Surely we are not blind are we?” And Jesus delivers the punchline: “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see’, your sin remains.”
The chapter began with the disciples looking at a blind beggar, languishing on the streets, and asking “Who sinned?” The passage ends with Jesus telling only the Pharisees “your sin remains”. In Jesus’ worldview, the way Jesus sees, it’s better to be a blind beggar, knowing that you are blind and desperate to see, than to be a fully seeing religious person who believes the way they see the world is how it is and has to be.
When we cast judgment; on the poor, on the persecuted, on the marginalized, when we intentionally elevate ourselves morally over someone else, claiming that they are getting what they deserve, and so are we… we are subject to the judgment of God, far more than if we were that other person. The healing they need is far easier to treat than ours, because the hardest thing to heal is someone’s theology. God’s grace, of course, is without end, and it extends to the lowest of circumstances, and to the highest of high-horses. God’s grace abounds even in our theological weakness.
But we are remiss if we ignore the bold teaching of this passage. That moment when we, in good faith and with good intentions, look at someone, decide they are sinner, and declare them as such, and blame them for their circumstances… When we see pain and ask, “Who sinned?”… the answer, in that moment… is we did. We sinned.
Grace and peace to everyone. Thanks for listening, and may God gives us eyes to see like Jesus, to see everyone we encounter with open and hopeful and glorified futures, and nothing less.