How Dare You Lecture Us!

For Sunday March 6, 2005
Fourth Sunday in Lent

           Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)
           1 Samuel 16 :1–13
           Psalm 23
           Ephesians 5:8–14
           John 9:1–41

Jesus heals the blind man, ivory carving from New Zealand, 400 AD
Jesus heals the blind man, ivory
carving, 400 AD

           A few years ago during a therapy session Sister Ann caught me off guard with a rather abrupt question: "Why do you pastor-types place yourself on such a pedestal? Why are you so shocked at failure? Why not come down and join the human race?" Although it was not part of that discussion, I think that among other things Sister Ann was trying to help me to understand the rather enigmatic punch line of Jesus that concludes the Gospel reading for this week: "For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind." When some Pharisees then asked if they themselves were blind, Jesus responded, "If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains" (John 9:39-41).

           The most dangerous spiritual place you can live, oddly enough, is in the deluded notion that you are a fully-sighted person, whereas the healthiest place to live is not only to acknowledge your spiritual blindness, sin, failure, contradictions, complicities, and ignorance, but to recognize that place as a good place to live. In acknowledging our blindness, we see; by insisting that we see fully and rightly, we remain blind.

           At the simplest level John 9:1–41 recounts the healing of a beggar who was blind from birth. But the details of the miracle itself comprise only about one third of the narrative. Most of the story revolves around the disputes that the miracle provoked, followed by Jesus's punch line. There are so many fascinating details here that merit attention: precise descriptions about spit, mud, and the interrogation of parents that characterize an eyewitness account; the casual disinterest about and even disregard for Jesus on the part of the man who received the miracle; the inexcusably cruel insinuation by the disciples that somehow human misfortune (the beggar's blindness) is an act of divine punishment; the inherent skepticism and suspicion surrounding the plausibility of a genuine miracle (so much for the ancient's uncritical gullibility about miracles!); the complex factors at play that can prevent a miracle from evincing genuine faith; and the interactions amongst the characters in the larger drama—Jesus, his disciples, the blind beggar, his parents, the religious elite, and even the neighborhood community.

           The professional clergy made all the wrong moves in this story. They refused to believe eye-witness accounts of the miracle. They were more concerned to maintain legalistic righteousness about Sabbath-keeping than to love another human being and rejoice in his wholeness. They blabbered pious cliches. They scapegoated the victim and "hurled insults" at him. They condescendingly claimed a spiritual elitism that intentionally humiliated the beggar. They demonized him as a "sinner." As they threw him out of the synagogue their rage exploded, "How dare you lecture us!" At that their own tragic blindness was confirmed, and we learn that it was their spiritual blindness, and not the physical blindness of the beggar, that forms the central plot of the story.

Healing of the blind man by Corrine Vonaesch (2001, French)
Healing of the blind man by
Corrine Vonaesch (2001, French)

           Of course, acknowledging your own spiritual blindness can be embarrassing, painful, and threatening. To confess your own groping darkness and howling demons, your frustrations, fears, and failures, unnerves us. And as unsettling as that confession is to make to your own self, there is the added anxiety of what others might say, think, or do. We know from experience (and from the disciples and the clerics in this Gospel story) just how cruel and condescending, how derogatory and dismissive, people can be towards the blind. Some people will kick you when you are down. We shoot the wounded.

           But Sister Ann knew what Jesus taught in this story, that healthy people embrace their fallenness and somehow make their peace with it. That is far different than self-pity, self-loathing, or rationalizing it or invoking it as an excuse. The spiritually-sighted recognize that acknowledging their blindness is an act of liberation not a confession of bondage. Why? Because only when we identify our symptoms can we experience a cure.

           Like so much of his poetry, George Herbert's (1593–1633) poem Affliction (IV) is a masterful confession of one's own blindness and inner struggles. It is a perfect prayer for the Lenten season.

BROKEN in pieces all asunder,
                 Lord, hunt me not,
                A thing forgot,
Once a poor creature, now a wonder,
         A wonder tortur’d in the space
         Betwixt this world and that of grace.

My thoughts are all a case of knives,
                Wounding my heart
                With scatter’d smart,
As wat’ring pots give flowers their lives.
         Nothing their fury can control,
         While they do wound and prick my soul.

All my attendants are at strife,
                Quitting their place
                Unto my face:
Nothing performs the task of life:
         The elements are let loose to fight,
         And while I live, try out their right.

Oh help, my God! let not their plot
                Kill them and me,
                And also thee,
Who art my life: dissolve the knot,
         As the sun scatters by his light
         All the rebellions of the night.

Then shall those powers, which work for grief,
                Enter thy pay,
                And day by day
Labour thy praise, and my relief;
         With care and courage building me,
         Till I reach heav’n, and much more, thee.

Herbert, Sister Ann and Jesus all point us in the same direction this Lenten season: the journey toward the light begins when we acknowledge the dark.
Healing of the blind man by Duccio di Buoninsegna (1308-1311), tempera on wood
Healing of the blind man by Duccio
di Buoninsegna (1308-1311), tempera on wood

           The reason we can confess our blindness with confidence and, at the same time, no longer fear our fears (Manning), is because in the words of the English mystic Juliana of Norwich (1342–1414), before God our "sin will be no shame but an honor." How so? "For He sees sin as sorrow and pain to His lovers to whom, for love, He assigns no blame...Our failures do not prevent Him from loving us."