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New Beginnings: Opening Blind Eyes

January 27, 2008

John 9

Soon after Clare and I first moved back to Spartanburg and into the home my grandmother and grandfather had lived in after the Depression in 1937, I discovered that I had a personal philosopher, David Tanner. David was crippled with arthritis. He could barely walk, and his feet were so gnarled they hurt constantly. David lived on what was called the King Line behind the old stockyard. Every morning, he would shuffle along from his home there to the lumberyard to buy a Coca-Cola. In order to get to the lumberyard, he had to pass the mini-mart.

I asked him one time why he did not just go there to buy the Coke.

He said, “At the mini-mart, Cokes cost thirty-five cents. At the lumberyard, they cost a quarter.” He walked twice as far to save a dime on his morning drink.

At times, he would stop and sit on my front porch on his way back home. Many mornings when I went out to pick up the newspaper, David would be sitting in one of the rocking chairs on our porch, enjoying his Coca-Cola. David was always dressed neatly, wearing his typical starched and pressed khaki pants.

On one particular morning in mid-February, I saw that his knees were covered with mud.

I asked, “David, what in the world have you been doing this early in the morning? Why are your pants so muddy?”

He explained, “Yesterday, I planted my English peas, but I had to get up early this morning and dig up all the seeds.” David was quite a gardener. He could grow some of the best vegetables in some of the reddest clay in Spartanburg County.

I asked, “Why did you do that?”

“Last night my daughter was reading the Almanac. She told me I had planted my English peas on the wrong sign, so I had to dig them all up this morning.”

I asked, “Did you find them all?”

He answered, “I found all but four.” He had planted two or three rows of English peas.

“When is the right time to plant the peas?”

“Tomorrow.”

David planted by the signs.

When Clare was pregnant with Betsy, David and I were standing in my garden late in the summer. Clare saw us there and decided to bring us each a cup of ice water. As she walked toward the garden, clearly pregnant, David cautioned me, “Don’t let her come in the garden.”

“Why, David?”

He explained, “If you let a pregnant woman come in the garden, every watermelon and cantaloupe you have will bust wide open.”

David believed in keeping a salt shaker with him in the hot summertime. He occasionally sprinkled a little salt in his hair and then put his hat back on, believing it would keep him from passing out. I do not know whether that works or not, but I saw David sprinkle a good bit of salt in his hair. I never saw him pass out as long as I knew him.

David was quite a churchman. He was a member of Mount Sinai, just down the road here. He loved going to church and singing in the choir. When the congregation dedicated their new sanctuary, he invited me to come. My dad and I went to that service, all three hours of it. They certainly knew how to dedicate a building!

Some Monday mornings, he would stop by my house and talk about the service the day before.

During one conversation, I asked, “David, how was church yesterday?”

“Oh, it was wonderful.”

“What was good about it?”

“Well, the choir was especially good.” He always bragged on the choir.

After talking about the service and the good singing, I asked, “David, how was the preaching?”

He said, “The preaching was good.”

“What did the pastor preach about?”

“Well, he preached about sin.”

I asked, “What did he have to say about sin?”

“He’s agin it,” he replied.

“What kind of sin did he talk about, David?”

“He talked about women. He talked about gambling. He talked about drinking. He talked about smoking.”

I said, “David, did he say that smoking is a sin?”

“Yes, sir.”

David dipped snuff. He almost always had a lip stuck out with snuff. I said, “David, did he say anything about dipping snuff?”

“No, sir. He didn’t say a thing about dipping snuff.”

“David, is it a sin to dip snuff?”

“No, sir.”

“It is a sin to smoke but not a sin to dip snuff?”

“That’s right.”

“How can that be? How can smoking be a sin but dipping snuff is not a sin?”

He said, “It is a sin to burn up anything that tastes that good.”

We all have our ways of defining sin. We all have our ways of saying what is sin and what is not. If you will notice, we tend to define the term so that it avoids those things that are our favorite ways to sin. Our way of defining sin pretty much suits us.

Times have not changed since the first century. In John 9, you see a dramatic story about Jesus’ healing a man who was born blind. If you look carefully, you will see that this chapter is forty-one verses long. Only two of those verses, however, talk about the actual healing of the man. John 9 begins with a conversation between Jesus and his disciples about sin and concludes with a conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees about sin. Running right through this chapter is the theme of sin: What is sin? What is not sin?

The drama in James 9 unfolds in eight acts. The first act is the discussion between the disciples and Jesus about who sinned. The disciples ask, “Did this man sin or did his parents sin?” The conversation could have happened at any time during the first century. People then, as some people now, believed that if a person suffered it was because someone had sinned. I still hear people say, “I don’t know what I did wrong for God to make me endure this. I don’t know what I did to upset God and make Him inflict this type of suffering on me.” It is certainly true that sometimes we do bring suffering on ourselves. Suffering may be the consequence of our own wrongful behavior. To believe that all suffering occurs because someone has sinned is erroneous, but that was the teaching of first century religious leaders.

The idea of original sin goes back further. Psalm 5 says, “In sin did my mother conceive me.” The rabbis taught that from the moment of conception, a person could be sinful. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato taught that human flesh was sinful. Just being a human being in and of itself meant that we were sinful people. We see the first century idea that if somebody is suffering, as the man who was born blind, someone is to blame. The disciples enter into this conversation. You will notice that Jesus says that it is neither the man nor his parents that are sinful. This man’s misfortune now gives the opportunity for God’s action. This misfortune can be used for the glory of God, for the purpose of God.

The actual healing in John 9 is much like Jesus’ healing of blind people in other gospel accounts. Jesus mixed his own spittle with the soil of the earth to make the clay, which he put on the man’s eyes. That act sounds a little less than good hygiene to us. In fact, some people find it to be a little disgusting. It corresponds well to other miracles of healing blind people. You have to remember that people in the first century thought that the spittle of important people had medicinal properties, healing properties. What is your first response when you hit your thumb with a hammer? You probably take it straight to your mouth. It is a reflexive action that goes back to that old belief that somehow our saliva has healing properties, that it can somehow make you feel better. For Jesus to use his own spittle was, in fact, to meet the context of first century belief.

Once Jesus healed the man, he sent him to the pool of Siloam to wash his face. This man who had never seen before could now see. Like other blind people Jesus healed, this man was a beggar. That is about all a blind person could do to survive. This story is unique though in one regard: this man had been born blind. He himself said that this is the first instance in which a person born blind received sight. He had been blind since birth. You will find in the other gospel accounts that those who were blind had contracted a disease.

The first act is Jesus’ discussion with the disciples. The second is the healing itself. The third act is a discussion with friends and neighbors. “Weren’t you the man born blind?” People are astounded when the man affirms that he was. The next three acts involve the Pharisees’ interrogation. This group is determined to get to the bottom of this healing; after all, it did occur on the Sabbath, which is a violation of their rules. When they are not satisfied with the answers the man gives, they turn to interrogate his parents. The Pharisees are not satisfied with the answers the parents give either; so they question the man again, repeating some of the questions they had already asked.

As we read this account, it is easy to lose our way. John can use many words to make a simple point. In this case, he takes us through all of those interrogations to show us how intent these Pharisees are on affixing fault. They want to blame the man. They want to blame his parents. Most of all, they want to hold Jesus responsible because he has performed this healing on the Sabbath.

Tucked away here in this second interrogation is something we need to note. In John 9, beginning at the end of Verse 21, the parents respond to the Pharisees’ questions by saying, “Ask him. He is of age; he will speak for himself.” Clearly, they want to avoid having further conversation with these religious leaders. Verse 22 tells us that “they were afraid of the Jews, for already the Jews had decided that anyone who acknowledged that Jesus was the Christ would be put out of the synagogue.” It was already a time when Christian people were being persecuted. Much of that persecution came from Rome and from the Jewish religious leaders. Christians had come to believe that Jesus was the fulfillment of the Messianic promise but wanted to continue their association with the synagogue. They wanted to continue their Jewish traditions in worship and practice. By the time the Gospel of John was written, Christians who acknowledged Christ was the Messiah were being ostracized from the synagogues. The blind man’s parents want to avoid being cast out themselves.

When the Pharisees return to this man for a second interrogation, they want to put him on the spot about Jesus’ identity. Verse 24 begins with, “Give glory to God,” a euphemistic way of saying, “Let’s talk about this and get to the bottom of it. Let’s get it right.” They unwittingly, though, say exactly what this man says: God is the one who is to receive the glory. “We know this man is a sinner,” they say. The blind man, now having his sight restored to him, says, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I do not know. I do know I was blind but now I see!” When the Pharisees press him, he says, “I have already explained this to you. How can you say that he is not from God? How could he possibly give sight to somebody who was born blind? Only God could do that.” Then they kick him out, saying, “Be gone. Be away.”

In the seventh act, Jesus and the blind man have a conversation in which Jesus asks, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” The man confesses, “I don’t know who that is.” Jesus answers, “He is the one you have seen. He is the one standing before you.” This man professes his faith, “Lord, I believe.” He has come a long way. When Jesus first heals him, he says, “It was the man Jesus who healed me.” When the Pharisees press him, he declares, “He is a prophet.” Now, standing before Jesus, the man acknowledges that he is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of Man. He has come a long way to faith. He has received not only has his physical sight; he has also received his spiritual sight.

Physical blindness is one type of blindness, but a second blindness occurs here in this account. Any of us can suffer this second type, even those of us who have 20/20 eyesight. It may be that if the Pharisees had gone to an ophthalmologist and read the eye chart, they would not have needed corrective lenses. Spiritually speaking, they were as “blind as bats.” They could not see the truth that was right there before their Jewish noses. Their spiritual blindness prevented them from seeing that Jesus was God’s revelation. At the end of the passage, Jesus tells them that their spiritual blindness convicts them of their sin.

I watched this weekend again the wonderful documentary by National Geographic on the travels of Lewis and Clare for the 200th Anniversary of that expedition. The film crew had to go through amazing feats to get the footage. One fact that presentation revealed was that at points all along the way, Lewis and Clark had to make many decisions as they traveled upstream. Especially in the Upper Missouri Valley, they had to make hard decisions about which waterways were the tributaries and which was the real Missouri. One way they made that determination was to consult with Native Americans in the surrounding area. One in particular, a Shoshone woman named Sacagawea, traveled with them, carrying a newborn child. When they reached a particularly critical place, they remembered what one of their guides had told them: “If you come to great waterfalls, you know that you are still on the Missouri.” Near Great Falls, Montana, at a place where the Missouri River cascades down five waterfalls, Lewis and Clark had the reaffirmation that they were following the right path.

Sometimes when I read the Gospel of John, I find myself wanting to go off on a tributary. Especially here in Chapter 9, we could go in many directions. John gives us this account from the life of Jesus in order to show us the nature of sin. It is so easy to get caught up in the idea that sin is keeping a code, being obedient to a set of rules. Of course, we have the Ten Commandments, and God wants us to obey them.

Some years ago, the Southern Baptist Convention was meeting in New Orleans. The mayor and members of the Chamber of Commerce had gotten together and talked about the Southern Baptists coming to their city. A news reporter interviewed the mayor asking, “How do you feel about the Baptists coming to town?”

The mayor answered, “We wish the convention was composed of some other denomination, not Baptists.”

The reported asked, “Why?”

“When the Baptists come, they bring the Ten Commandments and a ten-dollar bill; they don’t break either one.”

Sticking to the law is important. Obeying the Ten Commandments is important. Adhering to a code can blur our vision though and keep us from seeing the real nature of sin. “Don’t dance. Don’t smoke. Don’t drink. Don’t cuss. Don’t chew. Don’t date girls that do.” We have all head that, haven’t we? It is so easy for us to believe that living a life free from sin is a matter of obeying little rules. Nobody was better at that than the Pharisees. As we discussed in our conversation about Nicodemus, in addition to the Torah, they had the Mishna. On top of that, they had the Talmud – rule after rule after rule, piled one on top of the other. They stressed such adherence to the rules that Jesus would say of them, “You tie heavy burdens on the backs of people” (Luke 11:46). It was impossible to keep all the rules.

These Pharisees get caught up in a discussion about who has broken the rules on the Sabbath. There is much interrogation, trying to find out who is to blame. In the end, Jesus makes the important point that if you are in relationship to Christ Jesus, you have the remedy for sin. Following Jesus, recognizing that he is the Lord of our lives and trying to live the way he lived, is the way of truth. That is the way of righteousness. It is not sticking to a set of rules. It is not checking off all the rules. It is recognizing that God has come to us in Christ Jesus.

The truth is that the only way we receive forgiveness from our sins is not because of our own righteousness. That is nothing more than pride, which is the worst sin of all. The Pharisees were so prideful in their righteousness. They thought they were “Goody Two Shoes.” They thought they had done it all just exactly right.

The remedy for sin is being in relationship to Christ Jesus. When we come into relationship with Christ Jesus, we receive the gift of grace, which only he can give. Grace provides us with the remedy for our sin. It is not something we deserve. Our response is that we want to do the right thing. We want to obey the commandments, but not just for the sake of the commandments. Those are means to an end, not an end in themselves. We want to please Christ Jesus.

Jesus said that this healing of the blind man was for the glory of God, so that God’s glory could be revealed. God’s glory is revealed in the wonderful new beginning this man experienced, the wonderful change in his life.

You have all heard the story of John Newton, a captain of a ship that traded in human cargo. He was a slave trader. Newton was studying Martin Luther’s commentary on the Letter to the Galatians, a letter that talks about human freedom. While reading Luther’s words on being set free from the bondage of sin and death, he was converted to Christ. He vowed to give up the slave trade and penned the words to a hymn. Those words were set to the tune that he had heard the slaves singing down in the cargo hold of the ship: “Amazing grace! how sweet the sound, That saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found,…” Then he takes a line right out of John 9: “Was blind, but now I see.”

Mike Yaconelli, writing about the encounter between Jesus and this blind man, raises a question: Where is the party? Here is a man who had been blind from birth. Now that he has sight, we see no joy, not even from his parents. We see no celebration because people are so busy arguing, debating about who is sinful and who is not. The man has received his sight – not only his physical sight but also his spiritual sight. He has seen Jesus, and his life will never be the same.

When you encounter Jesus and allow him to become the Lord of your life, you are free from the law of sin and death. When you make a decision to follow this living, loving Savior and not just a set of rules, you are free to live a life filled with grace.

© 2008 Kirk H. Neely

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