The Reverend Phil Tierney
March 30, 2014
The accumulation of knowledge doesn’t guarantee wisdom; and sight doesn’t guarantee insight.
A number of years ago, it became apparent to me that I couldn’t see as well as I used to. It began with printed matter. Over time, my arms became too short to see words on the printed page. Since then, it’s gotten worse. It’s not just printed matter that I can’t see very well, but things far away, too. Reading glasses weren’t enough; I needed bifocals. Without them I just can’t always seem to recognize what I’m looking at or see things clearly enough.
That’s what today’s gospel reading is about, not optometry, but who can see what and how they understand what they’re looking at. Today’s passage from John’s Gospel has everything to do with what people are willing and able to see, what spiritual insights people are willing and able to gain.
St. John is different from the other gospels. The three synoptic gospels, as they’re called, pretty much straightforwardly try to present a historical narrative of Jesus’ life and ministry – starting and ending at somewhat different points and emphasizing slightly different themes. On the other hand, John’s gospel is much more of a theological account, instead of chronological, and presents encounters that Jesus had with various people so as to make the point that He was the fulfillment of all that God had previously revealed to the Jewish people.
Now a lot of people seem to like to devote too much time and energy arguing with each other over whether John or the other gospel writers, for that matter, presented authentic accounts of what Jesus did or made up stories to illustrate who they had come to believe Jesus was on the basis of their personal experience of him. It matters somewhat, I suppose, but not that much. The point is what each reader makes of Jesus, starting from where that individual is.
In a sense, all of the gospels are something of a whodunit. That’s what today’s story is – a whodunit – describing a situation in which the questions are what really happened and who actually did it.
Most of my life I’ve been a fan of Sherlock Holmes stories. The character of Holmes was distinguished not only by his keen powers of observation, but also his ability to integrate his observations and make logical deductions from the data. He was unaffected by prejudices or assumptions. He stood apart from law enforcement professionals at Scotland Yard by his ability to draw conclusions unencumbered by jumping to conclusions swayed by professional bias in difficult cases. To Inspector Lastrade or even his own colleague, Dr. Watson, he’d say, “It’s elementary. You look but you don’t see. You see but you don’t pay attention. You pay attention but you don’t use your powers of deductive reasoning.”
Today’s story from John’s Gospel is like a conversation between Holmes and Scotland Yard, played by the religious leaders – the experts. Something happened. A man, who had been completely blind from birth, was brought before the religious authorities of the time by a crowd of bystanders. They told the authorities that a major miracle had taken place. The life-long blind man suddenly regained his sight. Nothing like that had ever happened before, and the crowd wanted to know what to make of it. Not surprisingly, the authorities took a defensive position. First, they challenged the reality of the claim. They asked if the man had actually been blind. Some witnesses claimed that he looked like a blind beggar they had seen, but they weren’t sure it was really the blind man. Others claimed that he surely had been blind. The man, himself claimed to have been blind – from birth, in fact. They called in the man’s parents. They identified him as their son, and testified that he had, in fact, been blind from birth. That was a very big deal — there was no precedent for a person blind from birth ever having been healed. The event couldn’t be ignored. People wanted it to be explained. They had to know what was going on. Whodunit and why?
The focus of the probe – the blind man — said he’d been healed of life-long, total blindness, and that Jesus did it. The religious experts, prejudiced by their preconceptions, said that Jesus couldn’t have done it or that, if he did, it was by the power of the devil. Why? It was because God would never do a miracle, least of all one so significant, mediated by a sinner. And they knew that Jesus was a sinner because he had worked on the Sabbath. He performed miracles on the Sabbath. That was work. He broke the 4th commandment, over and over. Ergo, he was a sinner. And so God wouldn’t perform a miracle through Jesus. Therefore, either Jesus didn’t do it or the devil did – to mislead people.
Their antagonism and logic had an effect on the former blind man, but it was opposite of the desired effect. He underwent what has been called a process of progressive revelation. This is what I mean. At first the man believed that Jesus was the man that God used to do the miracle. Then, under the duress of their questioning, he concluded that Jesus must be a prophet of God. Then, he inferred that Jesus was a channel of God. The authorities saw that they had made no progress, and couldn’t refute the former blind man’s logic – that only God does miracles and God worked a miracle through Jesus, therefore God was with Jesus. In reaction, the authorities went to their course of last resort. They accused the man, himself, of being a sinner, himself, and unable to discern God, therefore. They argued the popular theological idea that people born with severe impediments were the product of their parents’ sins. That left God off the hook for why bad things happened to innocent people. And then, they summarily excommunicated the man. In the end the man decided that Jesus was the one to follow.
The point of this story is that those who are considered to be blind can often see more clearly than those who claim to have seen all their lives. Put another way, people considered unprepared or unsuitable for it can have greater spiritual insight than those who have been religious most of their lives. It simply comes down to being receptive to God in ways that people can use religion to defend themselves against. What really makes a person able to see God and know the power of God’s presence is this – to be open to God, open to Jesus, and receptive. God can give us insights into Himself, into our selves, and into our relations with others. God can transform our faith and our lives. God, Christ, can work miracles in us, around us and through us. God is full of surprises, able to do the unexpected, and doesn’t always follow prescribed patterns. And so it’s possible to find God at work just about anywhere and in all sorts of ways. Of course, like the former blind man, spiritual vision doesn’t often happen all at once. It’s progressive. It’s gradual. Healing, miracles, revelation, they don’t always happen suddenly or all at once.
I suppose it helps to be a bit like Sherlock Holmes. It helps to look to see God at work. It helps to pay attention to what you see. It helps to use your powers of reasoning to deduce what God’s up to. It helps to be willing to follow the clues that lead us to God and His grace. When we’re open to it, it’s quite possible for us to see God doing impossible things and in the process we can see God more clearly and perhaps how we might fit into God’s gracious work in this world.