Sermon preached for the Fourth Sunday of Lent at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.
As Jesus walked along, he saw a man who was blind from birth. Jesus’ disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned so that he was born blind, this man or his parents?”
Jesus answered, “Neither he nor his parents. This happened so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him. While it’s daytime, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” After he said this, he spit on the ground, made mud with the saliva, and smeared the mud on the man’s eyes. Jesus said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (this word means sent). So the man went away and washed. When he returned, he could see.
The man’s neighbors and those who used to see him when he was a beggar said, “Isn’t this the man who used to sit and beg?”
Some said, “It is,” and others said, “No, it’s someone who looks like him.”
But the man said, “Yes, it’s me!”
So they asked him, “How are you now able to see?”
He answered, “The man they call Jesus made mud, smeared it on my eyes, and said, ‘Go to the pool of Siloam and wash.’ So I went and washed, and then I could see.”
They asked, “Where is this man?”
He replied, “I don’t know.”
I want to make it clear right from the start that this story is not about blindness in the literal sense. If the problem were merely visual, John would have stopped after the miracle. The man born blind gets 20/20 vision and everyone goes home happy.
But as the next thirty or so verses—and really even more, this miracle’s aftermath reverberates for nearly two chapters—as this longer story shows, the miracle is very nearly beside the point. The real heart of this story is about worthiness—about who is worthy of what.
It’s not a word you’ll find in any translation, worthy. There are any number of theological terms to listen for in this story—sin and Sabbath, prophet and sign, glory and disciple, belief and judgment. Jesus heals a man born blind, and the authorities and onlookers launch a full-scale theological investigation into the miracle. They want to know what happened and who did it and how and whether or not this healing was in bounds. But all the questions, dressed up in all the fancy language, boil down to this: is he worthy?
It starts with the disciples, Jesus’ own disciples, who’ve been living with and listening to Jesus and still have learned so little. They see a blind beggar on the side of the road and decide to treat him as an interesting theological conundrum, a real live sermon illustration. “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” It was common enough theology for the day, that illness or disability was punishment for sin; common enough today too, sadly. It strikes me as one of the more callous questions in scripture, as they gawp at the hungry man who cannot gaze back: “who’s to blame here? who made this guy unworthy of sight?”
Because that’s what they’re saying. If God didn’t see fit to give this creation sight, then clearly he must not be worthy of it, and if he’s not worthy of God’s gifts, then he must not be worthy of theirs either. No need to pass a coin or a meal his way. He’s getting what he deserves.
I wonder how many times the blind man had heard that sort of question, that accusation. I wonder how many times he had stood on the corner and heard people wonder about the state of his soul and his parents’ souls, just because of his blindness. I wonder if privately he had his own answer; if he carried the weight of guilt even as his hands and stomach went empty.
By the time the disciples launched their inquiry, perhaps he wasn’t even paying much attention, or perhaps he was hoping if they decided it was his parents’ fault they might be more generous with their alms. I feel confident, though, that what Jesus did surprised him.
Jesus was asked “whose sin makes this man unworthy, his own or his parents?” It’s a multiple choice question with only two answers. Yet Jesus writes in a third: the man is worthy. Worthy of Jesus’ compassion, Jesus’ healing. Worthy of being a vessel to show God’s glory. The man’s blindness does not make him unworthy, but his humanity makes him worthy.
To declare someone worthy—worthy of love, worthy of compassion, worthy of healing—that society has deemed unworthy borders on treason. To treat someone with dignity whom the rest of the world has decided to discard is the ultimate rebellion. And it makes people angry.
Let’s hear the rest of the story:
Then [the man’s neighbors] led the man who had been born blind to the Pharisees. Now Jesus made the mud and smeared it on the man’s eyes on a Sabbath day. So Pharisees also asked him how he was able to see.
The man told them, “He put mud on my eyes, I washed, and now I see.”
Some Pharisees said, “This man isn’t from God, because he breaks the Sabbath law.” Others said, “How can a sinner do miraculous signs like these?” So they were divided. Some of the Pharisees questioned the man who had been born blind again: “What do you have to say about him, since he healed your eyes?”
He replied, “He’s a prophet.”
The Jewish leaders didn’t believe the man had been blind and received his sight until they called for his parents. The Jewish leaders asked them, “Is this your son? Are you saying he was born blind? How can he now see?”
His parents answered, “We know he is our son. We know he was born blind. But we don’t know how he now sees, and we don’t know who healed his eyes. Ask him. He’s old enough to speak for himself.” His parents said this because they feared the Jewish authorities. This is because the Jewish authorities had already decided that whoever confessed Jesus to be the Christ would be expelled from the synagogue. That’s why his parents said, “He’s old enough. Ask him.”
Therefore, they called a second time for the man who had been born blind and said to him, “Give glory to God. We know this man is a sinner.”
The man answered, “I don’t know whether he’s a sinner. Here’s what I do know: I was blind and now I see.”
They questioned him: “What did he do to you? How did he heal your eyes?”
He replied, “I already told you, and you didn’t listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples too?”
They insulted him: “You are his disciple, but we are Moses’ disciples. We know that God spoke to Moses, but we don’t know where this man is from.”
The man answered, “This is incredible! You don’t know where he is from, yet he healed my eyes! We know that God doesn’t listen to sinners. God listens to anyone who is devout and does God’s will. No one has ever heard of a healing of the eyes of someone born blind. If this man wasn’t from God, he couldn’t do this.”
They responded, “You were born completely in sin! How is it that you dare to teach us?” Then they expelled him.
Jesus heard they had expelled the man born blind. Finding him, Jesus said, “Do you believe in the Human One?”
He answered, “Who is he, sir? I want to believe in him.”
Jesus said, “You have seen him. In fact, he is the one speaking with you.”
The man said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshipped Jesus.
Jesus said, “I have come into the world to exercise judgment so that those who don’t see can see and those who see will become blind.”
Some Pharisees who were with him heard what he said and asked, “Surely we aren’t blind, are we?”
Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you wouldn’t have any sin, but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.
The Jewish leaders are in a bind. What began as a miracle story turns into a full courtroom drama, with witnesses called to the stand and various lines of questioning. Now it’s not just the blind man’s worthiness that’s called into question—it’s Jesus’ own. It’s Jesus they’re trying to figure out, whether he belongs in their circle of faith or not, whether he is ally or threat. The Pharisees are divided, but the negative voices are winning out. They chide him for healing on the Sabbath. They call him a sinner—later on in the story they’ll wonder about whether he’s possessed by a demon. They do everything they can to prove that Jesus isn’t worthy enough to decide who else is and isn’t worthy. After all, if they can prove he’s not good enough to be in the club, then he can’t invite anyone else in either.
If they can prove Jesus isn’t worthy of their attention, than they don’t have to worry about him messing with their status quo. They just have to push him back down beneath their notice again.
It’s a painful story, for being about healing, because after the healing comes the deep, deep division of a community of faith. Most scholars think that this story is a dramatization of a real split in the synagogue, during which John and his followers were kicked out. So John himself is wrestling with feelings of unworthiness, of losing a community that formed him, of being unwelcome in a place he once called home.
It’s a painful story, because the question it asks: who is worthy of God’s attention? is such a painful one for us.
For some, it’s because we’re worried for our friends and loved ones. If they don’t go to church, if they don’t pray, if they don’t know God, are they still worthy of God’s attention?
For some, it’s because we’re worried about those who are sick and not getting better. If we don’t see healing, does it mean they weren’t worthy of God’s attention?
For some, it’s because we’re worried about ourselves. We know how insignificant we feel. How could we ever be worthy of God’s attention?
How could we ever be worthy?
Lent is a time of repentance. It is a time of reflecting on the fact that we do not and cannot be so perfect in loving God and loving our neighbors that we can earn our way into God’s heart. Lent is often a time when we answer that question of “are we worthy?” with a resounding “no. No, we’re not worthy.”
And left there, that’s a death sentence. That feeling of unworthiness is poison.
But that’s not where Jesus leaves us. That’s not what Jesus wants us to know or feel or believe about ourselves.
Because the story of Lent is as much about our worthiness in God’s eyes as it is our unworthiness. And it seems impossible that it could be both, but it is. We are worthy of God’s attention, not because we have earned it, but simply because God has decided it is so. God has decided to heal us, love us, care for us. God decided to come walk among us and make miracles out of mud and spit, flesh and bone. God decided that we were worth so much, worth so much to God that even death on a cross wasn’t too much to ask.
And so the story of Lent is learning that we are worthy in God’s eyes; worthy of dignity and compassion, worthy of hope, worthy of every good gift God has to bestow. The story of Lent is learning that whatever sin we may bear, whatever blindness we may carry, whatever darkness we may retreat into cannot withstand the Light of the World. It all dissolves in the light of God, until we are washed, and can see God’s love clear as day.
Jesus didn’t come to earth looking for someone to blame. He came looking for people to heal.
He didn’t come to ask who was worthy of his love. He came looking to love.
So if you find yourself this week asking yourself, am I worthy of God’s love, I want you to know that answer has already been decided, and it is a resounding yes.
And if you find yourself this week looking at a stranger and asking, are they worthy of God’s love, I want you to know that the answer has already been decided, and it is a resounding yes as well.
This I know, said the blind man: I was blind and now I see.
So see this: in God’s eyes, eyes that see you through and through, you are worthy. Amen.