The question raised in John 9:1-41 is a disquieting one. If we read the passage with any amount of critical self-awareness we can’t help but wonder about the reliability of our way of interpreting the world. Do we really see? We think we do of course, but do we really? Do we really perceive things as they are?
Here’s the biblical context: in the opening of John’s gospel Jesus is described as the light of the world. Verse 14 of the first chapter says that ‘the Word became flesh and lived among us and we have seen his glory . . . full of grace and truth.” The gospel also includes the story of Nicodemus. It was he who approached Jesus in the dark. He was unable to understand what it could mean to be born anew in the Spirit. In the eighth chapter Jesus describes himself as the “light of the world.” There religious and cultural leaders rejected his claim, on the grounds that someone can’t testify on their own behalf. If someone were accused of a crime and the only word they had in their defense was their own their defense would be pretty weak. So the Pharisees, these religious and cultural leaders, dismiss Jesus’ claims to be the light. John, then, moves us on to chapter 9 and the story of a man who was born unable to see anything at all.
The disciples want to use this blind man as an object lesson to confirm their own goodness. So they ask, “who sinned, this man or his parents?” Jesus says—“neither.” The man wasn’t blind because someone had sinned, he was blind so that “God’s works might be revealed in him.” Then Jesus heals the guy. He puts mud in his eyes and instructs him to go to the pool of Siloam to wash it out. The man does—and he can see. The neighbours find him and can’t believe it. They haul him off for evaluation by the Pharisees, who throw a party to celebrate the wonderful turn of events. Well, that last part isn’t true. What the leaders actually do is get mad at Jesus for healing the fellow on the Sabbath.
Right there is the contrast. One fellow is physically unable to see, but the community leaders are unable to see in every other way.
The reason the story is so disquieting is that we always want to make it about them. We want to make it about those other Pharisaical people who are judging us. Yet the story can’t be read that way. The minute we say we know it’s about some other sinner we become the Pharisees. As Pharisees we use our faith, our sense of justice and righteousness to legitimate ourselves. We think we perceive the world correctly—when others are wrong, we get it right—and we use this conviction to place ourselves one notch higher on the ladder than those who don’t get it.
One of the things I love about our Mennonite family is our deep commitment to justice. Yet it’s difficult to have that without becoming Pharisees. That is, without using our religious commitment to righteousness to assert ourselves over others. Several weeks ago I joined some people for lunch. One Mennonite in the mix mumbled a complaint about not being able to have Fair Trade something or other. A table-mate responded dryly, ‘Such righteousness. It’s nice to be so close to it.’
Let me make a bit of a philosophical digression. I think one of the most fascinating people in the Christian intellectual tradition has to be the Danish philosophical writer Søren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard lived during the first half of the nineteenth century. His father was a morose man who believed that he was under a divine curse. Kierkegaard’s mother had been a servant of his father’s family. Things happened. Then two wives and 5 of 7 children died while Kierkegaard’s father was still alive. You can see why the father might have been despondent.
Søren Kierkegaard inherited his father’s melancholy but thought deeply about it. He’s famous for this. He is also famous for breaking off his engagement with a woman named Regine Olson. He seemed to believe himself unworthy of marring her. Whether it was because he didn’t believe he was capable of being a father or because of his shame at having woken up one morning sharing a bed with a prostitute—we don’t know.
Kierkegaard is also famous for his indirect way of communicating his views. He wrote under pseudonyms, used sarcasm and thought jokes were important bits of philosophical analysis. Finally, and this is what I want to highlight this morning, Kierkegaard is famous for emphasizing the subjective character of truth. That is just the reality that when it comes to some of the deepest questions in life there is no way we can know for sure, yet we must act.
Continuing in this digression, there are two things important to know about Kierkegaard’s context. First, he lived deeply ensconced in what we would call a Christendom society. Christianity was the religion of the powerful. It was mainstream. It was easy. It was a channel for getting ahead. Second, the intellectual atmosphere of his time was riff with the influence of G. F. Hegel. All we can say about Hegel here is just that he had developed an all-inclusive system of thought. Every view, every part of history had a place in Hegelianism. Even opposing views were brought together and synthesized into a something supposedly more profound. Hegel mapped out all of history and tied it together in his own system. His eyes were supposedly the ones that saw everything rightly and slotted every bit of history and knowledge in its place. The Hegelian eye could explain where others had went wrong. It didn’t just disagree with these other views, but claimed to get beyond the disagreement.
Kierkegaard would have none—or very little—of either Christendom faith or Hegelian philosophy. He wanted to make Christianity hard again. He suggested that in a Christendom society a true Christian would look much like an atheist. He also wanted to bring attention to subjective truth. The most important things in life, the ultimate questions, aren’t things we can know objectively. We can’t know ‘about them’. We can never be sure that we are seeing them just right. The most important things in life can only be had with risky commitment. They require serious investment of ourselves. Think of your significant relationships. There’s no way of knowing if a friend really cares about you as you, or if they’re using you for their own ends. They could, after all, be a Russian spy or, more likely, a selfish brat. And yet there’s no way of having the benefits of true friendship without risking investment in that person, going out on a limb, acting as if you were sure they loved you.
For Kierkegaard faith was the same way. Neither Abraham, nor Moses nor Mary could have really known if their risk of obedience would be proven wise or foolish. An angel spoke to Mary about making space in her life for the Messiah, but she could never have known that she wasn’t deluded. One can imagine that she may well have second-guessed herself. Maybe she realized that the angel’s words to her sounded a lot like her hopes for her people or even her desire to be more than a carpenter’s wife. Our engagement with questions like these—the direction of our lives, our intimate relationships, our faith in God—always involve an objective uncertainty. We can’t really know for sure. “Without risk there is no faith,” Kierkegaard says.
The life of the Pharisee is one without apparent risk. It is all objective certainty and judgment of others. It is youthful confidence stretched into the power of adulthood. ‘Surely we see it all correctly,’ the Pharisees say. ‘Surely we see it all correctly,’ the Christendom leaders say. ‘Surely we see it all correctly,’ the Hegelians say. ‘Surely we see it all correctly,’ we say.
What tugs at our attention in this story from John’s gospel is not a specific justice issue or faith practice. Jesus’ healing on the Sabbath clearly illustrates that our traditions should serve the ends of faith, not the other way around. His Sabbath healing calls legalism into question. But those don’t make up the core of the story. The main issue is this flipping of who it is that truly sees. In Jesus’ context one would have thought that the Pharisees would have had the best handle on the situation. They were leaders in religion, culture and law. They were the ones interviewed on the CBC and quoted in the magazines. You would think they would perceive things correctly. But they didn’t. The one who did was the one who appeared to not see at all.
Objectively the guy without eyesight didn’t have much to offer to the question of who Jesus was or how life should be lived. What he had though was a sense of the risk faith required. And in being aware of the risk he possessed the virtue of humility. Furthermore, he got humility right because he didn’t let it stop him from necessary decisions. When Jesus put the mud in his eyes, the man knew full well he didn’t have an all-encompassing perspective on things. So he took a risk and put in the effort to get to the pool and obey Jesus’ instructions.
Some of you know that I’m spending some time these months talking to former missionaries who staffed several residential schools in Western Ontario. I’m learning a lot, but one of the things that strikes me again and again is the similarity that runs between everyone who thinks they know what someone else should do. Everyone who thinks there is some wrong out there that must be righted or something undeveloped that should be developed, every one of us takes a risk. Both the Pharisees and the man Jesus healed encountered that same risk. All of us face it too.
The bright line that distinguishes responses to this risk is whether or not we move forward with humility. What is eerie about our hyper-partisan age is the lack of humility. The eeriness flows like a fog from our confidence in our view of others and in our confidence in our ability to slot their actions into some part of our own worldview. ‘They are wrong, they are sinful, they are . . .’ whatever we say when we think that surely we see. My hunch is that if Kierkegaard parachuted into our post-Christendom culture, he would think the faith difficult enough. But I bet he would lampoon us for thinking that we can get it without risk and without humility.
It isn’t until the end of the story that the man Jesus healed really believes him. ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ Jesus asks. The man replies, ‘And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.’ Jesus points to himself and the man believes. Then Jesus says, ‘I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’
Some of the Pharisees overheard this last line and said, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’