There's Always More To See
A sermon on John 9:1-41.
[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Aditya Wardhana on Unsplash.]
“The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
So says our first reading, exposing the uncomfortable reality that even God’s prophet is prone to the common human error of judging by surface characteristics that don’t really matter, so God has to remind him of the problem with that kind of assessment.
It’s a simple lesson, fit for any Sunday school (or any elementary classroom for that matter): don’t judge a book by its cover. Don’t judge people by what they look like. Look at the heart instead.
But in the context of this season during which we have delved deeply into the value and power of our very HUMAN senses… senses that God created, and chose to share with us through the incarnation… I find this kind of binary comparison rather unsatisfying.
It’s not that it’s untrue as far as it goes… of course our judgments will be flawed if they are based only on shallow, physical impressions.
But are there really only two options: surface judgement or discerning the heart?
Is God’s creation of a physical, perceivable world that we take in through our eyes something we are supposed to ignore?
Is perception really just a right or wrong experience, or can there be more nuance?
I think today’s gospel story encourages us to conclude that there is, indeed, more to see.
The first clue we get comes in the very first verse: “As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.”
It’s a fairly standard way to introduce a scene, but, in this case, I think it’s intentional. And not just because it’s a story of healing a blind man.
You see, there is a shifting pattern in the various “scenes” that unfold in the story.
It starts with Jesus seeing the man.
Then, we are introduced to the neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar.
But then there is a shift: neither the Pharisees nor the man’s parents are introduced (or in any way described) as seeing him… they just interrogate him and argue about him and refuse to take responsibility for understanding what has happened to him.
Then, in the final scene, Jesus asks the man if he believes in the Son of Man, the man expresses a willingness to do so, and Jesus tells the man that he has seen him.
There seems to be a contrast between those who are willing to see what is going on as the story unfolds and those who are not… but it’s not a simple binary.
Jesus sees clearly, but the neighbors who have seen are conflicted, so are the Pharisees when it comes to that, although in their case it leads them into more aggressive questioning, rather than any openness to seeing something unexpected.
The man’s parents obviously have seen him clearly in the past, but they seem unwilling to even engage the question of what new thing they might see in his present, because all they can see is their fear.
And the man himself doesn’t see initially, even though his sight has been healed. And yet he is willing to believe if he is just told where to look.
What we get is a pretty complicated narrative in which different ways of seeing, and different ways of being blinded are interwoven… and – interestingly – the root of the problem appears to come from people trying to “discern the heart.”
That’s how all the action in the story starts.
Jesus sees the man, but he doesn’t actually do anything until the disciples pose their question: who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?
It’s a question about the condition of the man’s heart – and how outside signs might give clues to that condition.
But Jesus rebuffs this line of questioning – saying that no one’s “heart” is to blame for the blindness. That’s not how it works.
Rather, this scene is going to unfold with the purpose of people being able to see what God is up to.
Jesus performs the sign – giving physical sight to the man – but that raises the question: what will people see in this sign?
Will it actually point them to God, or will they close their eyes because they aren’t expecting to see God’s power being worked in a way that challenges assumptions and established systems of control?
As the story unfolds, we see another pattern.
The people who do “see” are the people who are willing to look at the evidence:
The people who recognize the man who used to beg so they believe it is him, without needing first to understand exactly how he was healed.
The Pharisees who recognize that a healing like this can only come from God, so Jesus must be from God.
The man himself who gets frustrated by the circular arguments meant to force him into the denying the miracle he has experienced in his own body, who argues back with the religious leaders offering all the evidence that they have access to themselves:
We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.
The evidence is plain. But there are still people in the story who will not even examine the evidence in good faith, because they hold previous commitments to a way of seeing the world that will not allow for any new ideas… so they would rather exile the person through whom God’s glory has been revealed than open their eyes to see it.
It's almost be a funny story.
I think John definitely saw the humor in it, which is why he does all the word play with seeing and blindness, with Jesus’s final rebuke to the leaders who are so unwilling to “see” their own blindness.
It would be funny, except it causes so much pain.
In the story, it caused a man who was blessed by a life-changing miracle to be suspiciously questioned, essentially abandoned by his parents, and then thrown out of his community, all because his miracle made other people uncomfortable.
In our context, it causes reactionary position-taking in our highly polarized climate – without the chance for thoughtful discernment or asking questions about what we might need to learn – because we all know where we are supposed to stand as soon as we read the headline.
It leads to “blue lives matter” in response to “black lives matter,” as though only one or the other can be true, and only one group is actually made in the image of God.
It leads to accusations of “wokeness” and jibes of “OK Boomer” that always shut-down any chance for mutual understanding.
It leads to new state laws that have High School drama teachers wondering if they have the legal right to cast actors in cross-gender parts (like dramatists have been doing since Shakespeare, not to mention Ancient Greece) because legislators are so confident that they know what’s in the hearts of drag queens, so they have to make them illegal.
And that’s why we can’t just boil our job of “seeing” down to “what is in the heart.”
Because far too often we fallible human beings are quite sure we know what is in the heart of someone we don’t understand, and so we pass judgment and we do harm.
Even when we tell ourselves it’s NOT a matter of outward appearances.
It’s a matter of sin… that we can diagnose, and judge, and take steps to control.
But it’s just more complicated than that.
In the story of David’s anointing, we get a story of God’s anointed prophet getting it wrong!
So, while God may see the heart, we need to seriously question our own ability to do so.
And in the story of Jesus we get reminded that even God’s omniscience is not the end of the story.
Because God couldn’t do the work that needed to be done at a distance.
God needed to join us in this confusing world, where it’s so hard to know what we are seeing, to offer us light… not so that we could perfectly see each other’s hearts and judge accordingly… but so that we could see God.
Who is about healing, and wholeness, and finding and accepting the ones who have been driven out.
Thanks be to God.