Everyone loves a good story,
and the older I get, the more I appreciate character development.
An engaging novelist or an aspiring television producer will ensure that their characters come alive
on the page or on the screen, that they are more than word or image, more than caricatures.
A well-developed character will be complex, ambiguous, and fully human,
like Randall in the popular show “This Is Us”
or Angelica Schuyler in Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton.
One helpful form of Bible study is to imagine yourself within the scene,
and to identify to which character you most relate.
The unique encounter of Jesus in the gospel of John with a man born blind
offers a host of interesting characters.

The first character in the story is Jesus.
In the prior chapter of John, Jesus has just had a run in with the Pharisees in the temple,
and was a hair’s breath away from being stoned to death.
The temple leaders had picked up rocks to throw at him, but Jesus left the temple unharmed.
The very next verse: “As he walked along, (even though his life was in danger)
he saw a man blind from birth.”
Since the next 40 verses that follow are all about seeing and not seeing,
John’s use of the word “saw” in this first verse is ironic –
Jesus is presented as the one who “sees”. And Jesus, who sees, takes action.
After inverting the disciples’ misunderstanding about sin and disability,
he does the work of the One who sent him. He takes the initiative and gives sight to the man born blind.

As the drama about unfolds in six successive scenes,
we will explore each of the complicated characters involved.
The drama includes the disciples of Jesus, mentioned here as a group.
There are neighbors and friends of the man born blind who enter the story.
Then we have the authorities, the Jewish leaders, the Pharisees.
The blind man’s parents, the ones who raised him with a disability from birth, enter the story.
And, of course, we also have the man born blind, who received an act of great mercy.
Listen for the Word of God, and as you listen, see which character with which you identify.

John 9:1-41
9As (Jesus) walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

This man had never known anything different than his blindness.
He had always been blind, since birth.
He did not ask to be healed. He did not cry out to Jesus as others had done.
Jesus took the initiative. Jesus “saw” him, approached him, and gave him sight.
Surprised by Jesus, a new life begins for him, a life that will not necessarily be welcomed by others.

While Jesus “sees” the man and prepares to act on his behalf,
the disciples asked him about the man’s sinfulness.
The disciples observe that the man is blind, but they do not “see” him.
They are more interested in a theological question about the man’s condition,
or a sociological question about the man’s family, than the man himself.
They are accustomed to beggars in the street
and so this particular man’s need does not seem to move their hearts to compassion.
Even after the man receives his sight, there is no mention of the disciples again,
no welcoming of the man into their group, no celebration or worship with him.

Often in these gospel stories, the disciples tend to represent the church.
Has the church, like these disciples, grown so accustomed to human misery
that we often just talk about it instead of considering what we can do?
Sometimes we will sit around discussing why some bad thing has happened to a good person,
or will wonder about those who seem to be suffering because of their sins,
rather than “seeing” the people, getting our hands dirty, responding to their need.
And sometimes, when someone has been touched by God, we don’t even recognize them…

Verses 8-12
8The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” 9Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” 10But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 11He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” 12They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

The man’s neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar hardly recognize him.
Most of the neighbors, instead of “seeing” the beggar in the street, had passed him by, averting their eyes.
After he has received his sight and washed in the pool of Siloam,
so that he could be restored to community and restored to Temple worship,
instead of welcoming him, even those who had seen him ask questions.
Is this the same man? How did this happen?
The man has been so transformed by his encounter with Jesus that they don’t recognize him.
They ask about his healing, they ask about the Healer, but they still do not “see” the man.
Instead of rejoicing with the man on what could have been the greatest day of his life,
or worshiping with him, giving glory to God with him over this wondrous gift he has received,
they ask questions and argue with one another.
How did this happen? Who did this? Where is he?
Then they took him to the authorities…

Verses 13-17
13They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. 14Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” 16Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. 17So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.”

The Jewish authorities, the Pharisees, are also mentioned as a group, not as individuals.
These “leaders” cannot seem to reconcile what they have always known,
what they decided long ago, with new information or new insight.
God has been at work right in their midst, but they cannot “see”.
“This man is not from God.”
They get caught up in the legality of the miracle – that the act was done on the Sabbath day –
instead of rejoicing and giving glory to God.
They too ask questions, and then they find themselves divided.
As religious and political leaders tend to do, they disagree.
They are more concerned with who is right or who will win, than what is best for their people.
They are so concerned about their legalities and their categories of people that they fail to “see”.
Even when the man confesses that a prophet is in their midst, they fail to be moved…

Verses 18-23
18The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” 20His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” 22His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”

The man’s parents, the ones who raised him from birth,
who taught him how to survive as a blind toddler, then ushered him through dangers of childhood,
then began to give him more freedom as a teenager, reveal their real fear.
They are afraid to be put out of the synagogue, to be shut out from community,
so they don’t want to get involved. Out of self-preservation, they pass the buck.
Instead of rejoicing with their son, or giving glory to God for this wonderful miracle,
or at least backing up their own son’s testimony, they leave him on his own.
“He is of age, ask him.”
They are the sideline sitters, less interested in truth than in security,
more interested in self-protection than in taking a stand.
Instead of throwing a party for their son, they allow the authorities call their son back to the court.
This time, the man born blind is put him on trial; the authorities demand that he tell the truth,
which, ironically, is what he had been doing the entire time….

Verses 24-34
24So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” 25He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 26They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” 28Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” 30The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

The authorities drove the man born blind out of the Temple.
After Jesus have given the man sight, encouraged the man to go wash in the ritual bath
so that he could enter the Temple and become a full part of the community,
the Temple authorities drove him out.
Any joy the man had over receiving his sight is now diminished.
On what should have been the best day of this beggar’s life,
when he is finally allowed to become a full participant,
his neighbors don’t recognize him, his parents don’t back up his testimony,
he finds himself on trial, then the community leaders throw him back out into the streets.

Why are these leaders so fearful and angry? What fear lies beneath that anger?
We can almost be compassionate for the poor Pharisees.
When you find any person or group of people who always seem to be angry,
you will find great fear lurking just beneath the surface.
Why so afraid? What are they afraid of losing?
The works of Jesus seem to be threatening their carefully constructed system,
their well-controlled community.
They know who the sinners are, who is in and who is out, who belongs and who does not.
In their self-righteousness, they believe that God will only listen to ones like them,
who obey all the rules.
How could God be present in this man, this outsider, this sinner from a family of sinners?

The very community which should have welcomed home a lost sheep,
should have celebrated with him, should have joined him in humble worship
over this wondrous act of God, instead drive him outside the gates.
The limited vision of the leaders breaks down community
and they remain blind to the presence of God.
The day turns tragic for the man who had been touched by God.
Fear and division continue to reign amongst the political leaders.
The potential for joyful worship is lost. Life simply does not have to be lived this way.

Verses 35-38
35Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” 37Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” 38He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.

This may be the only example in the gospel narratives, except for the restoration of Peter,
where Jesus goes back to find someone whom he has previously encountered.
In the course of the narrative, this man’s testimony about Jesus has grown.
First, he called Jesus by name and told his neighbors what Jesus has done.
Second, he told the authorities that the one who gave him sight must be a prophet.
Finally, at the end of our story, he confessed belief in Jesus as the Son of Man and worshiped him.
At the beginning of the story, this man was blind, but now he sees.
At the beginning of the story, this man was the only one identified as blind.
At the end of the story, it seems that he was the only one who could truly see.
The neighbors, the parents, and the authorities all thought they could see,
but their blindness has been revealed.

Verses 39-41
39Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” 40Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” 41Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

We know the familiar hymn: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me;
I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.”
We are all born in some state of blindness.
We all live somewhat in a bubble. Our sight is limited; our vision is partial; we have blind spots.
Our salvation lies not simply in a once-for-all healing of our blindness,
as if could confess now to see ourselves and the world clearly,
but our salvation comes in the day by day turning toward the voice of Jesus,
so that we can notice the presence of God,
so that we can see the face of Christ in our brother and sister.

Last week, Nancy and Michelle Jones, along with the youth and chancel choir,
sang a beautiful anthem together – “Give Me Your Eyes” by Brandon Heath.
The song speaks to the awakening of a young man who may have had clear vision,
but realized that, for most of his life, he had not truly been “seeing” the people around him.

All those people going somewhere, why have I never cared
Give me your eyes for just one second, Give me your eyes so I can see,
Everything that I keep missing, Give your love for humanity.
Give me your arms for the broken-hearted, The ones that are far beyond my reach.
Give me Your heart for the ones forgotten. Give me Your eyes so I can see.

What if we truly begin to see ourselves and every other individual as a child of God?
What if we see every individual as worthy of our time and best efforts?
This willingness to “see” anew, to receive new sight, may just be the key to our salvation,
and the salvation of the world.

Open my eyes, that I may see, glimpses of truth thou hast for me…
Open my eyes, illumine me, Spirit divine.


Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
Decatur, Georgia
March 26, 2017