Observing Lent: Seeing What We’re Missing

Lectionary readings for Fourth Sunday of Lent Cycle A: 1 Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41
Guidance on using the lectionary.

“Spiritual masters often refer to a kind of “dread,” the nagging sense that we have missed something important and have been somehow untrue—to ourselves, to others, to God. Lent is a good time to confront the source of that feeling. It is a time to let go of excuses for failings and shortcomings; a time to stop hanging on to whatever shreds of goodness we perceive in ourselves; a time to ask God to show us what we really look like.”
from Bread and Wine: Readings for Easter and Lent

The lectionary readings for this week offer us John 9—the story of the blind man who received his sight through an encounter with Jesus. It is a story about blindness and healing, but it is not so much about physical blindness as it is about the spiritual blindness that keeps us from recognizing spiritual reality as it unfolds right in front of our eyes.

The healing itself takes place early in John’s account, but the real story is about religious people like ourselves who were blind to the presence of Christ among them. They were incapable of “seeing” the works of God taking place right there in their midst.

Everyone in this story is blind—the beggar, the disciples, the Pharisees, the man’s neighbors and his parents. The irony, of course, is that the man who is physically blind is the only one who “sees” with any kind of spiritual insight. His ability to “see” Christ with the eyes of blind faith and the simplicity of his testimony, even under duress, is an indictment on all of us who have made our faith more complicated than it needs to be.

Asking the Wrong the Question

There are so many stories in the New Testament about Jesus healing blind people that one begins to get the idea that it is a metaphor for the spiritual journey itself—the journey from spiritual blindness to a way of seeing that enables us to perceive who God is, who God is for us and what God is doing in the world around us.

In John 9, everyone saw the same man healed, but they all had difficulty recognizing it as the work of God and naming it for what it was. The disciples got caught up in a theological question that was really just a cover for our human tendency to assign blame and shame. “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” What a dehumanizing question! And how it distanced them from the tragedy of the human situation huddled right there in front of them! Devoid of any compassion, it was a question that placed a real person, caught in a real human dilemma, under the microscope of their theological debate rather than allowing their hearts to be moved.

Jesus did not allow himself to be dragged down a theological rabbit trail. Instead, he patiently explained that they were bringing up the wrong issue, asking the wrong question. The real question, he pointed out, was What is God doing? What is the work of God about to be revealed in this very human situation? What are the spiritual possibilities contained in this moment? His words, coupled with his compassionate action, illustrated more about the person and the purposes of God than any theological debate ever could.

After he opened the disciples’ eyes to what was going on spiritually, he proceeded to heal the man. Despite his physical blindness, this man “saw” the spiritual possibilities the disciples had missed. His willingness to enter into these possibilities made this the day of his healing.

Stuck in Old Paradigms

The real tragedy of this situation is the fact that what should have been a moment of great celebration became a moment of religious controversy among the people who witnessed it. The neighbors who had seen this blind man every day were so stuck in the paradigms of what they already knew that they couldn’t take in any new information. (9:8-12) A blind man who could now see did not fit into their preconceived ideas of how the world works; their cognitive filters just filtered it out.

When asked if this man whom they had known as a blind beggar all these years was indeed the man who had been healed, some said yes but others hemmed and hawed. Struggling to figure out the politically correct thing to say, they hedged by saying it was someone like him. And all the while, the blind man just stuck to his story. “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it onto my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.”

Preserving the System at all Costs

The Pharisees had their own set of issues. They were particularly concerned about preserving the religious system of the day and protecting their place in it. But the parameters of their religious experience were very narrow. They were only able to acknowledge and receive ideas and experiences that fit with what they already believed. Their need to remain in control of the system that gave them their identity caused them to be rigid, judgmental and uncaring in the face of a real human being who had a desperate need. Compassion had little place in their program. They were much more attached to their traditions—represented in this case by a legalistic approach to keeping the Sabbath.

The Scriptures are quite clear that Jesus did indeed violate cultural norms for Sabbath-keeping. John wants us to know that it was a Sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. (9:14) The fact that Jesus chose to do this healing work on the Sabbath set the Pharisees on edge. Rather than being able to celebrate a divine intervention in the life of this downtrodden human being, they grilled him and his parents about exactly what happened. They never were able to fully affirm the goodness of God in his life. The saddest part is that they were so blind to their own blindness.

Afraid of the Ramifications

The community that was looking on, took their cue from these religious leaders and jumped into the fray as well. They wanted to make sure that there was not some grand manipulative scheme going on so they questioned the man’s parents about the circumstances around his birth and his blindness.

But the blind man’s parents were common people. They were the defenseless poor just trying to survive in a religious system that was oppressive and exploitive. They were out of their league. Because they were afraid of being expelled from the only spiritual community they knew, they were only willing to take their testimony so far. Even though they had witnessed a miracle, they stopped just short of saying so. “Yes, he is our son. Yes, he was born blind. But how was he healed? He is of age, ask him. We can’t answer on the grounds that our answer might incriminate us.”

A Tale of Two Journeys

This story is really about the conflict between an illiterate beggar who could see and the religious leaders who could not. It is the juxtaposition of two journeys—one was the journey of the blind man to increasing levels of spiritual sight. The other was a more tragic journey—the journey of the Pharisees as they moved deeper and deeper into increasing levels of spiritual blindness. Their interaction concludes with the haunting image of the religious leader driving the beggar out because they could not get him to change his story so it would fit their religious understanding. They dismissed the very person who had had a real encounter with Christ and could bear witness to it.

As the story continues to unfold, the Pharisees’ ability to think logically was so clouded by their need to preserve the status quo they started throwing out arguments that barely made sense. But while their minds were being darkened, the beggar’s logic was becoming clearer and more compelling. “We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and does his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that someone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” (9:30-33)

You Tell ‘Em!

When I get to this part of the story everything in me wants to rise up and say “Hallelujah!” even though we’re not supposed to say Hallelujah during Lent. I want to shout to the man born blind, “You tell ‘em!”

And I want to say to God, “Help me to see myself so clearly as the blind beggar that when Jesus comes my way with mud and saliva and instructions about how to wash, I am willing to go out and do it right away. And when you do that great thing of which we could only dream, help me to stand on the side of the beggar and acknowledge it for the miracle that it is rather than pretending that nothing happened! And when, by your grace, I am able to see again, don’t let me back down from what I have experienced. Let me be one who stands on this unshakeable testimony: ‘All I know is that once I was blind but now I see.’”

Surely We’re Not Bind, Are We?

The Pharisees were blind to the end. They could not face the possibility that in all of their religiosity they were missing something. As hard as it is to identify with the blind man, it is even harder to identify ourselves as the Pharisees. But we must. We must acknowledge the fact that we huddle in our own little groups barely able to choke out the words, “Surely we are not blind, are we?”

And Jesus says to us, “If you were blind and able to admit it, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” (9:41)

Lent is a season for acknowledging our spiritual blindness and crying out to God to help us see what is in our blind spot. Stripped of the distractions that keep us living in our illusions, we are able to see ourselves more clearly for who we are and acknowledge that we are missing something. We are able to admit that we are so blinded by our own paradigms and programs, our fears and our filters that we cannot see the kingdom of God as it unfolds right in front of our eyes. It is a time for doing whatever Jesus tells us to do in response to our growing awareness of our need for healing.

As uncomfortable as it is for us as Christian leaders to admit our true condition, Jesus says that admitting our blindness is the first step toward receiving our sight.

What am I Missing?

As you continue your Lenten journey, spend a few moments quietly in Jesus’ presence and ask Who am I in this story and what am I missing?

  • Am I the blind man who is deeply aware of his blindness?
  • Am I the disciples who couldn’t see because they were all tangled up in the wrong question?
  • Am I the neighbors whose paradigms were so fixed that they couldn’t see anything that was outside of those paradigms?
  • Am I the religious leaders who were so intent on maintaining the status quo that they couldn’t recognize a miracle when it had taken place right there in front of them?
  • Am I the parents who witnessed something extraordinary but were afraid to speak of it for fear if being ostracized or dismissed?

Ask Jesus to open your eyes and show you who you are and who he is in relation to your need. Receive his touch and listen for his instructions about what you need to do in order to be healed. Then do it quickly and to the best of your ability.

I believe
my life is touched by you,
that you want something for me
and of me.
Give me ears
to hear you,
to see the tracing of your finger,
and a heart
quickened by the motions
of your Spirit.

Ted Loder, Guerrillas of Grace (Philadelphia, PA : Innisfree Press, 1984), p.29.

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©Ruth Haley Barton, 2017. Adapted from Pursuing God’s Will Together: A Discernment Practice for Leadership Groups  (IVP, 2012). Not to be reprinted without permission.

Ruth Haley Barton

Ruth (Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is founder and chief essence officer of the Transforming Center. A teacher, seasoned spiritual director (Shalem Institute), and retreat leader, Ruth is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Invitation to Solitude and Silence, Invitation to Retreat, and Embracing Rhythms of Work and Rest.
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This morning, I went over my highlights in the book “I Told Me So” by Gregg Elshof (forward by Dallas Willard). The book talks about self-deception and the subtle ways we “use” it to reason through to our preferred assessments of life’s circumstances, to protect our tribal identities, and live within narrow perspectives of our own making. I was wondering where in the bible could I find examples of self-deception at work in the lives of people? Then, I read this post. Thank you for fleshing all the various prisms in which the actors in this story show our human tendency to set life’s circumstances within the framework of our story rather than the story of God. Undoubtedly, everyone reading this will find themselves in this story if they are willing to “see.”

This is so apt, Thanks a lot ma’am Ruth, for this insightful teaching. A deeper search for my own blindness, religious and cultural correctness which so blinds one, and fears. O Lord Jesus help me to see Thee more clearly and follow Thee more dearly day by day.

I so appreciated this reading today!
I couldn’t help but wonder if there aren’t some parallels to our current social and political environment. Are my eyes blinded to what God is and has been doing w/n this context? Am I looking for His healing w/n the limits of my narrow paradigm or experience?
‘Give me ears, to hear you, eyes to see the tracing of your finger, and a heart
quickened by the motions of your Spirit.’ And may I respond in faith and trust to You, Jesus.

It is amazing how God puts things in out path that shows us the next step on our spiritual journey. As I struggle with some difficult things, I need to pray about my own spiritual blindness and what God wants to do in me to see. Thank you Ruth for your words through which God can touch my heart.

Perhaps one more question –
Am I missing what Jesus is up to now? Everyone seemed to responding based on their understanding of ‘how things are supposed to be on the Sabbath’. Instead Jesus is skewering the, well intention-ed, extra rules/burdens which had been placed on the Sabbath. This Lent I’m asking am I missing what Jesus might be up to – in my life, in my family, in my faith community?
And then the more important questions . . if I am missing this, what is Jesus up to, and why was I missing it?

Yes, this a very important question. Reminds me of Isaiah 43: 19 where God says, “See, I am about to do a new thing…” John 9, Acts 15, Is. 43 all point to the fact that spiritual seeing always involves being open to recognizing the new thing God is doing. This will often challenge our existing paradigms–esp. those we rely on to keep us feeling “safe” and comfortable. Lord have mercy!

This story of the blind beggar has so much to teach us about suffering and God’s sovereignty. This man had lived for decades in blindness, pain and poverty just so that his healing could glorify God at a specific time in human history. A seemingly random encounter between the unnamed beggar and the disciples was actually a prearranged display of God’s power which was planned before the foundation of the world. How amazing that this man submitted to the odd requests of a stranger to be smeared with mud. What a thrill it must have been for him to see for the first time and how puzzling that no one celebrated with him. How loving of Jesus to seek this man out because the man did not know what he looked like. I would imagine that this beggar would tell us today that living a thousand lifetimes of seemingly pointless suffering would be a small price to pay in order to meet Jesus face to face. God’s ways are higher than ours.

blind leaders leading the blind generation. What an irony? This is a message for spiritual leaders of our generation and the bling followers who have not been able to recognize the level of our blindness, and the need to spiritual sight. God help us to seek your healing in our generation for our spiritual blindness.

So grateful for all of you who are willing to ponder these questions today as part of your Lenten journey. It takes courage and you inspire me!

I spent the day writing about self-examination and how we too often end up with harsh self judgment and even self-condemnation. This piece dovetails with God’s call to practice self-examination as a way to avoid spiritual blindness and cry out to the Father of all compassion who is full of mercy and forgives all of our sins.

Thank you for these words
Lord please open my eyes and my heart to see and hear you and then to act

I’ve heard you teach on this before and it really hit me, but being reminded of it today was once again powerful and thought-provoking. Thank you Ruth for these thoughts and Spirit-led insights, I’m taking them before God for myself.

Wow, Ruth. That was deep and thought-provoking. I will, indeed, pray over how God would heal my spiritual blindness!

Thank you for this perspective and words of reflection! I will carry this closely through the remainder of Lent.

Thank you, Ruth, for this powerful and insightful invitation. I am praying for courage and grace to become more aware and repentant of my own spiritual blindness. Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy.

Thank you Ruth for those questions I must consider and reflect. I am so blessed by this powerful thoughtful provoking reflection.

What a wonderful thing to ponder today, thank you.

Ruth, thanks so much for sharing this and your other writings. You are a blessing to so many of us on the spiritual journey.

Powerful & challenging reflection… I love it when the Word leaps off the page and into my heart– God is speaking through your insights— thank you!

Beautiful! Thank you!

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