a Sermon for Lent 4A
Text: John 9:1-41
In Plato’s Republic, the philosopher introduces a strange scenario in which a prisoner is trapped in a cave. The prisoner knows nothing of the world as we know it. He’s stuck in one place, staring straight ahead for a long, long time.
Behind him is a fire, which casts shadows on the wall. The prisoner can see only the shadows. In fact, they are the only thing in his world that moves. People carry things behind him and the light of the fire makes these objects, and not the people, visible in shadow.
When the prisoner hears things, he begins to make the connection between the sound and the shadow. He makes the intellectual leap and comes to believe that the shadows themselves make the sounds.
Then the prisoner is set free. He can turn around and see the fire. The objects. The world as he knew it is different, but he doesn’t understand it. The fire is hot and bright and it hurts. But nothing like what he experiences when he leaves the cave.
Outside, the world is enormous. Limitless. The sun provides much more light than the fire in the cave. So much moves. When he goes back inside the cave, he can begin to make sense of what he has seen. But he can’t return to who he was.
We are introduced to a man living in a sort of cave. He was born blind. Jesus comes, spits on the dirt, making a muddy paste, like clay. He rubs the clay in the man’s eyes and tells him to go and clean himself up. Then he’ll be able to see.
Freed from this prison, the man slowly begins to understand. He doesn’t just go from seeing the world in darkness to light, but he goes from misunderstanding the nature of the world to understanding who has come to redeem it.
This man isn’t the only prisoner, set free to see the world with new eyes. Everyone in the story has been set free. Unfortunately, they struggle to leave the cave, afraid of the light. And the light of Christ.
We see in the cave itself, a place where the real and the imagined collide. The prisoner reasons the best he can that the sounds he hears are made by what he can observe. From the confines of the prison and the existence as prisoner, this makes a great deal of sense. And having these truths, developed over time, challenged by something new or different really does hurt. Observing the fire, the source of all these images doesn’t ring immediately true.
All humans fight the revelation of truth. Studies reveal that we are more likely to believe wrongly after given statistical evidence to the contrary. In other words, we believe more when we’re proven wrong. We reject proof so easily, we can call it part of human nature.
The physical world, then; the place in which we can best observe and associate, much like the man in the cave; becomes the source of our greatest conflict. The man was blind. Now he isn’t. In the physical world, there is no solution that makes sense.
So they/we retreat. Afraid. We don’t know how this will effect what we believe. So we reject it.
At the beginning of the story, it isn’t only the Pharisees that are confused by the healing. It is the disciples, too. Not just the story’s bad guys, but the good guys. If it strikes the bad guys and the good guys, then it is time to admit that it is everyone’s problem.
They ignore the healing, the good thing, the saving, the reuniting and reconciling, the work, the missio dei that has occurred right here. Everyone (except the formerly blind man) misses it. Why? They’re obsessed with the physical and who to blame. No time to celebrate—we’re busy assigning blame. So what if the man can see and the laws of nature have been manipulated by the Son of Man—I want to know who sinned in the first place.
Tradition hates the truth. It is too busy with details: the hows, the whos, and the whys. If he heals, it must be good. If he does it on the Sabbath, he must be evil. If he is blind, he must have deserved it. We’re in power, so we must be better than they are. The poor deserve it because GOD must like it that way. All of this blaming and judging prevent the people from seeing. This is the proof that we are blind.
In the story, the people get evidence of the miracle, and yet they continue to resist. They refuse to exit the cave. They reject revelation in their midst. Remember, these people represent the religious world—its authorities and its cultural expectations. For us, in our time, we have watched the end of Christendom: when Christianity was not only the favored, but the ruling religion. Blind to its problems. Oblivious to the way it breaks its own rules and rejects its own Christ. Protected its own interests, even when children were abused and minorities were lynched. For God, of course.
The One Who Believes
What a great image this troubling story ends up giving us, however. The smart, the capable, the leaders and future leaders, are all still blind. But this man is able to see. Not just physically, but spiritually. He comes to get it. And we see, when the Pharisees come back, trying to get more info about Jesus and his response is either purely naïve or delightfully edgy:
“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?”
Because the true power of this story is not in the mud rubbing or magic tricks. It is that this man who had yet to actually see Jesus in the text was telling the world about him. Because giving and hearing the testimony of one who believes is related to becoming a disciple. Like the woman at the well, who told the people of her city and they came to believe through her.
This isn’t about hearing or seeing only. It isn’t about the physical or the rational. It isn’t about how much we believe or how we put it into words so much as how we share it. How we gather and how much of ourselves we give to it.
We are free to leave the cave, to see, as if for the first time. But we have to allow our eyes to adjust without giving up. We have to trust that we’ll be able to make sense of what we see and that GOD is still with us. Just as it was promised. Always with us. Trying to save us. Even if we are trapped in the prison of our own making.