Lent 4A 2005 John 9:1-38
We all have probably heard or read this classic story about blindness:
Once there was a village where all the inhabitants were blind. When a man passed one day riding an elephant, a group of the
village men cried out asking the rider to let them touch the great beast, for though they had heard about elephants, they
had never been close to one.
About six of them were allowed to approach the animal, each being led to touch a different part of the body. After a time,
the rider left, and the blind men hurried back to the people to share their experience. "So what is an elephant like?" the
people in the crowd asked their six friends.
"Oh, I know all about elephants," boasted the man who had touched the animal's side. "He is long and high, built like a thick
"Nonsense!" shouted the man who had touched the elephant's tusk. "He is rather short, round, and smooth, but very sharp. I
would compare an elephant to . . . well, let's say a spear."
A third man, who had touched the ear, chimed in. "It is nothing like a wall or spear. An elephant is like a gigantic leaf,
made of thick wool carpet, that moves when you touch it."
"I disagree," said the fourth man who had handled the trunk. "An elephant is much like a large snake."
The fifth man shouted his disapproval. He had touched a leg of the great beast. "It is plain to me than none of you knows
what an elephant looks like. It is round and reaches toward the heavens like a tree."
The sixth man, who had been placed on the elephant's back, cried out, "Can none of you accurately describe an elephant? He
is like a gigantic moving mountain."
To this day, the people of that village still have no idea what an elephant looks like. (1)
In the biblical text, this story of the man born blind continues with a confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees who
had interrogated and driven out the man born blind:
39 Jesus 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
As we dive down into the deep waters of this Gospel lesson, one of the important questions coming to mind is this: “Who
are the blind?” It is not so simple a question to answer as it might seem at first glance or first hearing. For example,
many of us may have had some experience with people who are blind. For many years of the late 20th Century it was not uncommon
to see blind people running little concession stands at various public locations. I even met a blind key maker once in a
little shop like the old Fotomats that once dotted Virginia strip mall parking lots.
Some years ago on this particular Sunday in Lent I spoke at great length about my great grandmother Scott who became blind
in her early sixties at a time before the commonplace miracles curing cataracts were available. Not once did she complain,
however, and had a delightful sense of humor about her experiences when blind.
During one of her visits to my boyhood home she tripped over the threshold of the bathroom. My mother panicked and was pulling
on her arm while shrieking at the top of her voice – until she heard my great grandmother laughing and saying, “Mildred,
if you will just calm down and let go of me, I know how to get myself up safely – I’ve been doing it for years.”
It was in 1818 in France that Louis, a boy of 9, was sitting in his father’s workshop. The father was a harness-maker
and the boy loved to watch his father work the leather.
"Someday Father," said Louis, "I want to be a
harness-maker, just like you."
"Why not start now?" said the father. And he took a piece of leather and drew a design on it. "Now, my son," he said, "take
the hole-puncher and a hammer and follow this design, but be careful that you don’t hit your hand."
Excited, the boy began to work, but when he hit the hole-puncher, it flew out of his hand and pierced his eye! He lost the
sight of that eye immediately. Later, sight in the other eye failed. Louis was now totally blind.
A few years later, Louis was sitting in the family garden when a friend handed him a pinecone. As he ran his sensitive fingers
over the cone, an idea came to him. He became enthusiastic and began to create an alphabet of raised dots on paper so that
the blind could feel and interpret what was written. It was in this way that Louis Braille opened up a whole new world for
the blind--all because of an accident! It was a whole new way of seeing in the mind’s eye, of opening the mind’s
eye and allowing a physically blind person to connect to the world in a new and wonderful way. (2)
This matter of blindness, of not seeing, really, to look at it from 90 degrees so to speak, is much more than simple physical
blindness. The Greek adjective for blind, tuphlos, is used some 54 times in the New Testament. It is a favorite New Testament
metaphor for spiritual blindness, hardness of heart, and foolish stubbornness. It is the sense in which it is used with regard
to the blind man’s interrogators in today’s gospel passage.
In a near poetic moment, the theologian Frederick Buechner observed: "People are prepared for everything except for the fact
that beyond the darkness of their blindness there is a great light. They are prepared to go on breaking their backs plowing
the same old field until the cows come home without seeing, until they stub their toes on it, that there is a treasure buried
in that field rich enough to buy Texas. They are prepared for a God who strikes hard bargains but not for a God who gives
as much for an hour’s work as for a day’s. They are prepared for a mustard-seed kingdom of God no bigger than
the eye of a newt but not for the great banyan it becomes with birds in its branches singing Mozart. They are prepared for
the potluck supper… but not for the marriage supper of the Lamb." (3) And they are not lining up to volunteer for the
I’m not sure exactly what that means, but it sounds right.
One last story:
The story concerns two blind men who had been healed by Jesus, who happened to meet one day, and they were so excited to meet
someone else who had been healed. They talked about the wonder of sight, the color of flowers, the beauty of butterflies,
the glory of sunrises, the faces of children and grandchildren.
They talked about the wonder of having seen the face of Jesus. They were laughing and having a great time together, when one
of them said, "And do you remember how Jesus took that mud, spit on it, and put it into your eye?"
The other fellow looked kind of stunned, and answered, "Why no, he just said, 'Receive your sight,' and I could see."
The first fellow said, "Wait a minute - now just wait a minute here. You mean he didn't use any mud?"
"Well, did he at least have you wash in the pool of Siloam?"
"No - of course not - who ever heard of anything so ridiculous as mud in your eye?!"
"Well," said the first man, "if he didn't put mud in your eyes and have you wash in the pool of Siloam, you are still blind!
Blind - do your hear me? Because that's the way Jesus healed me; that's the way he does it!"
Then the second man began to get angry. He shouted, "Mud, mud, mud! Who ever heard of using mud?! That's the dumbest thing
I have ever heard! You still have mud in your eyes. You're the one who's still blind!"
They got into a big argument - their relationship was destroyed, and right then and there, they formed the first two denominations:
the Mudites and the Antimudites! (4)
And that’s how denominations got started. Since then, of course, the church has been fighting and splitting over issues
not a whole lot more significant than that!
Which are we, Mudites or antiMudites? Or is that the wrong question. Maybe the right question is the one with which we began:
Which are the blind? Which – who – indeed.
1. Adapted from "The Blind Men and the Elephant" in Speaking in Stories by William White, p. 78, in eSermons Illustrations
for 6 March 2005
2. Bits and Pieces, June, 1990, p. 23-4, as adapted from eSermons Illustrations for 6 March 2005
3. Frederick Buechner, “Beyond Darkness,” eSermons Illustrations for 6 March 2005.
4. The Rev. Dale Cockrum, "Why Denominations?" First United Methodist Church home page, Olympia, Wash., September 20, 1996,
in eSermons Illustrations for 6 March 2005.