Sermon: Sunday of the Blind Man 9/6/24

Sunday of the Blind Man

John 9:1-38, Acts 16:16-34

In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, as Saint Paul and those with him are going to a place of prayer, they encounter a slave girl possessed by a spirit of divination, who for days followed them shouting, ‘These men are the servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to us the way of salvation’ (Acts 16:17). Although the girl speaks the truth, St Paul rebukes the spirit and casts it out of her. In doing so, he frees her not only from the spirit but also from the exploitation of her masters, who were profiting from her spiritual bondage. 

The spirit, having seen the Apostles’ power and influence, had hoped that, by praising them, it could gain the acceptance, if not of the Apostles themselves, then of their followers, allowing it to deceive and corrupt those who would not otherwise have been convinced by its powers of divination (πύθωνος). But as the Scripture says, ‘Praise is not seemly in the mouth of a sinner, for it was not sent him of the Lord’ (Sirach 15:9).

This story serves to remind us that, although the devil ‘is a liar, and the father of lies’ (John 8:44), he, like any demagogue, often comes to us under the guise of truth. Indeed, the Fathers point out that he appears to Adam and Eve in the form of a serpent (Genesis 3) precisely because the serpent represented trustworthiness.1 And this principle holds true, not only for demonic encounters, but for our inner life more generally.

While an outright lie is easily detected and an obvious sin easily recognised, and therefore easily rejected (provided we actually want to reject it), a half truth can ‘deceive even the elect’ (Matthew 24:24) and a vice hiding behind some virtue can be left to fester in the soul entirely unbeknownst to the person it is harming.

These insidious ‘temptations from the right’, as the Fathers call them, are much more dangerous than the obvious ‘temptations from the left’. This is why most of the admonishments of the Lord in the Gospels are directed, not at murderers, thieves or adulterers, but at the Pharisees and Scribes; those quintessentially ‘good people’, who had all of the right ideas and were good and moral in their behaviour, but whose pride was left unchecked and whose love had grown cold2 behind a veil of seeming virtue. When the Lord says to the Pharisees that, ‘tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you’ (Matt. 21:31), this is because the sins of such people are known to them. They know the cause of their wounds, they know where they’re going wrong, and therefore the opportunity for repentance is always there. The Pharisees, on the other hand, were oblivious to their own inner state, blinded by the ‘truth’ of their own correctness to the point that they could not recognise as Truth the One who opened the eyes of a man born blind, as we see in today’s Gospel reading.

When we give ourselves over to obvious sins, we remain in that state of servitude only for as long as we ourselves choose to (however difficult that choice may seem at times), and thus the evil spirit (literal or figurative) is always at risk of being cast out. It is when this spirit tries to establish itself through some spiritual truth, as in today’s reading, that we run the risk of a much more permanent slavery. It is no coincidence that the serpent (literally python) following St Paul in today’s reading appears as they make their way to the place of prayer.

As we remember the man born blind, let us pray that we do not remain blind to our subtle passions, and that God will allow us to see what truly motivates our declarations of truth, our prayer, our outward displays of patience, acts of kindness, words of love, bonds of friendship, lest these become the hiding places of the things that will eventually lead us astray, rather than virtues guiding us to salvation. 

Fr Kristian Akselberg

  1.  See, for example, St John of Damascus, Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, 2:10.
  2. Cf. Matt. 24:12.