There was a man born blind.
On that point, everyone seems to have been in agreement. He had become a part of the cultural scenery, so familiar that people forgot to look at him. As a beggar he received food; but apparently he received little actual attention.
He was born blind. Everybody knew that. And that was how he was to be classified for life. He had been neatly placed in the "blind and helpless" category, so that folks were free to go about other tasks in life. Even today, society and daily culture depend upon people first being categorized and, then, staying in their place.
But all this changed on the day that Jesus walked by. Everybody still agreed that the beggar who used to roam their streets was born blind-there was a man born blind!-but no one could get straight exactly what had happened to him. The story of this dramatic event is one of the funniest stories in scripture, told in the entire ninth chapter of John. The public investigation of how this blind man became able to see sounds like an early story line for the Keystone Cops.
Here is how it goes:
As Jesus walked by one day, he met a man born blind. Immediately, this man born blind became for the disciples an object lesson. They treated him, not as a man, but as an example, or a proof text, for their own theology. "Rabbi," they ask, "who sinned-this man or his parents-that he was born blind?"
Notice how attention is so quickly diverted from the need at hand, which is the man himself, to a theological or philosophical argument. We do the same maneuver today. In the face of human need, many of us prefer to use that need to shore up our own belief system or our own political agenda. We see a person in need and we systematize. How can my belief system, or morality system, account for this phenomenon?
The maneuver is inevitable for most of us. We have belief systems for good reasons. But if we forget the actual person standing right in front of us, then our belief system-and moral system-is useless no matter what our persuasion is.
"Who caused this to happen," we ask, "this man or his parents? Who is to blame here? Why is there blindness in the world? Why is there poverty, illness, or behavior which out and out does not match mine? Who is to blame, nature or nurture-this man or his parents?"
Jesus, as he so often does, answers with a third option, one that the questioners did not think of. Jesus said, "Neither this man sinned, nor his parents. This man is here, before us blind, so that the marvelous works of God can be shown."
What an amazing way to interpret human need or suffering! When Jesus sees someone in need, he does not use that person's plight to develop a political or moral agenda. Jesus sees opportunity, a chance to recognize God's work. God's work is revealed, not in moral statement, but in an act of mercy, in an act which pays close attention to the need itself.
Now, I have to admit that the act which Jesus performs looks a little strange to us today. It is not an act of healing which most physicians would choose to imitate today. Jesus spits into the dirt, makes a little mud, and then smears it into the man's eyes! Jesus says, "Go wash your eyes in the pool of Siloam." The scene is as if Jesus makes a grimy mud of short-sighted human observation and rubs that mud directly into the affected area of human need, so that it can only be God who can bring clear sight out of the mess.
And God does. The man goes away, performs the task, and returns able to see. The miraculous deed is done. But the story is still young, for here begins the marvelous comedy of shallow human comprehension. In fact, it is the comedy of blind human mis-comprehension! For no one seems able to comprehend this miracle; its effect lies completely outside their realm of interpretation and possibility.
Listen to them try to understand! The neighbors ask themselves, "Isn't this the man who used to sit outside and beg? Isn't he part of the same old familiar scene?" "Yes," some of the neighbors claim, "he is the man."
"No, he's not," others say. "He just looks like the same man." And finally someone has the sense to ask the man himself. Again, notice how the neighbors prefer, at first, to talk among themselves, to interpret the event first for themselves, without paying actual attention to the man himself.
And when they do finally ask the man, he responds very simply, "Yep, I'm the man."
"Then how were your eyes opened?"
"A guy called Jesus made mud, rubbed it in my eye, told me to go wash in the pool, and I did. Now I can see."
"Well, where is he?" they ask.
And the man replies, "I don't know." Throughout this story, the man born blind represents utter simplicity and elegant truth. He replies to every question honestly and directly. He refuses to speculate about political or theological agendas. He knows only what Jesus asked him to do. He has no idea where the guy called Jesus is right now.
So they took the poor man to see the Pharisees, that devout group of religious leaders who tended to have everything figured out. The man repeats his simple story. The Pharisees argue among themselves. "How can a man heal on the Sabbath?" they ask. He must not be from God at all. They are divided. And then-again-someone thinks to ask the healed man himself. "What do you think of him?" they ask. It is an afterthought, but the healed man is beginning to get the picture. This guy Jesus, who I do not even know, must be some kind of prophet. He is projecting new life, the new word of God, into a crazy and divided human situation. (That is what a prophet does.)
But the Pharisees are still divided. They decide to get the testimony of the poor man's parents. Maybe the man was not born blind after all; let's get the parents to tell the truth. Well, the parents do tell the truth, again in its simplest and most elegant form.
They say, "Yes, we know that this is our son. Yes, he was born blind. But as to how he can see now, we have no idea." And then the parents repeat the greatest truth of the story. They say, "Ask him; he is of age." He can tell you the truth, if you pay attention to the person in need. The person in need can tell us the truth! In fact, that person can reveal God to us, but we have to ask that person, not speculate among ourselves.
So the Pharisees go back to the man. "Give glory to God," they shout out. "The man Jesus is a sinner. How do you now see?"
And, here, the healed man begins to grow bolder. He begins to see all the more clearly. He says, "Whether he is a sinner or not, I do not know. All I know is that I once was blind, but now I see."
The discussion becomes more intense. "What did he do to you?" the Pharisees ask. "How did he open your eyes?"
"I have told you already!" the healed man responds. Then he taunts them with still more boldness. "I have told you already. Do you want to hear it again so that you can become his disciples, too?"
Well, there, the Pharisees become livid. "You are his disciple," they say. "Not us. We are disciples of Moses. As for this man Jesus, we do not know where he comes from."
And the healed man taunts all the more. He says, "Why, that is an astonishing thing. A man heals my eyes, but you do not know where he comes from. If he weren't from God, could he do such a thing?"
The Pharisees have had enough. They drive him out. It is gospel high comedy!
But, finally, at the end of the story, Jesus finds the healed man again. Now comes the time for interpretation and reflection. The act of healing has occurred. Jesus asks, "Do you believe in the Son of Man?" "Who is he?" responds the healed man, just as honestly as he always has. "I who speak to you am he," Jesus responds.
And the healed man proclaims, "Lord, I believe."
With that proclamation, the healing is indeed complete. The man born blind sees not only the world around him, with utter and complete honesty. The man born blind now also sees Jesus himself, the Lord of that world, who can bring clarity even out of the mud made from human spit.
Our scattered speculations, emerging as they do only from a need to defend our own agendas, are only as clear as mud in the eyes of God. As long as we seek only to fit the acts of God into our human picture, we are blind, unable even to comprehend what God may have for us in the future.
At the end of the ninth chapter of John, some Pharisees begin to see. The evidence of that sight is their own questioning. They question whether they can see at all. They ask Jesus, "Surely we are not blind, are we?"
And Jesus' response is sharp and precise: "If you say, 'We see,'" Jesus says, "then your sin remains."
Be careful, then, whenever we say, "We see." Our human speculation, as fun and provocative as it may be, can never comprehend the amazing power of God. We can never enclose the marvelous presence of God. God will burst the boundaries and walls of our personal agendas with new light.
That light is Jesus, the Lord, the Light of the World, who shines a new light in our lives. Jesus does that by focusing not on the reasons for illness, not on the philosophical justifications of reality, but by focusing on human need. There are people around us whose needs are so familiar to us that we now ignore them. They were born blind, we say, and that is that.
Jesus, however, refuses to walk right by them, just as Jesus refuses to walk right by each one of us. Jesus wants to touch each one of us with sight. And every person-blind or seeing, Pharisee or disciple-is an opportunity for Jesus. Each of us is an opportunity for God to reveal light in utter and elegant simplicity. Let Jesus touch our eyes today; and we will see the Light of the World.
Let us pray.
Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world, evermore give us this bread that he may live in us and we in him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God now and forever. Amen.