This year, the lectionary Gospels for Lent 2 through 5 tell of amazing encounters with Jesus from the Gospel of John — and each one is longer than the last. First Nicodemus, then the woman at the well, now the man born blind.
These stories are rich, and also convoluted. They are tough to grasp hold of all at once, and the preacher who tries to deal with them in their entirety is in for a challenge.
The story of the healing of the man born blind (John 9:1-41) has a fairly simple outline. The reader’s or hearer’s confusion comes, I think, from too many twisty details being hung upon it.
- Jesus and his disciples meet a man who has been blind from birth.
- Jesus sends him off to wash in a pool, where his vision is restored.
- All the people who have known him as a blind beggar seem to no longer recognize him.
- The Pharisees interrogate him.
- He identifies himself over and over, giving all credit to Jesus, and seems to enjoy befuddling the Pharisees who want very much to accuse Jesus of sin for healing on the Sabbath.
- Finally he meets Jesus again, and Jesus helps him to a fuller confession of faith.
I think that the interesting things here can be divided into two categories: comedy and symbolism.
1. The Cause of Our Ills
The whole episode is sparked by a comical, if socially inappropriate, discussion between Jesus and his disciples. They are walking along, and here’s this blind man begging. They find out he’s been blind from birth. Right in front of the poor guy they casually discuss whose fault his blindness is — perhaps assuming that he’s also deaf.
Somebody, the disciples assume, must have sinned. Otherwise something this awful wouldn’t happen to anybody. Maybe his parents sinned. Maybe the man himself sinned — in the womb, somehow, I guess.
Thankfully Jesus resolves their puzzlement in a way that turns it to the good: No, this bad thing did not happen because his parents did something terrible. No, this bad thing did not happen because the man did something terrible — before he was born. Good grief.
This thing happened as an opportunity for God’s glory to be revealed:
so that God’s works
might be revealed in him.” (John 9:3 NRSV)
In this case, the good work of God was the man’s healing. But please don’t limit your thinking to miracles. God’s good works are shown in many different ways.
I suspect if we’d asked Jesus he might have told us that God’s good works had been revealed through this man in every year of his blindness.
- He developed faith despite his challenges.
- He persevered.
- He probably did kind things.
- Who knows?
(This, by the way, is a good word in this season of COVID-19. Did this pandemic happen because we sinned? Because our parents sinned? Because those rapscallions in the political party we don’t like sinned? No. This is an opportunity for God’s good works to be revealed in us and through us. Go and live in faith, in hope, in love.)
2. The Means of Our Cure
The second moderately funny bit here is the way Jesus chose to heal the guy.
Slow down and read it again: He spat onto the dust. In fact he spat enough that was able to pick up a handful of mud. How long did it take to work up that much spit?
Then he took this mud, and he… ew, gross.
I think there must have been a bit of conversation that John edited out here.
- I mean, did Jesus say “Hey, friend, I’ve got a big surprise for you! Guess what this is!”
- Did Jesus at least warn him? “Hey, I’m about to rub mud on your eyes. Be sure and close them tightly!”
- Or did he just shove it in his eyes, like in the painting by Assereto at the top of this post?
In any case, there’s comedy at work there.
But there is also something far deeper. Think back to Genesis, the creation of the first human being. God took the red dust (“edom”) of the earth and molded it into a person (“Adam”).
To mold dust, you need moisture. God had to add something to make it mud or clay.
Thus human beings were first made into God’s image by God using moistened dust.
Then human beings fell into disobedience and death, and God’s image was damaged.
Then Jesus came to restore God’s image in us. And in this scene with the blind man, he shows he’s renewing creation, echoing the first creation, with earth’s dust and his own saliva.
3. The Questions
There is an ongoing thread of comic dialogue in this passage, as the man who now can see is mistaken for someone else, questioned and doubted by his friends and relations, and investigated repeatedly by the religious authorities.
Throughout, his testimony is simple. Yes, I’m the man who was blind. Yes, I’ve been healed by Jesus. No, I don’t know what he looks like.
They get angrier and angrier as the now-sighted man becomes wiser and more confident.
1. The Light of the World
Jesus’ actions, especially in John’s Gospel, are heavily laden with meaning. He doesn’t just heal people. In John, Jesus gives signs.
And throughout John’s Gospel, everything from actions to words is to communicate who he is. Thus this is the Gospel where we get the “I Am” sayings.
Here an “I Am” saying is presented as Jesus’ interpretation of his own action. He is about to bring light to the eyes of a man born blind, and declares,
As long as I am in the world,
I am the light of the world.” (John 9:5 NRSV)
This statement early in the story tells us what the whole thing is about. He returns to the theme in the end, when the Pharisees ask
Surely we are not blind,
are we?” (John 9:40 NRSV)
I expect Jesus to say, “I guess you are.” I mean, you can’t see that giving sight to the blind is an act of good, a healing, a re-creation of a man’s body and abilities the way they were intended to be. They are blind to the very presence of God, the light of the world, Jesus.
But Jesus inverts the issue: The man who was born blind knew he had needs, and accepted help from Jesus. But these folks are so confident in their righteousness that they can’t admit they have a need. That denial of blindness has implications:
If you were blind, you would not have sin.
But now that you say,
your sin remains.” (John 9:42 NRSV)
(That’s a useful Lenten message, eh? Look closely enough at your life to realize you are blind to your own problems. You need the light of the world to see your sin. Only if you know you are blind can you seek help, and be forgiven.)
2. Sent to the Pool called “Sent”
The second bit of detail that bears some symbolic freight is the action that happens after Jesus puts mud on the fellow’s eyes. He sends him to wash, but notice the odd repetition:
wash in the pool of Siloam’
(which means Sent).” (John 9:7 NRSV)
Actually that’s a lot of sending.
You could paraphrase it
I’m sending you to the pool called ‘sent.’ Did you notice its all about being sent?
This moment is worth meditating on. Jesus does the odd necessary work of recreating the man’s eyes with spit and mud. But he won’t see until he realizes he’s been “sent.”
The Greek word used to explain “Siloam” is “Ἀπεσταλμένος,” a relative of the word “Apostle.” The twelve were the “sent ones.”
And perhaps it is so with you and me. God has done the good work of recreating us in his image already. But we won’t see the fruit of it until we realize we are sent, and go.
So let’s go. We have a mission to participate in, a message of good news to share.
(Hey! That’s another Lenten message…)
3. Bearing Witness with a Twist
And that larger sense of having an “apostolate,” of being sent with a mission, is exactly what this man born blind experienced.
He went to the pool and washed. But that was just the beginning.
Then he bore witness to the folks in his neighborhood:
He kept saying,
‘I am the man.’
‘The man called Jesus
made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me,
“Go to Siloam and wash.”
Then I went and washed
and received my sight.’” (John 9:9-11 NRSV)
Then he bore witness to the religious leaders:
He put mud on my eyes.
Then I washed,
and now I see.” (John 9:15 NRSV)
He is a prophet.” (John 9:17 NRSV)
And then again:
I do not know whether he is a sinner.
One thing I do know,
that though I was blind,
now I see.” (John 9:25 NRSV)
Not sure, but I think he was quoting “Amazing Grace” there.
In any case, the man’s testimony goes on. He infuriates the elders by being so confident and articulate and making them look so dumb about recognizing God as the source of goodness.
The reversal of roles here is entertaining and actually important.
It is important as an illustration of what it means to bear witness.
As Jesus says in the Synoptics, his disciples are to be brought before authorities and need not pre-plan their speeches. The Holy Spirit will give them wisdom when they need it.
That’s exactly what happens.
And as Jesus says before the Ascension, all he really wants is for us to be his witnesses. That doesn’t mean we need to become experts or master an evangelistic campaign plan. We need to speak honestly, as we would when testifying in court, about what we’ve seen and experienced. Just… bear witness.
That’s exactly what happens too.
Lastly, though, it is important because of what happens later. Going as he was sent, telling the truth to whoever asks, he meets Jesus — and much more fully. Jesus tells the man who he is.
‘Lord, I believe.’
And he worshiped him.” (John 9:38 NRSV)
I think there is something many can relate to here. It may not be universal, but this an important kind of conversion story.
We realize some gift of grace and don’t know where it comes from. We take it seriously, talking about it when asked, struggling to make sense of it. And dealing honestly with the grace we’ve received leads us, eventually, face to face with the One who gave it. We see Jesus as the source of this grace, and we believe, we worship, and we follow.
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