The Saint John’s Bible, John Frontispiece: The Word Made Flesh. Donald Jackson, 2002
Wednesday, May 20th
(Editor’s Note: I’ve included the entire ninth chapter of John’s Gospel here, because the complete story of Jesus’ interaction with the blind man and the Pharisees is so fascinating.)
As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He answered, “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.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.” They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.” The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.” So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “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?” Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”They answered him, “You were born entirely in sin, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out. Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. 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.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains. –John 9:1-41
I’ve always been fascinated with the concept of default assumptions, the idea that what is not known to be true is usually believed to be false. Put another way — our world conditions us so that we see what we expect to see, and so we miss the truth right under our noses. A classic example of a default assumption is an old riddle that I often referred to for years when leading workshops. You may have heard it: A man is driving his son to a baseball game. Their car gets stuck on a railroad track. A train comes along and strikes the car, killing the father and critically injuring the son. When paramedics deliver the boy to the hospital, the doctor says, “I can’t operate on this boy. He’s my son.” So who was the doctor? You cannot imagine how many listeners have been totally stumped by this riddle, unable to come up with the answer! Of course, in today’s more gender-equal world, the answer may seem obvious: The doctor was his mother. However, for the many years when I’ve used this example, people automatically pictured a male doctor and could not get past that image to solve what should have been an easy riddle.
Another term for default assumption is “Closed-World Assumption”, a perfect title, because as human beings we tend to assume that our knowledge is complete, and so we are unable to see beyond our standard expectations and biases. The Pharisees were classic examples of closed-world assumption with their view that anyone who healed on the sabbath was a sinner, and therefore, not of God. Yet their final question was the ironic, “Surely we are not blind, are we?”
For those of you interested in the details of this story, let me provide you with a beginning list of things to examine:
First of all, this healing comes on the heels of one of Jesus’ more powerful statements, “I am the Light of the World.” So often in John’s Gospel, Jesus does the sign, and then it is elucidated. In this instance, he teaches, then models out his teaching with a miracle which John sees as a sign of the Christ.
Note the theological nature of the questions from both the disciples and the Pharisees . . . They want to know whether it was this man who sinned, or was it his parents? Obviously, they hadn’t read the book of Job, which deals with this very issue!
Pay attention to the man who is blind and how he listens. His blindness has increased the acuteness of his hearing, and as he listens in, I can’t help but think that he is first put off by what is asked . . . people assuming his sin in one way or another. But later on, he perks up to the non-judgmental attitude of Jesus. Jesus’ encouraging words were the first he had heard when he wasn’t being blamed.
This is one of three miracles in which Jesus employs the method of using spittle. (The other two are found in Mark’s Gospel — 7:33 and 8:23). This use of spittle was controversial in Jesus’ time, with some rabbinic scholars calling it inappropriate, even going so far as to classify it with magic. However, it was a prescription of the times. Pliny, the Roman historian and collector of that era, called it “scientific information,” and devoted one whole chapter of his work to the use of spittle. (He called it good potion for poison, protection of epilepsy, leprous spots, venereal disease, crick in the neck, and warts, to name a few.) Whatever, it is worthy to note, I think, that Jesus used the method of the day and the custom of the times in his work.
Also, it’s interesting to note that Jesus sends the man to the Pool of Siloam, which was the location of his previous healing of the crippled man, the place where the angel supposedly stirred the water.
I’ve often imagined the thoughts of this man stumbling to Siloam in hopes of receiving his sight. I wonder if he didn’t have a second thought or two about whether or not this was another prank, because physically challenged people have pranks pulled on them all the time, which reveals a deeper sickness, of course.
Also, pay attention to the results of the miracle. Look what happens to the man. His healing brings him certain notoriety. He is brought before the Pharisees and asked questions . . . leading questions about the impropriety of healing on the Sabbath. (After all, the Mishnah reads that only life-threatening instances could be addressed on the Sabbath.) Interestingly enough, this man will not be dissuaded by their accusations. His response to them is quite firm: “He is a prophet.” These Jews immediately set about to invalidate the healed man’s story by going to his parents. They were able to intimidate them by suggesting excommunication, which would have had economic as well as religious consequences with being forced out of the community. These parents wash their hands of the matter by stating that their son is now of age to answer for himself. When the Jews go back to the man for the second time, they begin a formal investigation. This can be seen in the phrase they use, “Give God the praise,” which is a technical term in appealing for truthfulness (Joshua 7:19). It is a close cousin of, “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” They again try to lure him into repudiating Jesus by calling Jesus a sinner.
The man is quite intelligent, I think, because he answers, “I can’t speak for his condition; but I can speak for mine.” This statement is an illuminating insight in and of itself on evangelism. God expects nothing of us but our own story. Theology is good, but story is better. Few people come to Christ because of reasonable arguing. They come out of personal experience.
When the man is cast out of the temple in judgment, he is found by Jesus. In his being found, John underscores this man’s faith by saying that he believed in Jesus — a most powerful verb in the author’s eyes.
Norman Neaves, the gifted pastor from Oklahoma, once said something that I think applies to this sign: “A miracle is any event that opens up the future for someone whose life was previously blocked out and shut down and hemmed in!”
Several years ago I was mesmerized by something that happened at an Academy Awards ceremony. Marlee Matlin, the star of Children of a Lesser God, was on the program as a presenter. Ms. Matlin, who has been deaf since infancy and normally communicates by reading lips and using sign language, spoke publicly for the first time. It was quite stirring — miraculous, if you will — and people were quite moved. Viewing that scene, I thought about how elated everyone was, but I thought about Marlee’s teachers, the ones who worked so many long hours with her, guiding and giving her instructions and confidence. I’m sure that those individuals were the proudest ones there. That thought drew me to Helen Keller’s amazing story . . . about the long hours that Anne Sullivan invested in helping her overcome her handicaps. For instance, Anne would take an object like a doll and put it in Helen’s hand, and then she would spell “d-o-l-l” into her other hand, hoping that Helen would associate that word with that object. One morning Helen and Anne walked down to the well house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle, and Anne put Helen’s hand under the waterspout and spelled “w-a-t-e-r” in one hand while the water gushed over the other. For the first time, Helen began to perceive the mystery of language. It was a slow process. It certainly didn’t happen overnight. But gradually, through the patience and love and determination of Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller grew into a person of strength, confidence, and world-wide inspiration to so many. It’s no wonder, then, that when the play and movie were made, they featured not only Helen, but her dedicated teacher. In fact, the story line centered more on Anne Sullivan than it did on Helen. And the title? …The Miracle Worker. And what a descriptive title, because Anne Sullivan was a miracle worker, wasn’t she? Through her patience and care and insight she was able to bring Helen from the dark confines of solitary confinement into a world of relationships and spontaneity. The question I would like to pose for us today is this: In what sense did Anne Sullivan work a miracle? Did she do something that was supernatural? Did she suspend the laws of nature and work some kind of magic? Did she do something utterly inexplicable and completely beyond the realm of understanding? Or is there another sense in which the word “miracle” is applicable to what she did?
Realizing that this devotional is running a bit long, I just can’t help but include something else about Ms. Keller. You may know that she and Mark Twain were very close friends. In fact, he was so taken with her that he once said, “She is fellow to Caesar, Alexander, Napoleon, Homer, Shakespeare, and the rest of the immortals. She will be as famous a thousand years from now as she is today.” Shortly after their first meeting, Twain formed a circle to fund her education at Radcliffe College, which led to her publishing an autobiography at the age of 22, which in turn led her to become almost as celebrated as Twain himself.
Today I would like for us to consider the words Keller wrote at the passing of Twain. The two had been friends since this blind, deaf-mute child was fourteen years old. She remembered their meeting quite well: “The instant I clasped his hand in mine, I knew that he was my friend.” They visited each other frequently and on the occasion of his death, she penned these words:
He knew with keen and sure intuition many things about meand how it felt to be blindand not to keep up with the swift ones — things that others learned slowlyor not at all.He never embarrassed meby saying how terrible it isnot to see,or how dull life must be,lived always in the dark.He wove about my dark wallsromance and adventure,which made me feel happy and important.Once when Peter Dunne exclaimed,“God, how dull it must be for her,every day the sameand every night the same as the day,”Twain said,“You’re wrong there;blindness is an exciting business,I tell you;if you don’t believe it,get up some dark nighton the wrong side of the bedwhen your house is on fireand try to find the door.”
Mr. Clemons thought he was a cynic,but his cynicism did not make him indifferentto the sight of cruelty, unkindness, meanness or pretentiousness. He would often say, “Helen, the world is full of unseeing eyes, vacant, staring, soulless eyes.”He would work himself into a frenzyover dull acquiescence to any evilthat could be remedied.True, sometimes it seemed as if he let looseall the artillery of heaven againstan intruding mouse,but even his “resplendent vocabulary”was a delight . . .
To be hampered and circumscribed as I am,it was a wonderful experienceto have a friend like Mr. Clemons.I recall many talks with himabout human affairs. He never made me feel that my opinions were worthless,as so many people do.He knew that we do not think with eyes and ears,and that our capacity for thoughtis not measured by five senses.He kept me always in mindwhile he talked,and treated me like a competent human being. That is why I loved him.
Perhaps my strongest impression of himwas that of sorrow.There was about himthe air of one who had suffered greatly.Whenever I touched his face,his expression was sad,even when he was telling a funny story.He smiled, not with the mouthbut with his mind — a gesture of the soulrather than of the face.His voice was truly wonderful.To my touch, it was deep, resonant.He held the power of modulating it soas to suggest the most delicate shades of meaning,and he spoke so deliberatelythat I could get almost every wordwith my fingers on his lips.Ah, how sweet and poignantthe memory of his soft, slow speechplaying over my listening fingers.His words seemed to take strange, lovable shapes on my hands . . .
I wonder how Twain would have felt had he been like his own Tom Sawyer and read these elegiac words of his friend. They do describe, after all, a person who sounds a lot like Jesus. And is there a higher compliment? Helping the blind to see is our calling, and one doesn’t have to be a miracle worker to do that . . .
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
Have you ever had an experience of seeing for the first time, one of those moments when you were suddenly aware of something that had been in front of you all the time? Thank God for the miracle of seeing in new ways.
When I was a student minister, I once had the students on a retreat role-play about this story. I divided them into twos, and for thirty minutes one of each pair would lead his/her blindfolded partner on a cross-camp hike to a spot where they would find a treat. The blindfolded person was forced to rely on her/his partner to make the journey. After the treat, we asked the couples to exchange roles for the return trek – the blindfolded person would take the lead, and the former leader would be blindfolded. Upon their return to our meeting cabin, they shared their revelations about their feelings of reliance and leadership. Do you know someone who needs your leadership? …Or, could you possibly benefit from someone’s leadership? Is there a person you know who might help you find your way to a fuller understanding of God’s Kingdom?
How might we as a congregation emulate the model of Jesus and lovingly open others’ closed-world assumptions? …Or, do we have any assumptions of our own that could bear opening?
A Poetic Guide for Prayer: John Milton’s Sonnet 19: “When I Consider How my Light is Spent”
(The following poem, composed circa 1652, grapples with the subject of the poet’s blindness later in life, as well as his changing relationship with God. Many of Milton’s best-known poems, including the epic work Paradise Lost, were composed through dictation, transcribed by others, including the poet’s daughters and the English metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell.)
When I consider how my light is spent, Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide, And that one Talent which is death to hide Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent To serve therewith my Maker, and present My true account, lest he returning chide; “Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?” I fondly ask. But patience, to prevent That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest: They also serve who only stand and wait.”