I used to have an intense fear of going blind. I was born with weak eyesight but on top of that I was, to put it in the words of a college friend of mine “wall-eyed.” I had two surgeries as a child in an attempt to correct that. I remember waking after the second of those surgeries when I was about 9 years old. When I couldn’t open my eyes–the lids were sealed by dried excretion–I screamed out in terror. For years after that, I practiced walking around in my house in the darkness, so I would be able to get around if (or more likely when) I went blind. I’m not blind yet, but my eyesight continues to deteriorate. In fact, one of the reasons I’ve taken to using an ipad in services is because I can increase the font size so I can read my sermons and the Book of Common Prayer.
So it’s easy for me to imagine what it was like to be a blind man sitting by the side of the road, probably begging for help from passers-by. It’s easy to imagine what he sensed at that moment as he heard the approach of a group of people talking. He probably wondered whether they were likely to give him anything. As he heard their Galilean accents, perhaps he was judging whether visitors from the provinces were more or less likely to throw a few coins in his cup than residents of Jerusalem. And then he heard overheard the question, no doubt audible to him because the disciples figured that if he was blind, he might also be deaf, and whether or not he was, he wasn’t worthy of being treated as a human being, but only as a theological lesson: “Who sinned this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
The blind man is part of the scenery, an object lesson. He doesn’t speak, he doesn’t ask for money, he doesn’t ask Jesus to heal him. How many times previously might he have heard similar questions asked callously and unthinkingly in his presence? But instead of thoughtless conversation about the causes of his malady and the relationship between illness and sin, Jesus’ voice breaks through, changing the topic of discussion.
As an aside, I’d like to say just a word about this initial interchange. While the disciples’ question may seem callous to us, we need to admit the degree that such thinking continues to pervade in our world. We may not use the word sin in quite the same way, but we’re quite ready to blame illness, cancer, heart disease on unhealthy behaviors.
But Jesus directs the disciples’ attention elsewhere. I think it’s important that the initial clause in Jesus’ response doesn’t appear in the Greek. In other words, he doesn’t say, “he was born blind in order that we might work…” To put it another way, Jesus is saying, “We must work the works of him who sent me so while it is day, so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”The rest of the story helps us to understand what this might mean.
There are multiple layers, multiple scenes in this rich story and we can barely touch on many of them in the time allotted to us. So today I would like to focus on the theme of sight and blindness. It begins quite simply. Jesus and his disciples are walking along and Jesus “sees” a blind man. Nothing more than that. The disciples who are accompanying him don’t see a blind man; they see a problem, a moral question. They see the effects of sin and wonder what or whose sin caused the man’s blindness.
Jesus attempts to get the disciples to “see” what’s really going on. It’s not about the man, his parents, or sin. Rather, it’s about Jesus and God. Can the disciples see that? Will the man born blind be able to “see” that?
Jesus daubs mud in his eyes and tells him to go wash in the pool of Siloam. He does so, regains his sight, and returns to the place he had been. But Jesus is gone. Now his friends and neighbors come on the scene. They ask him what happened. They bring him to the Pharisees, who ask him the same set of questions. Finally, they ask the blind man what he thinks of Jesus, and he replies, “He is a prophet.”
In the next scene, the Pharisees interrogate the blind man’s parents. They suspect there’s some sort of scam going on and they want his parents to confess. But they’ll have none of it and throw it back on their son, “Ask him, he’s old enough to speak for himself.”
So they haul the blind, now seeing man back before them. They want him to discount the miracle and the miracle-worker. But the blind man doesn’t play along. In the end, he ridicules them for their obstinacy and refusal to accept Jesus’ power: “If this man were not from God he could do nothing.” By now, the Pharisees have had enough of this man who had been born blind and they throw him out—of the synagogue is implied. Once an outcast, living on the edge of the city, living hand to mouth, after his sight was restored and by rights he should be restored to the community, he is rejected again, by his neighbors, his parents, and finally by the religious authorities.
Only now does Jesus make a re-appearance in the story. Jesus has received word that the man born blind was driven out. And unlike the religious authorities who drove him out, Jesus seeks him out. Only now does the blind man see Jesus for the first time. Jesus asks him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” Now, the man born blind has made progressively greater claims abou the one who healed him. First he said Jesus was a prophet; then he confessed that he must come from God. But Son of Man? That term comes out of the blue and from the story, it’s not clear that the man knows anything about Jesus except that he healed his blindness. So his answer is quite logical, “And who is he, Lord?”
On the surface, Jesus’ answer makes little sense: “You have seen him.” Well, no. The man born blind hasn’t seen Jesus before. He doesn’t know who he is. But from the perspective of the Gospel of John, he has “seen” him. In the very first chapter, when Andrew asks “Jesus, where are you staying?” Jesus replies, “Come and see.” At the very end of the gospel, after the Risen Christ appears to Thomas and shows him the wounds in his hands and feet, he says to him, “You have seen and believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”
The man born blind received his sight. He also received faith. By contrast, the story ends with the Pharisees asking Jesus, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” In this story, we see two very different responses to Jesus. There’s a stark contrast between the Pharisees’ question and that of the blind man who asked Jesus, “Who is he Lord, that I may believe?” The Pharisees’ is rhetorical; they know the answer. It’s right before Jesus’ eyes. The blind man’s question is probing, searching. Even though Jesus stands right in front of his eyes, he doesn’t yet know what to make of him but he desires that knowledge.
Most of us don’t expect miracles. We may hope and pray for them; we may even need them because of the direness of our or our loved ones’ situation—terminal illness, despair, hopelessness. Many of us don’t even expect to have the miracle of a certain faith. However much we may want to believe, we have too many doubts and questions; our world-weariness or cynicism blinds us to the possibilities of renewed faith or life in Christ.
Think again about the story for a moment. The miracle of Jesus’ giving sight to the blind man was told in a matter-of-fact fashion. Just a couple of verses, all Jesus did was smear some mud in his eyes and tell him to go wash it off. The healing takes place in Jesus’ absence. The greater miracle, the miracle of the man coming to faith in Jesus Christ takes up the rest of the chapter. We see him progressing from acknowledging Jesus is a prophet, to being from God, and finally after his second encounter with Jesus Christ, he confesses, “Lord, I believe.”
That’s the real miracle. That’s the wonder. It doesn’t come in the flash of lightning, or a flash of sight. It doesn’t come all at once. He comes to faith slowly, through a series of questions, a lot of struggle and uncertainty. In his struggles, uncertainty, and blindness, we can see ourselves groping toward faith. If we continue to grope, if we continue to ask, our eyes may be opened, we may see Christ, and confess, “Lord, I believe!”