A man born blind

by Jim Forest

wood engraving: Eric Gill
wood engraving: Eric Gill

One of the events Saint John dwells on — it’s the whole of chapter nine in his Gospel — concerns a man blind from birth. A beggar, he is sitting on the Sabbath at his usual spot on a street in Jerusalem and becomes the object of a question put to Jesus as he passes by: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” The assumption was that a disability had to be a punishment.

You have to imagine the blind man simply listening in his lifelong darkness to the exchange, curious as to what the rabbi will say. He hears an unexpected answer from Jesus: “It was not this man who sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made visible in him.” Then Jesus adds enigmatically, “We must do the works of him who sent me while it is day. Night comes and then no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

The blind man says nothing and asks for nothing. He makes no verbal appeal for a miracle. He is as silent as the grave.

Then Jesus, as if working on the creation of Adam, makes a paste of earth and spit, applies it to the man’s tomb-like eyes, and tells him to wash his face in the nearby Pool of Siloam. The man’s one act of faith is to obey the unseen rabbi named Jesus.

“So he washed and came back seeing,” Saint John records. By then Jesus had walked on.

The miracle is described with economy. The main part of the chapter isn’t about the healing of a blind man’s eyes but how others respond to it.

There are those who doubt this is actually the blind beggar. “Some said, ‘It is he.’ Others said, ‘No, but he is like him.’” The man insists he is himself, then tells what happened, how a rabbi named Jesus made clay and anointed him with it and sent him to wash his face in the Pool of Siloam, and afterward he could see. They ask where is this rabbi, but the man doesn’t know.

The argument becomes so heated that the disputants bring the man before a council of Pharisees, a respected group among the Jewish people for whom the careful observance of the Law of Moses had absolute priority. For them, it was obvious that Jesus was a sinner because he had made mud on the Sabbath, a form of labor, however minor, in violation of the Sabbath statutes prohibiting all work.

To get to the bottom of things and reveal what they assume is an act of deception (we too tend to assume the worst of beggars), the Pharisees call the beggar’s parents. They affirm that he is their son and that he was always blind. Asked how is it possible that he now has his sight, they respond, “Ask him. He is old enough. He can speak for himself.” Saint John explains the parents were afraid. We can take for granted that they were among the city’s poor — otherwise their son wouldn’t have had to beg. They are poor and powerless — people intimidated by lawyers.

The man was questioned a second time. Lawyers know stories don’t always hold up under persistent questioning. They say to him, “Give God the glory. We know the man is a sinner.” “Give God the glory” is similar to the proverb, “Speak the truth and shame the devil,” for God is glorified whenever the truth is told and dishonored whenever the truth is denied.

The man bears witness to what has happened to him: “Whether the man who healed me is a sinner or not, I do not know. One thing I know — I was blind and now I see.”

More than his blind eyes have been healed — he doesn’t share the fear which afflicted his parents. When asked again how Jesus cured his blindness, he tells the interrogators that he has told them the truth, but they didn’t want to hear it. “Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples?”

The word disciple must have gone off like a firecracker. Those questioning him respond, “It’s you who are his disciple — we are disciples of Moses! We know God spoke to Moses but we do not know where this one is from.”

The beggar is reckless in his response: “This is amazing,” he says. “You don’t know where he is from, but he opened my eyes.” He points out the obvious — God doesn’t listen to sinners but only to the devout. Now here is someone who has healed a man blind from birth, something absolutely unheard of. “If this man were not from God, he would not be able to do anything.”

An uneducated beggar dares to argue with prominent and well-educated men and is rebuffed for his effrontery. “You were born totally in sin,” they tell him, the assumption being that his blindness was proof of that. “Now you try to teach us!” He is shown the door.

All the while Jesus is elsewhere, but he hears what has happened and seeks out the man who had been blind. The striking thing is that once again it is Jesus taking the lead. He finds him and says, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” “Son of Man” is a Messianic title, the new Adam, the long-awaited one who would rescue Israel. The healed man responds with his own question, “Who is he, sir, that I might worship him?”

Now, with this nameless man on his first day of seeing, we stand at the absolute heart of the Gospel. Jesus answers: “You have seen him and the one who is speaking with you is he.”

The healed man’s response is immediate. “He said, ‘I do believe, Lord,’ and he worshiped him.”

Worship is both an attitude and a physical action. We can assume the man either fell on his knees or prostrated himself, actions mirroring the awareness that he was the presence of the Savior.

The key verse in the narrative is Jesus saying, “I am the light of the world.” In icons of Christ holding open the Gospel, this verse is often the text displayed — a one-sentence summation of his identity.

The story can be read on more than one level. First of all it is a faithful account of a remarkable event which happened one day in Jerusalem nearly two thousand years ago; but it also has to do with us. Putting ourselves in the place of the blind man, we can see ourselves as blind from birth — not blind in the sense of being unable to see the material world around us but blind in our inability to see God, blind in not noticing the Creator in creation, blind in our inability to see God’s image in others. It is usually a worsening blindness; as we get older we tend to become less and less amazed so that things which were once astonishing become ordinary. Boredom can become a constant condition, relief being sought through distraction. We may be far less in touch with the world around us than the blind beggar who was sitting between the Temple and the Pool of Siloam.

Sitting in darkness, I happen to hear a circle of voices discussing why it is that I have this unfortunate condition. Someone is asking if it is my fault or someone else’s? Who is to blame? Then I hear a voice speaking with confidence about “making visible the works of God.”

I can’t understand what he means. What can my disability have to do with making visible the power of God? But as the wet clay is rubbed on my face and washed off in the waters of baptismal awakening, it dawns on me that the answer is not a theory or a principle about light or enlightenment. The answer is a particular person. Jesus is not just another teacher but Christ himself, the Messiah we have awaited, who reveals himself in word and action as the Light of the World.

It wasn’t easier to believe two thousand years ago in Jerusalem than it is here and now. This chapter in Saint John’s Gospel is mainly about people not believing what they had seen or which others had witnessed. It is a story of sighted people being blind and insisting on remaining blind. It is as if they were saying, “We see enough and know enough already. We don’t need any new prophets or street-corner messiahs. We have a lifetime supply of wisdom and rules. Take your miracles and beggars and go away. We have seen enough.”

To climb the ladder of the beatitudes, we need to be climbing toward the living Christ, not a dead body or an intellectual concept. Such climbing is worship, no different from the worship of the healed man who recognized Jesus as Lord. The first part of his healing was that he could see the objects and people around him, but the more important gift was that before the day was over he realized he was in the presence of the Son of Man, the Light of the World, he who had shaped Adam from dirt and spit.

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a chapter from Ladder of the Beatitudes by Jim Forest (Orbis Books)

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