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 neighbours 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.’ 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 worshipped him. — John 9:1-12, 35-38
It looks like such a simple story: blind man suffers, Jesus heals, blind man is no longer blind. But, like a lot of scripture, there is stuff going on underneath, things that are left out by either the writer or the group who chose only a portion of John 9 for the daily reading. There is also a lot of symbolism to unpack, symbols being John’s way of saying things that weren’t perfectly clear but that lead to deeper truths.
It opens with the disciples asking whose fault was it he was born blind. How did they know he was born that way? Did he wear a sign? Most people in those days couldn’t read signs. Did they know him personally? Hardly likely since the action takes place outside Jerusalem and Jesus and his people were from Galilee to the north. Did “John,” writer of the gospel, interview the one healed or someone in the crowd? Who knows? What we are told is that there was a question about punishment for sin, whether it was inherited from the parents or was it personal. Jesus’ answer is reassuring: it isn’t punishment for sin but so that he could be an instrument to show God’s mercy. I wonder, would that be comforting to parents who have learned their beloved and more or less impatiently waited-for child is somehow not quite perfect? We know that genetics often plays a part, but then there are times when genetics has nothing at all to do with it; it just happens. Punishment? I don’t think so.
Jesus saw the man, spat in the mud, plastered it on the man’s eyes, then told him to go wash in the pool at Siloam, Siloam being a word that means “sent” or “the one sent.” How appropriate that name is for someone who is healed and sent out to demonstrate God’s mercy. The man’s neighbors saw him after his ritual bath and couldn’t believe their own eyes, orbs that they felt had always allowed them to see clearly. They took him to the Pharisees who questioned both the man and his parents. The Pharisees seemed less interested in the man’s healing as they were in (a) that it was done on the Sabbath, healing being a form of work forbidden on that day, and (b) who had done it. Evidently the Pharisees had proclaimed that anyone who professed the messiah or testified to his presence would be thrown out of the synagogue. The formerly blind man was so testifying and so “. . . they had driven him out. . . ,” revoking his membership and forbidding his presence in the synagogue and its community. That would be a hard price to pay for being an instrument of God’s mercy, but John used it to remind his listeners that it could happen to them and that they were to go on doing what they were doing, namely spreading the good news about Jesus.
A lot of things get healed these days that would have been unthinkable in Jesus’ time. There are surgeries and treatments that can take something like cataracts (which can be present at birth) and often cure them. What would have been miracles to the people of the first century are commonplace for us, so much so that we hardly ever think of them as miraculous. In those days, though, things weren’t so simple. Jesus healed a lot of people and cured a number of them.
There is a difference between a curing and a healing. A person can be cured of a disease or disorder but never healed from its aftereffects. A woman who is raped may be cured of any physical damage or disease caused by the violation but may never be healed from the experience. A soldier may return from the war zone looking perfectly healthy but be so traumatized by the experiences he had seen and undergone that he can barely function in the “normal” world. The blind man at Siloam was cured, but what of the trauma of being cast out of the synagogue because he spoke of his healing at Jesus’ hands? He believed in Jesus, but what became of him after the story in John ends? We don’t know. Perhaps he too became an itinerant apostle, spreading the word of what had happened to him and how. Perhaps in that he found his healing.
There’s a bit more to the story after today’s reading stops:
Jesus said, ‘I came into this world for judgement 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. (39-41)
Perhaps it is a question we need to ask ourselves, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” When we see someone in need and do nothing, aren’t we being blind with regard to that person? When something is wrong and we don’t try to help fix it, aren’t we being blind to what that breakage means to others who depend on it? Where do we need curing and where do we need healing ourselves? Where can we help cure and where can we help heal others, whether they be relatives, friends, or total strangers?
I think it’s a question Jesus can ask any of us. The Son of Man is waiting to put clay on our own eyes and tell us to go wash it off. Are we listening and following his instructions or are we like the Pharisees, sure of our own salvation and righteousness and casting aside any who don’t measure up to our own perceptions of who and what is acceptable to God?
In the beginning of a new year, it might be a good time to reflect on blindness of the heart as well as of the eyes.