Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Man Born Blind

Today’s Gospel, the tragicomic story of the healing of the man born blind (John 9), is one of my very favorites. I makes me laugh aloud; it makes me sad; it is so rich in layers of irony.

First we have the disciples assuming that the man’s misfortune was a punishment for somebody’s sins. The only question was whose, his or his parents? It’s just like today, when people assume Jesus’ sufferings and death had to be punishment be for someone’s sins; and He didn’t have any, so that leaves ours. Other possibilities don’t even occur to people, so if you challenge the idea that the Passion was for punishment, they next assume you are denying it has any meaning at all, unless maybe only a revelatory one.

Then we have Jesus spitting in the dirt and making a mud ointment for the eyes of the blind man. EEE-yew! Spit! Spit and dirt! But this is Jesus’ saliva, from His deified body, cleansing and sanctifying whatever it touches. The man washes it off as Jesus tells him to, and comes back seeing.

And what’s interesting to me is, the man knew how to use his newly-given sight! I once read a true account of a 20th-Century man born blind, who received his sight through modern surgical techniques. But he didn’t know what to do with it. That is, he couldn’t tell, by looking at something, that it was round or soft or green. His brain had never made those connections between vision and shape, vision and texture, vision and color, and so forth, that we all teach small children. He found the visual input nothing but confusing, even alarming. It was easier for him to revert to getting through life the way he always had. Eventually that is what he did, never using his sight at all. But that does not happen to the man in this story; when Jesus heals, He heals thoroughly. This man understands perfectly well what he is seeing.

His neighbors bring Him to the Pharisees. Now this is not the first time the Pharisees have encountered the idea that Jesus is Messiah, and they have already agreed to throw out of the synagogue anyone who confesses this. So when the man tells them this Jesus has healed him, they have a problem. They ask, “How can a man who is a sinner do such things?” And yet, (playing the specious Sabbath card), a sinner he must be, because he had done this miracle on the Sabbath, when it was not lawful to work.

They decide to see what the man himself thinks – as if that is going to help their dilemma.

Sure enough, it doesn’t. “He is a prophet,” says the once-blind man. A prophet may not be Messiah, but a prophet still outranks a Pharisee and thus still threatens the Pharisees’ position as the religious leaders and heads of the synagogues – with all the power, prestige, and wealth that goes along with that role. In other words, a prophet still threatens their whole lifestyle, all they value. (Yes, that's what they care about. No, they don’t value the Sabbath, or give a spit about theology or the things of God in general; they are just using bogus theological issues to challenge Jesus; that’s why He used to call them hypocrites.)

But this alarming story of sight being given has got to be fake, somehow, some way! Nobody ever heard of a man born blind receiving his sight! Call the parents. Just maybe they will say, “We aren’t sure this is our son,” or “It’s he, but he was never blind; he was faking it because he’s a beggar.” Or even if they say, “It’s our son and he is blind, but he wasn’t always,” then there’s room to make some sort of a case for chicanery on Jesus’ part.

The parents do not want to sin by lying, but neither do they want to get into trouble. They throw the question right back. "We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but by what means he now sees we do not know, or who opened his eyes we do not know. He is of age; ask him. He will speak for himself." We weren’t there and it's a bit silly asking us what happened, don't you think? He was there and he's an adult; ask him.

Time to try some intimidation. Call the man back. Give the glory to God and not to Jesus, they exhort him. Jesus is a sinner.

That, I wouldn’t know, says the man, cautiously. All I know is, I was blind, now I see!

Okay, let’s go over this story one more time, see if we can find a loophole somewhere. "What did He do to you? How did He open your eyes?"

But now they’ve really irked this man, who is getting tired of being in the middle of the Pharisees’ personal Power Preservation Project. He can’t resist; he becomes sarcastic. Why do you want to hear it yet again – so you can become His disciples? He knows that's the opposite of they want; they want to be above Him! And recognized as such; their status and wealth and privilege depend upon being the top dogs.

At that, the Pharisees really step in it. They make themselves utterly ridiculous. “We are Moses’ disciples. We know that God spoke to Moses; this fellow, we do not know where He is from."

You, the most learned men in Israel, don’t know where He is from? Of course you do! Why, anybody can see Who He is! Common Sense 101: “Since the world began it has been unheard of that anyone opened the eyes of one who was born blind.” Duh! They have already realized that. That's their problem! Theology 101: “If this Man were not from God, He could do nothing." Duh, they have just beeing saying the same thing among themselves. The once-blind man, now so fed up with their hypocrisy he has thrown away caution, tells them, What a marvel, that you do not know where He is from! He's got to be, at the very least, the greatest prophet who ever lived.

The Pharisees are enraged. Are you, the complete sinner, teaching us? (Well, but you asked, didn't you, who I think this Jesus is? And you have just professed more ignorance than a common sinner has.)

They throw him out.

Then Jesus goes and finds him and reveals Himself to Him, and now the man couldn’t care less that he has been thrown out of the synagogue. He sees! And he has seen the Messiah! He has received both his physical and his spiritual sight.

But the Pharisees? Some that were with Jesus asked Him, “Are we blind also?”

Jesus said to them, "If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you say, 'We see.' Therefore your sin remains.”

He means the same thing St. Paul meant when he wrote, “Where there is no law, sin is not imputed.” (Romans 5:13) It is also an echo of what Jesus had earlier said, “And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” (John 3:19) Mere blindness or ignorance can be remedied and had the Pharisees’ blindness been innocent, this event would have cured it. But willful blindness cannot be cured unless our will changes, and it condemns us. Even the vision of the flesh could see exactly Who Jesus was and it was with full awareness of that the Pharisees were denying Him. “We see.” But their sin, and their spiritual blindness, remained unhealed.