This past Sunday, we heard the story of the man born blind from John’s Gospel. It begins with an odd question from Jesus’ disciples, upon encountering the man who had been blind from birth. They ask Jesus, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’
It’s a fascinating question for a couple of reasons. First, it implies that the man’s blindness is due to some moral failure. The disciples assume that there is some sin that lies behind the man’s inability to see. Second, the disciples actually suggest that the one responsible for the sin might be the man himself. What? How is it that he could have sinned before he was born? Some people have suggested that this passage in John implies some sort of biblical endorsement of the idea of reincarnation or karma, assigning the source of the man’s sin to a previous life. That’s an interesting idea, but a difficult one to support, given how alien these concepts would have been to the author of the Gospel. It seems more likely to me that the question has been framed this way in order to expose the foolishness of its premise: that sin is somehow connected to the man’s physical defect.
Jesus immediately dismantles that premise when he tells the disciples that they are wrong — that the man before them is not blind due to sin, but rather that his blindness provides an opportunity for God to be glorified. Then Jesus goes on to do a very curious thing: he heals the man’s eyes by means of a ritual. In the Gospels generally, when Jesus heals people it is very rarely accompanied by any sort of ritual at all. Usually, Jesus declares the person healed and she is. In this case, Jesus uses his own saliva to create some mud, which he then smears on the man’s eyes. Then he tells him to go and wash in a particular pool, and when he does, his sight is restored.
James Alison, in his interpretation of this passage, suggests that this moment signifies the completion of the man’s creation. The mud evokes the creation story in Genesis, in that the Hebrew word for mud or earth is related to the name Adam in the Genesis creation narratives. By making a deliberate connection between the man’s healing and the creation story, Alison says, John’s Gospel points to the man’s blindness not as a result of sin but rather as a result simply of his lack of wholeness which God, in Christ, completes in the act of healing him.
The reaction of the man’s community, and particularly of the religious authorities in that community, is quite stunning. They seem heavily invested in the notion that the man’s blindness is somehow connected to sinfulness. And, because of their investment in this notion, they cannot imagine that God would heal him of it. Yet, it’s clear the man has been healed, and so what are they to make of it? They can’t agree, and their unity against the man falls apart until he insults them by suggesting that their interest in how he was healed indicates that perhaps they would like to become followers of Jesus themselves.
The primary value of stories such as these is really how they land in us. What does a story such as this illuminate about ourselves?
While it was certainly true in the time of Jesus that people tended to equate illness or physical deformity with moral lapse, it is also true that this attitude has not disappeared in our own time. Remember the way in which the appearance of AIDS was blamed on the gay community for, well, being gay. Or the way in which some “Christian” preachers declared the terrible events of 9/11 to be the result of America’s moral failures. Or the way in which women who become victims of rape are blamed as somehow being responsible for the fact that they were assaulted. There are strong human and cultural impulses to blame the vulnerable or the victim or the person who is somehow “different” for whatever has happened to make them vulnerable, victims, or different, and to somehow hold them responsible. It is a way of keeping such persons at arm’s length, a way of denying our own responsibility toward them.
The story of the man born blind in John’s Gospel challenges this impulse rather directly, and shows us that God seeks to dismantle these patterns within us, and within the cultures and communities we inhabit. Jesus seems not to want us to see God as one who inflicts punishment for sin, but who liberates us from the ways in which our own vulnerabilities and brokenness hold us back and keep us down.
The only difference between the man born blind and most of the rest of us is that he cannot hide what is broken in him: it is there for everyone to see. Most of us have the luxury of hiding what is broken in us, allowing us to pretend that we are whole and complete when we know that there is really still work for us to do, still work for God to do with us. This story shows us God’s effort to dismantle our preoccupation with sin in favor of a preoccupation with healing and wholeness.