When Mud Gets in Your Eyes
Gospel: John 9:1-42
As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ 3Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’ 6When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7saying to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. 8The 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?’ 9Some were saying, ‘It is he.’ Others were saying, ‘No, but it is someone like him.’ He kept saying, ‘I am the man.’ 10But they kept asking him, ‘Then how were your eyes opened?’ 11He 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.’12They said to him, ‘Where is he?’ He said, ‘I do not know.’
13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind.14Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, ‘He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.’ 16Some of the Pharisees said, ‘This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.’ But others said, ‘How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?’ And they were divided. 17So they said again to the blind man, ‘What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.’ He said, ‘He is a prophet.’
18 The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight19and asked them, ‘Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?’ 20His parents answered, ‘We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.’ 22His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23Therefore his parents said, ‘He is of age; ask him.’
24 So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, ‘Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.’25He answered, ‘I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.’ 26They said to him, ‘What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?’ 27He answered them, ‘I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?’ 28Then they reviled him, saying, ‘You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.’ 30The man answered, ‘Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind.33If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.’ 34They answered him, ‘You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?’ And they drove him out.
35 Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’* 36He answered, ‘And who is he, sir?* Tell me, so that I may believe in him.’ 37Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.’ 38He said, ‘Lord,* I believe.’ And he worshipped him. 39Jesus 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.’ 40Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ 41Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.
When Mud Gets in your Eyes
As soon as his neighbours deny the evidence of their eyes, I know it won't go well for the man whose eyes had been opened. They brought the man who had been formally blind to the Pharisees. This is a mob. Facts are irrelevant. All that matters is that the mob and its leaders get what they want, which is that the status quo is undisturbed.
Here is the tragedy of the story: never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind, but this work of God, in which you would expect people to rejoice, is denied at every turn. The man is invited to incriminate himself. JN Sanders (pp242) is completely correct to compare the story to Joshua 7:19: My son, give glory to the Lord God of Israel and make confession to him. Tell me what you have done… The scapegoat is being groomed— primed for confession. Only, here, the man refuses to play the role. Eyes wide open, he says, "One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing."
In refusing the obvious facts, the Pharisees not only show they are blind. They set themselves in direct opposition to Jesus. The story begins with Jesus telling the disciples the man is not born blind because of sins; it ends with the Pharisees saying he was born in entirely in sins. They contradict Jesus.
In John 3, Jesus said, "This is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil, for all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed…" And he says, in this story, "I am the light of the world," but the Pharisees shut their eyes to the light. They expel the one who witnesses to the light; they drove him out. (This is classic scapegoating language, by the way.) Jesus makes mud from the dust of the earth to complete the creation of this person (cf the creation of the first person in Genesis) so that he may see, but the Pharisees reject being made whole. So God's works are not revealed in them.
As someone who was given, and accepted, the role of the scapegoat as a child, I am hyper alert to the dynamics of this story. While some folk may question the relevance of a scapegoating analysis, I see the mob forming even as the man returns from the pool where he was sent. But what is terrifying to me, is the role of the man: he abandons his humility (one thing I do know) and descends into sarcasm: Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes.
This is me—sharp, sarcastic, sure of my theology, schooling the opposition. Are you trying to teach us is not only a part of their driving him out. It is the reaction, and the fear, of people whose cherished view of God and the world, has been ungraciously cut off at the knees. Such a thing is all the more painful, because part of a person knows the words of the upstart beggar (read, outsider) are true. I should know; I have been doing this to people for years. I have been a hair's breadth from being a new Pharisee, and forcing my vision of the world upon people.
The Gospel of John always discomforts me. This is not from doubting its essential truths, but because its tone is so close to the stridency of those it condemns. John is the language of today, where alternate facts are created, ad hoc, to suit the vision and desires of those in power, and where the absolutes of light and dark are used to condemn and drive out.
Conspicuously absent from the story is the language of healing. Born blind, blind from birth, his eyes are opened. His sight is received. He had formerly been blind. And, in one significant place, he is called the blind man!
They said to the blind man what do you say about him? It was your eyes that he opened.
The scapegoat is being asked to condemn himself— later they will ask Jesus, "Are you the King of the Jews?"
But the man is also being asked to choose what he will see. And the man is blind, still, until he confesses as much as he sees at that moment: He is a prophet. Jesus has not so much worked a miracle, as he has opened the man's eyes to choose to see, or not.
How do we live in this unsettled world? At his best, the man held to his theology lightly: I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know is that though I was born blind, now I see. He related his experience, and his conviction that apart from God we can do nothing good.
Ironically, he had never seen Jesus at this point, and that's exactly where I am. I know what's been done to me, and for me. But the temptation is always to speak as though I am much more fully enlightened in the mysteries of God (while sounding appropriately humble.) It's a mark of Pharisaism. We forget how little we truly see, and forget how much our talking about God (theo-logy) is the poetry of conjecture. It's so much more comfortable to pretend we know what is going on. And so we tithe dill and cumin and neglect the weighty matters of the law. (Matthew 23:23)
Later in the story, the man meets Jesus again— that's a reflection of the life of faith! And he sees that Jesus is not only a prophet, but that he is the Messiah: Lord, I trust.
We know that what we see is dramatically affected by our previous experience, by our prejudice, by our fears, and by the picture we have created of the world. These things can blind us. Even so we have moments when things don't fit. We see things which contradict our view of the world.
The story of the man whose eyes were opened is also a story of cognitive dissonance. The true blindness of Pharisees is that they refuse God's gift of dissonance. They refuse the eye opening moments which offer to refocus their world. They blame and attack those who presence and vision will not fit into their world. And so they step into darkness.
Someone said recently, in my Facebook feed, "Be careful to remember that conservative Christians are the once powerful, coming to terms with their lack of social dominance." This is often true. Yet, at a very human level, these folk are simply people who are finding the world is not as they thought it was. Their hopes, and all they depended upon, have turned out to be empty. It's a moment of huge grief to realise this. It's easier to see something— anything— else.
We are blind if we do not understand that we all live here. The world is never as we imagine or hope it to be. We are always being offered inconvenient facts which are the gift of having our eyes opened. If we will not see them, it is almost inevitable that we will blame others for the problems of our world. We will make them the scapegoat for our fears and walk towards darkness.
Carole Etzler wrote this hymn:
Sometimes I wish my eyes hadn't been opened
Sometimes I wish I could no longer see….
just for an hour how sweet it would be
not to be struggling, not to be striving
but just sleep securely in our slavery.
Pharisaical blindness is to wilfully reject God's dissonance. It is to refuse to see; it is to recreate or to double down upon, a vision of a neat, ordered, unambiguous world, in the face of evidence to the contrary. It is more than sleep; it is slavery, because once we start walling off what we are seeing, we cannot stop, or our whole world will be overwhelmed. This is true whether we are Donald Trump, Peter Dutton, or Andrew Prior.
If we will not live with the pain of the mud in our eyes— live as little earthlings who know not much— then we will be blind.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
JN Sanders and BA Mastin A Commentary on The Gospel According to St John (Adam and Charles Black)
Previously on One Man's Web
John 9 - The Man who was blind
John 9:1-41 Use your eyes!
John 9 - Seeing into the Circle