The occasion of the story is that Jesus, walking along with his band of disciples, sees a man blind from birth. The disciples pose a question, arising out of the old tradition “wisdom” which holds that successive generations are punished because of sin, either personal or that of a forbear. Such faulty thinking was still alive in Jesus’ time, and, sadly, we still see remnants of it today. Jesus is very definite in responding: “It was no sin on this man’s part, nor on his parents’ part. Rather, it was to let God’s work be revealed in him…” God’s purpose is served in history, and John’s Jesus speaks of times of darkness and light. “I am the light of the world”, says Jesus, hearkening back to Isaiah 49:6: “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
As is so often the case, Jesus engages the man physically, spitting on the ground, making mud from his saliva, then smearing the man’s eyes with the mud. He directs him to go wash in the pool of Siloam, Greek form of Shiloah = sender or, according to John’s parenthesis, “one who has been sent”. That doesn’t jibe with Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, but I’ll go with the Greek text of John! Siloam was a reservoir within the city connected to a tunnel running from the spring of Gihon, the principal water source for ancient Jerusalem. The man willingly goes off, washes, and returns, now able to see.
Eventually, the news got around and people who used to see the blind man begging begin to question how he could now see. As with most groups faced with a dilemma, everyone becomes an expert. “Wow,...it’s really him, and he can see!” “You got it wrong -- it’s just someone who looks like that blind man.” The man speaks up: “Yep, it sure is me!...that guy, what’s his name?...Jesus...yeah, he made some mud and put it on my eyes. I went and washed in the pool of Siloam, and Voilà!..I can see!”
There are always skeptics, and those who have to check everything out with the religious authorities! So, they trundle the man off to the Pharisee leaders. John quick slips in a reader’s note: “Oh, by the way, it was a Sabbath day when Jesus did all this...just for the record.” Naturally, the Pharisees want to discern what had happened, so they make the man repeat the whole story once again. Immediately, a couple of Pharisees proclaim that Jesus surely can’t be from God because he obviously doesn’t observe shabbat. According to their reckoning: 1) the man’s life wasn’t in any danger; 2) Kneading was one of the 39 works forbidden on the Sabbath by the Mishnah; 3) according to a later tradition, anointing an eye on the Sabbath was unlawful; and 4) one was not supposed to put fasting saliva on the eyes on the Sabbath. The objections didn’t go down well with some; if he’s a sinner, surely he couldn’t do such a miraculous thing. The public squabbling continues, something which interferes with “good order” for the religious leaders.
The Pharisees take a different tack by asking the man what he thinks about Jesus. “He’s a prophet!” -- a no-brainer there! The religious leaders huddle and mumble, and conclude that the guy’s lying, that he surely hadn’t really been blind from birth, so they summon the man’s parents. Probably among the community’s senior citizens, they’re obviously terrified, and probably embarrassed by all the commotion. To admit that Jesus could even possibly be the wonder-working Messiah would’ve gotten them kicked out of their home synagogue. They quickly confirm the man’s identity as their son, and that he was born blind, no question. But as to how got un-blind, “we don’t know. Ask him; he’s old enough to answer for himself.”
So the second grilling on the man starts. Pulling rank they try to bully the man into agreeing with themselves, who are obviously much wiser about such things, that Jesus is really a sinner. With a fresh and innocent directness the man tells them, “Maybe so...I surely wouldn’t know about that. But what I can say is that I was blind before, and now I can see.” They press him further, “Well, just exactly what’d he do to you. Spell it out for us.” Now the newly sighted man is getting a little testy and he delivers what I consider a delightful zinger that must’ve made those Pharisees see red: “Why tell it again? Is it because maybe you’d like to become his disciples?” That, of course, blew off the lid! Angrily, scornfully, disdainfully, these so-called religious models accuse the man of being a disciple, proudly noting they “we are disciples of Moses!” They know God spoke to Moses, but this guy...they don’t even know where he’s from. The man, whom gave the impression earlier of being somewhat soft-spoken, rises now to the occasion and challenges the sputtering Pharisees. “That’s interesting...you don’t even know where he comes from, but he opened my eyes. Surely God wouldn’t empower some stranger, especially a sinner, to do that. God listens to those who are devout and obey God’s will. Why, think about it...it’s totally unheard of that anyone, sinner or not, ever opened the eyes of someone who was born blind!”
When all else fails, corrupt religious leaders can always fall back on the excommunication card, which the Pharisees do, expelling the man from the synagogue, calling him “steeped in sin” and accusing him of “lecturing” them, as they lecture him, and finally throwing him out, maybe even physically. So much for the pious!
Word gets back to Jesus about all of this, and he seeks the man out. “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” “Who is he, sir,” the man respectfully asks, "that I may believe in him?” “You have seen him, for it is he who is speaking with you.” It seems that v. 38, about the man professing his belief and kneeling down to worship him was probably a later addition, not by John, possibly a liturgical reference. Whether v. 39-41 is also an addition, the points made are certainly valid lessons from the story. “I came...that those who do not see may be able to see, and those who [think they] see many become blind.” If the Pharisees had only been “blind”, in the sense that they really didn’t “get it”, they wouldn’t be guilty, but when their “darkness” -- denial in the face of reality -- now claims to be “light”, they’re lying, resisting Truth itself, and as such, are sinning against the Holy Spirit.
This reading and the other two readings for today’s liturgy (1 Samuel 16:1-13 and Ephesians 5:8-14) have a common thread of people being chosen by God to come into and walk in the light. 1 Samuel recounts God’s election of David as king. He wouldn’t have been Samuel’s nor David’s family’s first choice, but God is clear: “...this is he.”
Paul reminds the Ephesians and us that we, too, have been marked, chosen. He calls us “beloved children” of God, “saints”, holy ones, “children of light”. In Baptism you and I were “marked as Christ’s own forever”, just as the blind man of the Gospel was chosen by God “to let God’s work be revealed in him”.
None of us would be part of the Church had we not first experienced God’s choosing us, a pure gift. For our part, we’ve chosen to be chosen in response, to acknowledge the gift of Jesus the Light in our life, to commit ourselves to letting his light permeate all the dark and unredeemed corners of our hearts and lives, to ungrudgingly share that light with whomever is open to it.
How do I do this? How am I able to walk in the light and love to which God calls me? How do I sidestep being taken in by evil and deception, from within myself and through others? How do I avoid blindness of spirit? Both individuals and communities of faith in the Church go through all levels of spiritual blindness, as well as recognition, just as the man in the Gospel did. There are times when about all we know is that he is “that man they call Jesus”. At other times we see him as a wonder worker, a prophet, or as One whose life is marked by complete obedience to the Father. By his grace, and it alone, we may even come to that stage where we, too, can bow down in faith and say, “I do believe, Lord.”
That is a life-long struggle. I can never say “I’ve arrived.” “The Way” is a continual, deliberate choosing to put aside whatever doesn’t befit “saints”, to bear “the fruit of light” in actions that are good and right and true. How we do this, I believe, lies in the community of believers which we call the Church, those who keep coming together to share his living Word and Presence in Eucharist, then carry the light of that forth into our homes, schools, places of work, community. We need each other for regular care, support, encouragement and prayer in our personal struggles to be faithful, in our frustrations and failures, as well as in our joys and successes. It’s uniquely in the gathering which we call Eucharist, Thanksgiving, that God’s Spirit of Light comes upon us, week by week, year by year. Dorothy Day writes: “We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.”