The man who Jesus cured of his blindness is never named in the story. The word used to describe him is “anthropos” which is the Greek word used to designate a human being without specifying gender, ethnicity or historical context. The man born blind is everyone. When we hear this gospel story we usually try to figure out where we fit in, which character we identify with. We may be the type of person who is bound by unshakeable convictions. We may be someone who often wonders what God is up to. We might always look to the authorities to give us the answers. But when hearing this story, we are invited to be anthropos, to imagine ourselves as an ordinary human being who is blind but willing to be given the gift of sight. Of course, there is physical sight and there is insight, the ability to see the truth.
The story begins with a man who has no inkling of what is going to happen to him. He sits and begs because he blind and has no way to support himself. The disciples, knowing the Jewish belief of the day, that disabilities came either from a sin of the parents or from something a person themselves did, ask Jesus who sinned to cause this man’s blindness. Jesus’ response was “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” Not only did that probably catch the disciples by surprise, imagine how the blind man felt. He can’t see what is going on, and suddenly he hears himself referred to as someone through whom God will work.” It clearly wasn’t going to be an ordinary day for him.
Jesus does not ask the man if he wants to be able to see, he just goes ahead and acts. He makes the mud and instructs the man to go to the pool of Siloam and wash. Amazingly, the man does not say anything, he immediately obeys Jesus and goes to the pool. He was receptive to Jesus’ word and obeyed his command even though he had no clue as to what the outcome would be. He came back transformed, having been blind since birth, he was now able to see. Being in the presence of Jesus, hearing Jesus’ words and obeying them had transformed his life. God instructs us to “listen to him,” and without prior knowledge, the man did just that.
Transformation does not mean that our lives become easy. When his neighbors encountered him, they were amazed, asking wasn’t he the blind man who used to sit and beg? Some said he couldn’t be, it was just someone who resembled him. The man never denies it, he tells them, “I am the man.” When he tells them the story of how Jesus restored his sight, they are troubled enough that they bring him to the religious authorities. The man is really in for it now. Many of the people who encountered Jesus considered themselves special, in possession of a unique insight into the ways of God. Situations like this make their worlds go completely out of whack. The Pharisees were such people. Although they would deny that they sometimes undermined the word of God, they were stuck in the position they had taken that revelation was finished. There was no need for discernment because all the answers had already been given
We ourselves can be skeptical, so perhaps we can understand why the villagers and the religious authorities were so skeptical of the man’s story. He repeated what happened several times. Because the healing had taken place on the Sabbath, they jumped to the conclusion that Jesus could not be from God because if he did he would never have “worked” on the Sabbath. When asked, the man described Jesus as a prophet. But they were still skeptical and went to his parents and verified that he had been born blind. The parents did not really want to get involved with the religious authorities so told them to ask the man himself as he was an adult.
This brings up an interesting historical context that is seen only in the Gospel of John. It is believed that John was written many years after the other three gospels, probably after the year 90. We know that the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70. After that, Judaism was no longer centered around temple worship, but became a religion observed in local synagogues. By the year 90, the leaders of the synagogues were no longer open to allowing Jews who believed that Jesus was the messiah to participate as members. Until then the followers of Jesus still worshiped at the temple and celebrated Jewish holidays. They also met in homes to share agape meals, which would evolve into the celebration of the Eucharist. This story describes the turning point where that would no longer be permitted, although that was not true in the setting of the story, which takes place about 60 years earlier while Jesus was alive.
After conducting these interviews with the man, the Pharisees completely lost their patience. Their logic was that what had happened to him could not be an act of God, because the person who healed him did not obey the Sabbath law. Therefore, Jesus was a sinner, and so the man whom he healed also had to be judged as a sinner. In Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) Pope Francis describes the devil’s kingdoms as the places where “everything comes under the laws of competition…where the powerful feed upon the powerless.” Those in authority had all the power and so were able to force the man out of the synagogue.
The first time Jesus encountered the man he offered restoration of his physical sight. Now, when he hears that he has become an outcast for a different reason, he comes to offer him solidarity and insight. Once again Jesus takes the initiative and asks the man if he believed in the “Son of Man” who was to come. The man asks, “who is he?” In a parallel response to the Samaritan woman at the well, he tells the man that “I am the one, the one who is speaking with you.” Jesus was affirming the conclusion that the man had offered to the authorities, that he came from God. Now the man could say with complete conviction, “Lord, I believe!”
Jesus attempted to explain to the religious authorities that blindness is not a sin, but choosing blindness, refusing to see and believe in God’s revelation and work in the world is a sin that closes us off from God. We are challenged by this story to practice discernment, to be open to the unexpected and unusual ways in which God works in our lives. First, we have to accept that we begin as blind to the range of God’s possibilities, and then with faith we become open to being surprised by the new vision and insight that God offers. We do not live in fear of new possibilities, we allow ourselves to be sent and to be transformed by the light of God’s grace. Our faith and hope makes anything possible with God. Amen.