Have you ever been in utter darkness? Of course I don’t mean in a house with the lights off. I mean in complete lack of light, to the point where you literally can’t see your hand in front of your face. I’ve been in a situation like that; a few years ago my family and I visited some caverns, and the guide turned off all the artificial lights. It was exciting for a moment, but I remember thinking to myself that it wouldn’t be very enjoyable to live like that.
Most of us have never really experienced blindness, but the man in today's passage had never known anything other than this. He was born blind, and he had some other things that only poured salt in the wound. First, there was no way for a blind man to make a living in that society: Your choice would be to beg or to starve. For any man to have to beg for his food would be humiliation on top of the despair of knowing that he would never see. Second, and this was even crueler, he lived in a society which commonly held a simple cause-and-effect view of suffering. You'd think that a community that knew about the book of Job would be more careful about attributing all suffering to specific sin, but apparently that wasn’t the case. The debate that the disciples brought to Jesus actually reflected a debate in Jewish society. The underlying premise was that any suffering one experienced had to be a direct result of specific sin. This man stood as a good potential counter-example: How could this man be born blind? Did his parents sin, and thus pass on God’s punishment to their son? Or did he actually sin in the womb? Believe it or not, there were actual teachers who presented the second possibility.
But when the disciples pointed out this man, Jesus started out by refocusing their attention from the theoretical to the practical. He didn’t even enter the debate about what caused the man’s suffering. Instead, he stepped forward and did something about the present suffering which was right in front of him. The only clue he gave as to the cause of the blindness was that it had happened in order that “the work of God [would be] displayed in his life.” The man's suffering, whatever the cause (or causes), was for a purpose: To glorify God and bring others to him. Of course, Jesus' miracle was meant to bring to mind his recent claim to be “the light of the world.”
There are several points which people notice about Jesus’ method of healing, and they aren’t necessarily contradictory. Jesus could have healed with a word or with a touch, but for some reason he didn’t. Why not? Why go through the process he did? Some people note the similarity between God’s original creation of man (out of the dirt) and Jesus’ creation of new “eyes” out the mud. Others point out that saliva was commonly viewed as a medicinal aid, so perhaps he was encouraging the man’s faith. Others notice that this method required an act of faith on the man’s part, so he could demonstrate obedience to Christ’s command.
Like I said, there’s nothing wrong with any of these explanations, and none of them really contradict each other. However, I think there’s a simpler explanation. If you continue with the story, you’d notice that the Pharisees objected to Jesus’ supposed breaking of the Sabbath. What?! How did he break the Sabbath?! Because according to them, you shouldn’t spit on the Sabbath, because if it rolls downhill and creates mud, that was work. So like he'd done before, Jesus deliberately provoked a confrontation with the Pharisees.
But all of this discussion puts us in danger of missing the main point here. The blind man wasn’t named, because in one sense he symbolizes all of us. Because of
Adams’s choices and ours, we’re all living in darkness. We could no more bring ourselves out of spiritual blindness than the man could cure himself of his physical affliction. And then comes our Savior, and with his power and grace, his light invades our darkness. Aren’t you glad?
Lord Jesus, I was blind, but now I see. I was in darkness, and you pulled me out of that and into your glorious light. Thank you.