Lent 4 26 March 2017 Year A: Healing of the man born blind (John 9)
In a few moments’ time we shall be on our feet declaring our belief that it was ‘for us and for our salvation’ that Jesus Christ ‘came down from heaven, was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and was made man’. ‘For us and for our salvation’.
‘Salvation’- it’s a very churchy word – not the kind of word you are likely to hear bandied about at the check-out at Tesco, or down at the pub. In fact, you are not likely to hear it much at all outside church buildings and the coteries of the pious. Originally it was far from being a narrowly religious or theological term. To talk about salvation in the ancient Christian languages of Greek and Latin – to talk about soteria or salus – was to talk about healing and health. So to talk about Jesus as Saviour was to talk about him as Healer, as the Physician of the human race, the Salve of our hurt. Jesus steps out of his own parable to be for us the Good Samaritan, the one who comes to where we are, left by the roadside, stripped and robbed and mortally wounded and near to death; moved with pity he comes to us, comes alongside us, ministers to us and takes care of us. That is who he is. That is what he does. That is salvation.
In their account of the things concerning Jesus in the days of his flesh, the Evangelists see the events of the Public Ministry as the fulfilment of the great prophecies of the promised dispensation of grace, when the eyes of the blind will be opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped, when the lame shall leap like the hart, the tongue of the dumb sing for joy and the oppressed go free. This is a picture of humankind delivered from estrangement and alienation and exile and restored to its rightful dignity and freedom, at home in its own proper space, ‘in a land that stretches afar’.
Faith-healers and wonder-workers were not uncommon in the culture in which Jesus lived but, in contrast to their methods and claims, his approach seems to have been generally low-key and down-beat. With him there was no drama, no noisy incantations, no special formulae. What was done was generally done quietly and as far as possible away from the glare of publicity; Jesus was not a showman.
The healing recounted for us in today’s Gospel reading is not the healing of a blind man such as we find recorded elsewhere in the Gospel accounts. This is the healing of a man ‘blind from his birth’. This is not a man who has lost his capacity for sight; this is a man who has never had sight – has never experienced light, light in all its forms and variations and gradations; colour and shadow, distance and perspective are totally unknown experiences to him. Jesus will not restore sight to this man – he will give him something which he has never had, he will grace him with a capacity he has never previously experienced. What Jesus will do for him is nothing other than a miracle of creation: of this he can truly say “Behold I am doing a new thing”. Of this it can be truly said “Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a man born blind”.
As in the beginning God made humankind from the dust of the ground, so Jesus remakes the man born blind with the dust of the Jerusalem street and forms him anew. As the first man received the breath of life from the mouth of God and so became a living being, so this man is anointed with dust mixed with spittle from the mouth of Jesus and is changed, transformed. The transformation is so deep and radical that the neighbours are not sure that they recognise him ‘as the man who used to sit and beg’. His parents are frightened by the transformation which has taken place in their son, while the Pharisees are niggardly and carping in their response.
For the young man himself, as a consequence of this encounter with Jesus comes not only the gift of sight but also the gift of insight. He falls down to worship Jesus, acknowledging him as the origin of a whole new way of being.
We should also note that although the gift is one of absolute and sheer grace – the young man did not ask for anything – he is not merely the passive recipient of something which is done to him and for him; he has to co-operate and it is a co-operation which requires faith on his part. It was, after all, a chance encounter in the street – altogether unlikely and all very earthy – all very physical; spit, mud, touch and the somewhat unlikely injunction to go to Siloam and wash. He isn’t told what the outcome might be, he isn’t told what to expect; he is simply told to go and wash. So he went and washed and came back able to see. Then there is a final twist – on his return he finds that Jesus is no longer present; it is only later on that he reappears on the scene and makes himself known to the young man. The re is a significance about that which we do well to note.
So the man born blind receives a new capacity, a new way of experiencing the world which changes everything, which changes him. This is the healing which Jesus wishes to bring about in us; this is salvation. That is the grace by which we begin to receive a new capacity for living at a deeper level and in a fuller way, learning to respond to the people, the relationships, the responsibilities of our world with a greater awareness and attentiveness, a greater generosity and imagination. It is the daily task, this learning to meet the familiar world around us in the unfamiliar light of Jesus, who is himself our light and our salvation and in whose light do we see light.
Eric Simmons CR