Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Blind Man and the Bureaucrats

The Gospels contain many accounts of Jesus healing the sick and the lame and other miracles; but they rarely speak much about what happens next. It's just sort of assumed that the person healed lives happily ever after and that Jesus moves on to a parable or another guy with some other affliction.

An exception to this comes in the ninth chapter of the Gospel of John, in which Jesus gives a man a wondrous gift of healing, and it turns out to wreck the guy's life. Or pretty close.

Jesus is visiting Jerusalem for Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, one of the major holy feasts of the Jewish calendar. He happens upon a man who has been blind from birth. The text does not name him, but Tradition has given him the name Celidonus. Jesus' disciples ask him about the man: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2)

This seems like an odd question. How could it be the guy's fault at all? Bible commentators have suggested that the disciples were thinking he might have committed some wickedness in a previous life, for which he was suffering in this one. I can't think of any place in the Bible that mentions reincarnation, even to reject it. Then again, the Hebrew Scriptures tend to be vague on the subject of the Afterlife. The Sadducees, who accepted only the Books of Moses as authoritative scripture, rejected any flavor of Life After Death; but the Pharisees, who were big on following the Law, liked the idea of a Divine Judgment of Souls in the World to Come. Some Greek philosophers taught the Transmigration of Souls, so it's not impossible that the disciples might have heard of reincarnation, even if the priests and rabbis didn't teach it.

Or it's possible that the disciples were wondering if the man could have sinned prenatally, which apparently some Pharisees thought possible. There's a remark in Genesis about Jacob and Esau fighting even in their mother's womb. Or perhaps they thought the guy was being punished retroactively for something he was yet to do.

If all this sounds convoluted, yes it is; which is no doubt why the disciples wanted Jesus to clarify the matter. But all these suppositions are based on the assumption that misfortune must be a punishment for some sort of failing.

It's a moralistic assumption which seems to seep into people's beliefs. We like it because it seems to agree with our sense of justice; people get punished for their bad behavior; and because it seems to fit with our experience: bad actions lead to bad consequences and karma is a bitch.

Except that taking the principle to its logical extreme we wind up saying that misfortune is always the result of wickedness and that anyone who suffers must have done something to deserve it.

Which brings us back to the disciples' question: whose sin is the blind man being punished for; his own, or someone else's?

Neither,” Jesus says. The man was born blind, he says, “ that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” (John 9:3) And then he goes about to heal the man's blindness.

Hold on a moment, perhaps you're saying, is that any better? That God permitted this poor guy to suffer blindness his entire life just to make Jesus look good?

No. That's missing the point. The question isn't “Why is this guy afflicted?” because when we fixate on that question, we think it absolves us from any obligation to relieve that affliction. The right question, or at least the question Jesus asks, is: “What am I going to do to help?”

In this instance, Jesus makes a mud-pie. He spits in the dirt and mixes into a mud pat which he puts on the blind man's eyes. Jesus sometimes uses a mundane action like a catalyst to trigger the miracle and he does so in this case. He tells the man to wash in the Pool of Siloam, a rock-cut reservoir that is part of the city water system built for Jerusalem by King Hezekiah centuries earlier.

The man does so, and for the first time in his life, he can see.

Which is when the problems start.

His neighbors, who have been accustomed to seeing the guy out on the street begging for alms are surprised that he can now see and some of them insist this must be some other guy who just looks like the blind beggar they knew. The guy insists that he truly is that man and tells them about his encounter with Jesus.

They bring him to the Pharisees. The text does not make clear whether they brought him to the Temple, or to a local synagogue within the city; I'm guessing the latter, but I could be wrong. Once again, he tells the story about how Jesus made some mud and how he washed his face in the Pool of Siloam.

The Pharisees who examine the man are divided in their opinions. The miracle had taken place on a Sabbath; and by healing the blind man on that day, Jesus had violated the Law of Moses about working on the Sabbath; therefore he can't be a man of God; Q.E.D. The Pharisees really got bent out of shape over the whole Sabbath thing, because this is not the only place in the Gospels where this comes up.

To be fair, though, not all Pharisees were as strict on this subject. In another place, Jesus asks “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:11-12) Here Jesus is using an argument that some pharisaic schools had used in discussing this matter. And on this occasion some of the other Pharisees argue that, regardless of the day on which it happened, the healing of the blind man was still a miracle. “How can a sinner do such miraculous signs?”

Finally they ask the blind man what he thinks of this Jesus. “He is a prophet,” the man replies. The text does not say that he added, “Duh!” but it would seem pretty self-evident.

The Pharisees remain unconvinced. How do they know the man was really blind in the first place? They call in his parents for questioning.

The parents are scared. They don't want any trouble with the leaders of the Synagogue. Yes, they say, that is their son. Yes, he had been blind since birth. No, they have no idea how he came to be healed of his blindness. “Ask him. He is of age; he will speak for himself.”

So they question the man again, this time giving him a strong hint as to the answer they want to hear. “Give glory to God,” they say: a solemn charge to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but; “We know this man is a sinner.”

The man doesn't know anything about that; all he knows is that he was blind, but now he's not. They tell him to go over the story one more time. “I have told you already and you did not listen,” he says. “Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to be his disciple too?”

Ooo... that really gets their ephods in a bunch. “We are disciples of Moses!” they sniff at him. They don't even know who this Jesus guy is. They insult the blind man and accuse him of being a follower of Jesus; which is ironic, because he wasn't one at the beginning of the day, but as the pharisees continue to badger him, we can see him becoming more and more emphatic in his defense of the man who healed him.

The man answered,”Now this is remarkable! You don't know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly man who does his will. Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” (John 9:30-33)

A reasonable point, and one which the more open-minded of the pharisees have already made. But the synagogue officials are offended. They say “how dare you lecture us!” and chuck him out.

So here he is. He has no job because he's been a blind beggar all his life. He's just been thrown out of the synagogue, so he's an outcast in his community. Although the text does not come out and say so, I wonder if his parents didn't disown him as well, for fear of being ostracized themselves. He could well be forgiven for thinking that he was better off blind.

Jesus hears about what happened to the formerly-blind man and goes to find him. “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” Jesus asks. “Son of Man” is an expression that appears a few times in the Old Testament, usually bearing the sense of “mortal man.” In the Book of Ezekiel, God addresses the prophet as “Son of Man”. The Book of Daniel, however, describes “One like a son of man” who will be given dominion over the nations of the earth. Some of the Apocryphal books written shortly before the time of Christ, such as the Books of Enoch and of Esdras, use the title for the Messiah-to-Come, and that is the sense in which Jesus used it in the Gospels.

Who is he, sir?” the man asks. “Tell me so that I may believe in him.”

You have seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you.” Jesus rarely in the Gospels comes out with any claims of divinity; some readers have said he never does; but in this brief private moment with the man whose life he has upended, he definitely, if a bit indirectly, acknowledges that he is indeed the Man of Prophecy about whom he and the prophets before him have preached.

Jesus goes on to draw a comparison between that day's miracle and his greater ministry:

For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.” (v.39)

And that is where the text leaves the blind man. We don't know where he went from there. Did he join the followers of Jesus? Did he go back to his family? Did he make a new life for himself with his new circumstances? We don't know. We don't even know if his name was really Celidonus. (Odds are, it wasn't). But despite the problems that came with the gift of sight, he does not seem to have regarded it as a curse. It was a thing of joyous wonder.

The religious authorities of his day thought their vision was perfectly accurate, yet they were so focused on their preconceptions and priorities they could not see things that were obvious to a blind man.