Evidently Jesus and the disciples were simply out for a stroll. He wasn’t out to pick a fight with anyone, so far as we can tell from the fascinating story told in John 9. There’s no suggestion that these strollers had any particular destination in mind.
The narrative just tells us that as they were walking along, they spotted someone along the roadside who had been blind from birth.
This provoked the ever-inquisitive disciples to ask Jesus a deep theological question: “Teacher, who committed the sin that caused this person to be born blind? Was it this blind person himself or his parents who committed the sin?”
There’s no hint in the text about whether Jesus was exasperated by the dumb question. (How, that is, could someone commit a sin before birth that would cause blindness?)
Jesus gave a straightforward answer: “Neither.”
The disciples must have then asked “Why, then, is this person blind?”
Jesus answered: “The person is blind so that God’s work could and would be revealed in this blind person.”
Jesus added that he and the disciples were a vital part of doing the divine work that would be operating in this blind person, not sometime in the far future but right now while the divine work could still be done.
With that Jesus gathered up a big batch of spittle in his mouth, spat on a patch of loose dirt, stirred it, made a mud pie and smeared a dose of it on the blind person’s eye. Jesus then instructed the blind person to go to the nearby pool of Siloam and wash away the mud medicine.
When the person returned from the pool, with the mud washed away, he was able to see.
It isn’t in the narrative we have from the Gospel of John, but we could legitimately presume that Jesus said something like the following to the disciples: “See, we’ve just accomplished God’s purpose, God’s work, which has been assigned to us, in this person who has been blind from birth and is now able to see.”
That could have been a wonderful ending to the revelatory story. But there’s more.
Others in the vicinity – neighbors of the blind person and the Pharisees who were always after Jesus – got involved and put their own spin on what had happened.
First the folks from the neighborhood question whether the now-seeing person is actually the same blind guy they used to know, or if he might be an imposter.
Assured that this was the same fellow, the suspicious neighbors wanted proof that there had actually been a healer at work in their community, and they want to know why this now fully sighted person couldn’t come up with where Jesus and the disciples have gone.
The neighbors then took their case to the Pharisees, who added their own set of perspectives. They found out, for example, that the person regained sight on the Sabbath, which, for them meant that the healer (Jesus) couldn’t be an agent of God but must actually be a sinner.
The story gets still more complicated with more questions, more accusations, more witnesses (including the person’s parents).
It culminates with the frustrated neighbors and Pharisees throwing the healed man out of their presence, unable to bring any of their preferred interpretations and predetermined ideologies to bear on the reality of a person blind from birth gaining his sight.
Jesus heard about this, found and assured the man, and received the adoration and worship of this grateful person who, in accordance with God’s purpose, could see.
Jesus said that his own purpose had been fulfilled according to God’s will: So those who do not see will be able to see, and so those who do see will be revealed to be blind.
Where are God’s purposes – and God’s works – operating in our own nation? And how are the disciples of Jesus today – while there is still time – supposed to be participating?
In light of the story, is it too much of a stretch to suggest that part of God’s purposes and works might include providing health care to millions more people in this country? Or legislation that restores health to the earth? Or regulations to restore health to a dying economy so that ordinary people will be able to get by and put something aside for securing their retirement?
All of those things have occurred, and more of the same kind.
No surprise, all of that is being challenged by those who can’t believe that God’s purposes and works are to give sight to the blind, health to the sick, clean water to the thirsty, food to the hungry, resources to the poor, peace to the persecuted.
The reasons they give publicly for their opposition are that the nation can’t afford these things, that federal, state and local spending must be cut to reduce deficits and debt, that we can’t live beyond our means.
The actual reasons have much more to do with predispositions about what government should and shouldn’t do, with preferred interpretations of what all human beings should and shouldn’t be assured of having, with predetermined ideologies that won’t be shaken about how the human world ought to operate.
Does this sound something like the neighbors and the Pharisees in the story from the Gospel of John?
If so, maybe some folks now associated with Jesus need to make some mud and apply that medicine to the blind eyes of legislators and administrators in federal, state and local governments to see if Jesus’ technique still works.
What seems absolutely clear is that the followers of Jesus, one way or another, need to keep making mud.
Larry Greenfield is executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago. He also serves as editor and theologian-in-residence for The Common Good Network.
Larry Greenfield retired on Dec. 31, 2018 as the executive director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. He served previously as executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, a regional judicatory of the American Baptist Churches U.S.A, and the theologian-in-residence for the Community Renewal Society.