Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Where Is Jesus?

Where Is Jesus?
John 9:1-41

Mountain View Presbyterian Church, Las Vegas, Nevada
March 2, 2002
© copyright 2008 Robert J. Elder

In the late 1970’s Annie Dillard, writer, naturalist, novelist, moved into a small cabin overlooking the Puget Sound in Washington state, hoping to do some writing. During the course of her time in that little community there was a horrible private airplane accident in which a small child was terribly burned. Like the disciples in the story from John’s gospel, it set her to thinking about sin, punishment, suffering and whether there is any operative relationship among them. Here is part of what she wrote:

“His disciples asked Christ about a roadside beggar who had been blind from birth, ‘Who did sin, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ And Christ, who spat on the ground, made mud of his spittle and clay, plastered the mud over the man’s eyes, and gave him sight, answered, ‘Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.’ Really? If we take this answer to refer to the affliction itself — and not the subsequent cure — as ‘God’s works made manifest,’ then we have, along with ‘Not as the world gives do I give unto you,’ two meager, baffling, and infuriating answers to one of the few questions worth asking, to wit, What in the Sam Hill is going on here?

“The works of God made manifest? Do we really need more victims to remind us that we’re all victims? Is this some sort of parade for which a conquering army shines up its terrible guns and rolls them up and down the streets for people to see? Do we need blind men stumbling about, and little flame-faced children, to remind us what God can — and will — do?

“...Who are we to demand explanations of God?...We forget ourselves, picnicking; we forget where we are. There is no such thing as a freak accident. ‘God is at home,’ says Meister Eckhart, ‘We are in the far country.’”1

Our own questions about sickness and healing, sin and punishment, are like Annie Dillard’s, like the disciples’. “Who sinned,” wondered the disciples, “this man or his parents?” “Wrong question,” replied Jesus. Do you realize how many people go around in this story asking questions? The story is absolutely filled chock-a-block with people poking around this poor man’s business, asking him and his family pushy, hard-nosed questions.

For beginners, the disciples want to treat him like some unconscious hospital patient, surrounded by a gaggle of medical interns on rounds with a resident. Speaking entirely about him rather than to him, as though he were invisible, they ask Jesus to hold a theological round table on the nature of sin, over this needy, still-living carcass. “Look at this picture,” they say. “Just who is the sinner here?” they want to know.

No sooner has the mud been washed off his now-seeing eyes, than the man is accosted by ceaseless questions. First from the busybodies in the neighborhood: “How were your eyes opened?” they want to know. Nothing like a “Good for you!” or “Praise God for this miracle!” is spoken by these folks. Just an unsmiling assault of inquiries. “Now see here, we can’t have undocumented recoveries of sight going on around here. Next thing you know, people will want to start thinking for themselves. Can’t have it. So out with it, who did this, where is he, does he have a license?”

The man born blind offers what eventually becomes his litany of response, which begins to sound pretty much the same after many repetitions: “All I know is, I was blind; now I see. See?” Not good enough. We’ll have to take you off to the local constabulary. They’ll sort this out.

Once there, there are more questions. “Look son, we don’t want any trouble. Just tell us how it came to be that you got your sight. Be square with us and the judge will go easy on you. We know it happened after hours in a non-registered clinic, totally against regulations. So give us the full scoop. What went on during this caper?”

The man born blind begins to wish somebody would feel just a fraction of the happiness that he feels about being able to see after all these years. But, all right, he’ll answer their questions, even if they seem a little silly. “All I know is, I was blind; now I see. See?”

No way. The officers at the station house try to explain the matter to this simpleton. “Now look here, boy, the person who did this mud pack thing with your eyes, he did it completely without regard to the ordinances regulating these things. So we’re wondering just who he thinks he is.”

Answer: “Well. I don’t know who he is. I wish he would come along and answer for himself. Do you suppose he is a prophet?”

The constables are interested now. Unauthorized healings after curfew; the populace going around saying they have found a prophet. Could this be the quiet little blind man they have seen for years begging at the city gate? No way. He is some impostor, just looks like that blind fellow, perhaps it’s his twin brother. They go ask his parents.

But his parents are as baffled by the whole episode as everyone else. “Is this your son...how is it that he can see now?” They might as well ask a brick mason how to do gall bladder surgery. The parents are clueless. And not just a little bit afraid. They even answer a question the constables didn’t ask: “Nor do we know who opened his eyes,” which makes us suspect they do.

That reminds the constables of another matter they wanted to clear up with this man. Just what about this healer who goes around willy nilly after hours healing people up? Who is he? “Do you admit that he is, by definition, a criminal?”

By now the man born blind is growing weary of responding to questions he does not know how to answer. He tries his familiar answer one more time: “All I know is, I was blind; now I see. See?” But now they don’t care anymore how he received his sight. They have decided to pursue questions about this healer who gave him his sight. They repeat themselves with the banality of those who, in passing, ask how we are doing but will not stay around for the answer. “How did he open your eyes?”

Now the man born blind gets a little testy. “I have told you. All I know is, I was blind; now I see. See? But you don’t see. If you want to hear this story so much, maybe you want to become his followers so you can hear it from him for yourselves.”

They are enraged by this. “Never mind who he thinks he is; who do you think you are, speaking to us this way?” And they run the man born blind out of town.

Finally, the man born blind is found sitting by the side of the road, bewildered. The greatest thing in the world has happened to him, the one thing he was sure could never happen. He has received the gift of sight. Yet all anyone can do is carp and split hairs about city code violations and regulations concerning the town curfew. When Jesus returns to the scene in verse 35, we want to say, “Where have you been? This guy has been put through the ringer because of you.”

But rather than curse him or berate him, the man born blind is given another gift. He looks into Jesus’ eyes and like the Samaritan woman at the well, he realizes he is gazing into the eyes of the Messiah. To be able to see this is a gift far greater than mere eyesight. This is the meaning of Jesus’ opening remark about the works of God revealed in him; it has to do not so much with seeing per se as it does with seeing the Messiah, which soon everyone will be able to do, sighted or not.

We can be so much like the people of this story. It is often so difficult to believe that God is among us, and our questions about God’s presence can either help us see or contribute to our blindness. There are so many times when people of faith are left only with memories of God’s presence in between times of actually sensing that presence. This story is about such times. The man’s insistent truth-telling serves as a model for us. When questioned about what Jesus has done for us, we never have to confess more than we know to be true. It is likely that will be enough. Time after time he was questioned, and each time he responded, “All I know is, I was blind; now I see. See?” It is not a confession that tells everything there is to know about Jesus, but it was enough. And it was true. In Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince,2 the prince says at one place, “It is only with the heart that one sees rightly.” And that is true too.

© copyright 2008, Robert J. Elder All Rights Reserved

1 Holy the Firm, Annie Dillard, Harper Colophon Books, 1977, pp. 60-62.
2 Le Petit Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Gallimard, Paris, 1946.