Before we seek to interpret the story we read from John today I would like to impress on you that the context and concepts that form the background of the story are unimaginably different and totally alien to our own. And that, in that sense there is probably no way in which we can understand the story in any way close to the way Jesus disciples or even the people who read it in the first couple of centuries after its conception did.
Blindness in those days was something completely different to what it is today. Sickness was something completely different. The importance of religious laws like nothing we can imagine. As was healing and the part a miracle healer could play in it.
Of course there are still remnants here and there of the beliefs and practices that were common then, but most of us will consider them superstitious nonsense and adhere to a more scientifically based view on these things. Some religious groups still adhere to very strict rules, but most will be a long way away from what strictly religious pharisees clung to in the first century CE.
In Jesus day the world was a completely different place.
Religious laws were important. Especially with the pharisees who were Jesus sparring partners most of the time. Ordinary people may not have kept all of the Mishnah, the book in which all the laws about day to day conduct were written down, but those who were in leadership positions kept to them religiously and the detail of them was subject to long and deep discussion.
The rules on healing were strict and for people who are used to weighing a law against its rational validity as we are even quite shocking:
"If one dislocated his hand or foot, he may not pour cold water on it on the sabbath. but he may wash it in the usual way, and if he is healed, he is healed"
"One who has pain in his teeth may not suck vinegar through them on the sabbath; but he may taste it by dunking bread in the normal way, and if he is cured he is cured"
What could be wrong with cold water? Or a bit of vinegar sucking?
If there was an emergency other rules applied, but if there was not....... this was how it was.
You can imagine that when Jesus does a lot more than that the pharisees are up in arms against him.
First of all: He is a rabbi, people looked to him for guidance, so he should be giving the right example. The sabbath is holy, unless there is an emergency, and it should be kept holy with all thoughts and actions focussed on God and nothing else. The man had been blind from birth. He is clearly not an emergency.
With that established we get to the second and the third issue: Jesus not only gets involved in applying something to the eyes of someone to bring about healing, he kneads the stuff before applying it, (kneading was also prohibited on the Sabbath), using spittle, a known healing agent in antiquity! Can it get any worse?
For us, who do not understand the importance of those laws it is neigh impossible to understand this part of the story and why these pharisees are making such an issue out of such a wonderfully positive thing as a healing miracle.
The miracle itself is also riddled with notions far removed from the understanding of current medical science.
The notion that sin caused suffering was commonplace in New Testament days. Given the justice of God, (and little familiarity with the actual causes of sickness) suffering could only be the result of some sin, whether conscious or unconscious. Punishment inflicted from birth however was a special case. It required a distinct explanation since personal sin on the part of the sufferer appeared to be ruled out. There were two possible solutions: On the basis of Exodus 20, where it says that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children it was thought that perhaps somebody else in the family had sinned to cause the suffering. Or else that the person would have committed prenatal sin. For instance if the mother was worshipping pagan god while pregnant, it was thought the child had been too.
Hence the question of the disciples: "Who has sinned, this man or his parents?" It was generally accepted that either were to blame, so who?
Blindness itself, again, was looked at in a very different light than we would do today.
In antiquity light was "stuff", an entity with no source other than itself. The light in a human being which was "living" light, as opposed to the light of the sky, derived from the heart and emerged in the eyes in the seeing process.
The eyes were made of fire, the "stuff" that causes light, and it was this fire emanating from the eyes that enabled a person to see.
When Aristotle said "vision is fire" he meant that literal as well as figurative.
To be blind was to have eyes from which darkness emanated. Darkness was the presence of "dark", also stuff. Blind people were those people whose hearts were full of darkness, hence, from whose eyes "dark" emanated and they were often suspected of having the "evil eye".
Looking at the story with that in mind we see that the healing is a double one: not only is the "stuff" that emanates from the mans eyes changed from dark to light, the content of his heart, from which this stuff comes, must than also be changed.
Last but not least:
Saliva was something which was in general use amongst folk healers. And it was believed that the holier or stronger the person from whom the saliva came, the better the healing qualities were. Pliny tells us that spittle has curative powers. Tacitus recounts the story of a blind man seeking a cure by applying the saliva of emperor Vespasian.
Saliva still is, in countries around the Mediterranean used to protect children against the evil eye. And I remember my grandmother using it as a "miracle cure" for every cut, graze or bruise.
Mixing mud, blood, herbs or all sort of other things with saliva was also very common practice.
There is no doubt that Jesus is deliberately involving himself in the healing of a man, who is clearly no emergency, on the sabbath, using known healing techniques. The nature of the mans illness makes things worse: Darkness is emanating from him, his own sin or the sin of his parents clinging to him. Something one should not think too lightly about taking away.
I dont think we have an idea how deep this cuts into the beliefs Jesus opponents held. Nor how revolutionary what Jesus did really was.
All of that said, and I think it is important to have it said before we even attempt to see "what the story tells us today", we do need to look at what light the story could shed on our life today.
Two things stood out for me:
The first: Jesus sees the man. God sees the man. And it is this seeing that brings transformation. Both for the man and his environment. The light that is inside the man gets uncovered and is brought out, so it can shine out into the world. Here the story connects to the story from Samuel: God sees the men lined up before Samuel, and uncovers the light which is inside the young David and makes it shine out. God sees past the immediate, past the darkness we may see or perceive, past the veil that prevents us from seeing the true nature of things and brings the light out.
When we are baptised or baptising this becomes especially poignant. God chooses us, God sees the light in us, he uncovers the light that is in us and brings it to the surface to shine out into the world.
Not only the man is transformed. The light that starts shining through his eyes transforms his environment. For better or for worse. It uncovers the darkness that is already there, it also brings up the light even stronger.
The second: Jesus goes through the ritual of mixing and kneading and applying before he sends the man off to tend to the rest of the healing process himself. For Jesus healing a blind man is not just a click of the fingers. It takes time, it takes trouble, it gets Jesus into trouble, it gets the man into trouble, it starts a whole complex of consequences around the healing. The story tells us there is work involved in faith and in healing, both on the side of God and on our own side. That the healing we may have craved for may bring with it unexpected and sometimes even painful consequences. Do we know what we pray for when we ask for the Christ light to shine in our hearts? Are we prepared for what may happen when Jesus brings out the light in us? fills us with his life? Are we ready to do our bit? Go of and trust that even where what God has put on us may be clear as mud, we have to go and do what he calls us to do, no matter what the neighbours say, the religious trends of the day want us do, or our own stubborn lack of faith may keep us from doing?
Do we understand all the intricacies of this story? I dont think we do. There clearly is a message for us though: The message of a God who sees us and heals us, from whose loving care nothing can separate us and who endeavours in every way known or unknown to bring out the light in us and make it shine. Amen.