Disabilities

John 9

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

8The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” 9Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” 10But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 11He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” 12They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

13They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. 14Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” 16Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. 17So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.” 18The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” 20His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” 22His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.” 24So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” 25He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 26They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” 28Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” 30The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

35Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” 37Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” 38He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.

39Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” 40Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” 41Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

According to John, Jesus is in Jerusalem walking with a group of people John describes as ‘Jesus’ learners.’ Clearly not just the twelve. He sees a man blind from birth. Later in the story John verifies that this man was known to the neighbors as a beggar and known by his parents to have been born blind. The encounter initiates a brief but serious colloquy.

“Rabbi”, they ask, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” The students view that those with physical disabilities were being punished either for their own sin or the sin of their parents was a common understanding for their time.  It was a fair academic question.  Today most introductory classes in the sciences are quick to point out that, “correlation does not necessitate causation.”  And perhaps the man’s parents were not the most exemplary human beings, we don’t know, but just because a man is born blind and his parents are sinners doesn’t mean that there is a direct cause and effect relationship between the two events.

Some have sought to strengthen the correlation between sin and disability with a particular reading of the Holiness Code in Leviticus chapters 17-26, where there is a frequent connection made between physical disability and impurity.  Jesus’ followers seem to be questioning him from this point of view.  Jesus listens to the question, then reframes the situation from a new angle.  He refuses to accept the false dilemma presented by his followers: Do you pick (a) this man is blind because of his own sin, or (b) this man is blind because of his parents’ sin?  If this were a multiple choice test, then Jesus did scribbled a third option in the margin and circling it: (c) “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.”  Then he offers another thought entirely, dangerous if taken as universally applicable to all who suffer disabilities, that this blind man in particular “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”  For purposes of retelling this event John allows the reason for the man’s disability become a matter of promoting the importance of Jesus.  I doubt that Jesus would have seen a disabled person as an opportunity for self promotion.  I believe that instead of seeing an opportunity for enhancing reputation God weeps at other’s ills.  It’s Jesus’ act of compassion that storms through the narrative.  But the story does create an opportunity to consider how our understanding of the work of Jesus impacts the lives of people living with disability.

Nancy Eiesland who has been working on what she calls a “liberation theology of disability.”  writes: “Growing up with a disability, I could not accept the traditional interpretations of disability that I heard in prayers, in Sunday school, and in sermons. “You are special in God’s eyes,” I was often told, “that’s why you were given this painful disability.” Or, “Don’t worry about your suffering now—in heaven you will be made whole.”  This confused me. My disability had taught me who I am and who God is. What would it mean to be without this knowledge? Would I be absolutely unknown to myself in heaven, and perhaps even unknown to God? I was assured that God gave me a disability to develop my character. But by age six or seven, I was convinced that I had enough character to last a lifetime. My family frequented faith healers with me in tow. I was never healed. People asked about my hidden sins, but they must have been so well hidden that even I misplaced them. The theology that I heard was inadequate to my experience.”

For me it was good to hear Jesus rejecting the notion that a causal link exists between disability and sin.  Unfortunately that idea still seems to be in vogue. We find ourselves thinking that those for whom life has not gone well, must be, in some way, at fault, whether it is about a disability, unemployment or illness. There’s a comforting corollary that helps hold that notion in place: prosperous people are blessed; people who are blessed are good people. Other people are bad people.

It all ceased being a philosophical debate at verse 6.  I wonder what his students thought.  After an unmistakable declaration of his Messiahship Jesus spits on the ground and makes mud.   He didn’t ask whether the man born blind wanted to be able to see. He didn’t ask him so much as even for permission. And the act which brought about his healing occurred long before any statement of belief.  Jesus spread the mud on the man’s eyes and sends him to wash in the pool of Siloam.  He went. He washed and came back able to see.  And before he returned Jesus had absented himself.

The time of Jesus’ absence was no picnic for the man born blind.     In fact, the man born blind could have said understandably to himself more than once, “I never asked to be healed. If this is what it means to be blessed of God, I think I am willing to relinquish some divine favors.” No other story in the Bible so dramatically illustrates the truth that: God’s favor more often leads into than away from difficulties. People  who preach faith as the cessation of pain, suffering, poverty, restless nights and turbulent days are offering false comfort. Look at what happened to this poor man during Jesus’ absence.

First he tries to go home again but can’t.  So radical is the change in him that his reappearance in the old neighborhood generates no joy, no celebration, no welcome home, only questions and doubts. His insistence that he is the same man gains mixed responses. He was formerly well known among these people; his stumbling and hesitant walk, his dependence, his poverty were his identity, they defined his place in the community. Now he walks upright, assured of place and direction, quite independent, only to discover that he has no place anymore. Who are you? Who is this Jesus? Where is he? I do not know.

Then he gets hauled before the religious leaders. They are interested in all reported miracles, especially if performed by unauthorized individuals and most especially if done in violation of some law. Such is the case here; the healing occurred on the Sabbath. A quandary: if this man is truly healed, it was done by someone with the power of God, but if the healing took place on the Sabbath, then it was done by someone opposing God’s law. Are you sure you can see? Were you really blind? Who did it? Further investigation is needed.

Next his parents are grilled by the religious leaders. Yes, he is our son; yes, he was born blind; no, we do not know what happened; no, we do not know who did it. Whatever joy they may have had is drowned in fear. The prejudice was palpable.  The text says: for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.   Expulsion from the synagogue and social disgrace is a high price to pay for having a son especially blessed by God. They were unwilling to pay it.

One more time the man is grilled and this time more intensely. The authorities, faced with the irrefutable evidence of the healing, try to make the man denounce Jesus as a sinner. The poor man, armed only with his experience and sound logic, cannot believe a sinner could have the power of God. Anger and frustration rule: the man is denounced along with Jesus and expelled as a sinner.

First his life was blessed by Jesus and now his old friends disregard him, his parents reject him, and he is driven out from his old place of worship. What a blessing!

Jesus says:  “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”    The religious leaders gathered around him are incredulous:  “Surely we are not blind, are we?”  Jesus replied, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

This story is not just about a blind man being healed once upon a time in a land far away.  This story challenges us to recognize the ways in which we can be blind and unable to recognize our blindness — and the ways in which we are wrong about the blindness of others. 

Obsession with observance, the disabilitiy of the Pharisees, is a characteristic of religion which makes it very dangerous, as many forms of fundamentalism illustrate. Such rigidity at the expense of people is not, however, limited to certain widely acknowledged types, but can flourish among the biblicists and among those serving other ideologies. It is also at home where people read John and the Bible as vehicles for propaganda for their Jesus and their God, to ‘win’, instead of a testimony to divine compassion which puts people first. As the blind man might have said: ‘Well I don’t understand much about all of that, but I know when I see people getting helped I know God is at work in that!”

 

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