Texts: 1 Samuel 16:1-13; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41
I’d like to be the kind of pastor who, upon reading a really great gospel story, is immediately filled with deep spiritual insights about the good news. The bad news is, I’m not. Instead, the very first thought that went through my head was decidedly mundane. I though, Hmm. I wonder if this is the origin of the phrase “Here’s mud in your eye.” Then I set off on a google search.
As it turns out, I may be correct. Internet sites on word origins that include biblical references make the same connection I made. That somehow Jesus’s olde timey healing method of making a mud salve for the blind man’ eyes was later borrowed and put to an unexpected new use.
The modern phrase is more British English than American, though we do hear it in our country too. It’s said at the end of a toast as a warm wish to all participants gathered. It’s not as much of a stretch from the Bible to the bar scene as you might think. Since the blind man was healed by mud in his eyes, this toast is in effect saying, “to your health.” The same expression is used in many languages, including the Irish toast slainte and the Spanish salud!
However. Having said all this, it appears that John’s lively gospel story of Jesus and the blind man is not so much about healing at all. It’s about confession. As in, what is your confession, and whom do you confess?
At the beginning of Lent I said that the scriptures appointed on this cycle of reading are likely ones that were used in the early church to instruct people in their forty-day preparation leading up to baptism. The overarching theme is the spiritual journey that all believers travel from old creation to new creation. This requires dying to your old self so that you may be born anew.
Baptism is the celebration of new birth that comes after the confession of belief in Jesus as God’s light, life, and good news for us. If you’re a hymn nerd, you might have caught a familiar theme from Ephesians 5:14,“. . . for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” This quote, which is not found anywhere in the Old Testament, was probably an early Christian liturgy or hymn at baptisms.
Back to the gospel now. The encounter between Jesus and the blind man does involve the man’s healing. But from the start he is not the primary focus of the story. It all begins with the disciples asking Jesus about the man’s blindness.
The disciples assume, as was customary at the time, that birth defects were caused by some sort of sin. There are two rather awful things implied here. One is that an unborn child could sin. The other is that the sins of the parents are visited upon their children as disabilities.
It is a relief that Jesus will not entertain either idea. He points to something entirely different. (Hint: this is a lesson central to our formation as Christ’s followers.) Will you confess Jesus as the one you worship, and to whom you are obedient? Will you confess your own sin and let him make you into a new creation? Not just once, mind you, but daily if necessary?
Jesus began with a reflection on day and light, over against night and darkness. On the dark side of the equation beware of destructive, demoralizing, false things. On the side of light, we find what is good, right, and true.
His comment about night coming, when no one can work, is eerily reflected in our experience right now in the darkness of a pandemic. Many can no longer work. Life is turned inside out. These dark uncertain times cause fear. Fear drives panic. Panic causes people to grab, hoard, and hide. But light shines forth out of generosity, kindness, mercy, and showing up when you are called into action. And do not forget this: Jesus said, “. . . I am the light . . .”
Jesus healed the blind man, it’s true. He took earth, moistened it, covered the man’s eyes. Then he sent the man to wash. This brief description captures two themes of old creation made new.
First, in Genesis the man was created out of clay. What Jesus made, according to the Greek text, was clay out of which he created a man no longer blind. A fourth-century teaching of St. Basil agrees with this interpretation. Basil said that this man didn’t have eyes at all and Jesus gave him eyes.
Second, in Exodus, Moses gave God’s law, which set forth washing as the means to restoration and new life in the community after becoming impure by an act or association with unclean things. Things destructive, demoralizing or false. It’s that darkness again! The law commanded everyone to purify themselves by washing before entering into God’s presence.
The gospel also intersects with the reading from 1 Samuel. The prophet was sent by God to find Israel’s new king. The old king, Saul, had fallen from grace, having become increasingly blind to his own faults, lacking in humility, and therefore unfit to lead. Who could replace him? Even Samuel was blinded by grief over Saul’s faults to any other possibilities.
Guided by God to a man from Bethlehem named Jesse, Samuel was instructed to point out which of Jesse’s sons was God’s choice for a new king. After being told not to be swayed by outward appearances, Samuel eventually found David.
This last and youngest son was not chosen for be his looks, as it seems at first. The main factors were David’s ruddy face (evidence of health and strength) and his beautiful eyes. David, the shepherd of sheep was anointed to become the shepherd of God’s people because his eyes were clear, his vision was healthy, and his sight was open. God could work with that!
There’s so much more to say about this gospel. But this is enough for today. From an unadorned healing, a formerly blind man goes out into the world and stirs it up. Two verses about healing lead into thirty-four more about who is revealed in the judgement of Jesus to be blinded and who is clear-eyed. As usual, Jesus’ judgment is not like ours.
The gospel invites us to realize how sin blinds us. Jesus is a real eye-opener for everyone who ready to let go of darkness and become a new creature of light instead. In the discipline of following Jesus we find comfort. Jesus can lead us through the valley of the shadow of death. With Jesus leading us, with our eyes open and clear, what power can evil have over us? Instead, we know goodness and mercy, and live before God without fear forever. Amen!
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.