This week’s text is the story of a blind man healed by Jesus. The blind man lives as a beggar at the margins of the community. Jesus heals him, but he does so on the sabbath, which is unlawful, and this stirs up the religious establishment. The blind man is then exiled from the community because of that prohibited healing. It’s a damned if you do and damned if you don’t story—a double scapegoating that ultimately reveals the judgment of God in a way that catches everybody by surprise.
The story begins with the disciples speculating theologically on who is to blame for the man being born blind. They are convinced his blindness is the result of somebody’s sin; and where there is sin there must be judgment. Someone’s gotta pay! The theological blame game is dangerous.
Jesus refuses to play the game. Instead, he heals the blind man. This puts into motion a huge mess that further “divides” (vs. 16) the already unstable community. They react by blindly “driv(ing) out” (vs. 35) the now healed man from their midst. They model the path of scapegoating.
But Jesus’ reaction shows us a different way. He follows the exiled-healed-man to the margins.
And this is where the story invites us to imagine the repercussions of this new path. The two of them create the possibility of a new community where everyone belongs—a community founded, not on the blind guide of sacrifice, but upon mercy which gives new sight.
This is the “judgment” for which Jesus came into the world—the judgment of mercy.
There are four groups that appear in this story: the disciples, the neighbors, the parents and the Pharisees. None of them celebrate the healing of the blind man. The disciples, direct apprentices of God’s son, did not. Even the blind man’s parents were too “afraid” (vs. 22) of the religious establishment to rejoice with their son. It’s a stunning note of absence.
Instead, all are eager to distance themselves from the blind man, even in his healed state. His very presence is a threat to the status quo of the community, who only knows how to see him as a sinner.
As long as he remains a sinner who bears the judgment of God, the community functions just fine. But the moment he is seen as the object of God’s affection, the whole system starts to fall apart. And this is terrifying because it’s the only system they know—a system built on sacrifice, not mercy.
This story is layered with irony; all of the actors in the story are blind to the blind man. He is invisible to them, a non-person. The only one who actually sees him is Jesus. “He saw a man blind from birth” (9:1). The man is the source of endless speculation about everything except his own humanity. In fact, in a note of dark humor, while the community argues about who he is, the blind man tries in vain to get a word in edgewise and be noticed by those arguing about him. “He kept saying, ‘I am the man’” (9:9). Imagine him jumping up and down, waving his arms. It’s a scene straight out of a Monty Python skit. Sadly, all the actors in this story, except for the once-blind “sinner,” are oblivious to God’s active presence in their midst. In the end, the healed one is expelled from the very community that exists for healing and wholeness.
In our Lenten journey we are nearing the cross, the place where Jesus will make visible that to which we are blind and change the way we see forever. We will see the excluded one give birth to a new kind of community that is scapegoat free. This new community is a new humanity sustained by the judgment of God, which is mercy! Yes, mercy is the final word. Can we see?