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There is an old joke about a man walking through a park. He meets a stranger standing next to a dog.
“Does your dog bite?” The man asks.
“No,” says the stranger.
So the man reaches down to pet the dog.
Immediately the dog bites the man.
“I thought you said your dog doesn’t bite!” the man shouts.
“That’s not my dog,” says the stranger.
Often we laugh at the joke, but we rarely notice what makes the joke funny, namely: The man asked the wrong question. Because the man asked the wrong question, he was bitten even though he received a correct answer.
This is also the case of the disciples in today’s scripture.
When the disciples see the blind man, they turn to Jesus and ask, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” This is the wrong question. How do we know? If we continue to read the Bible, we will see that Jesus is crucified six months after this event. When Jesus says, “As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work,” he is referencing his own death. Jesus knows his time is limited, so he is finishing the work that must be done. The disciples, however, are blind to the events that lay ahead. They are busy asking idle theological questions that help no one.
When Jesus says, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him,” he is saying, “You are asking the wrong question! This isn’t about the man or his parents! This is about God’s character!”
The problem with human beings is that we almost always focus on ourselves. One of the few times we think outside of ourselves is when we stop to judge someone else. Our questions are often about ourselves, or for our benefit.
Jesus reminds the disciples of the key reality that the man is blind. Jesus says that the man was born blind so “that the works of God might be displayed in him.” This does not mean, “God made this man blind so that I can heal him and make a point or impress you.” Instead, it means that when God sees people who are suffering, he does not waste time by lecturing on philosophical or theological questions. He helps the person who suffers.
This is exactly what Jesus does.
After responding to the disciple’s question, he spits on the ground and makes mud. Then he rubs the mud on the man’s eyes and instructs him to wash in the pool of Siloam. The man washes in the pool. His sight is restored. But in the gospel of John, events happen on multiple levels. Therefore, this story is not only about a blind man receiving physical sight, it is about spiritual blindness and spiritual sight, as well.
Everyone except Jesus in this story is spiritually blind. The disciples are spiritually blind, the neighbors are spiritually blind, and the Pharisees are spiritually blind. Just like Nicodemus, they have not been reborn and can know nothing about spiritual things. Jesus is the only person in this story who can see. This is why Jesus knows the right question to ask: How will God respond to this man’s blindness?
Jesus answers that essential but unasked question by spitting on the ground and making mud. Jesus does not need the mud to heal the man—he healed the Centurion’s servant with a single word—but he uses the mud to remind us of Genesis 2. In Genesis 2, God created mankind from “the dust of the ground” and “breathed into [man’s] nostrils the breath of life.” Jesus is recreating the man with earth and spit because Jesus is God. Even though Jesus’ own crucifixion is only six months away, he responds to the man with compassion. Through this, we see the true character of God.
Jesus commands the man to wash in the pool of Siloam. Like the mud, this action is as symbolic as it is practical. Washing in Siloam is intended to remind us of baptism. Through baptism, we receive spiritual sight.
In baptism, submersion represents dying to self and world. We accept Christ’s death as our own. When we surface, we are reborn, receiving Christ’s resurrection as our own. The Holy Spirit comes to live within us. He gives us spiritual sight and bring us into the knowledge of God.
Spiritual sight, however, is a sense that grows gradually. We do not immediately understand God fully after baptism, nor are we fully aware of spiritual realities. Like any other sense, spiritual sight requires time and experience to develop.
We can see this best through the example of the blind man in this passage. Recovering his physical sight must have been a surreal experience for the man. After all, he “had been blind from birth.” His world was primarily composed of sounds, smells, and textures. Now, an entirely new world was revealed to him. Like a child, the man would have to learn how to differentiate objects in the world. He would have to learn which sounds, smells, and textures belonged to which appearances.
This was also the case with his spiritual sight, for when neighbors asked him how he was healed, the man replies, “The man they call Jesus made some mud and put it on my eyes.” Later, when the man was brought before the Pharisees, he refers to Jesus as “a Prophet”. Finally, when Jesus, himself, appears, the man confesses Jesus to be “the Son of Man”. He worships Christ. His spiritual awareness has grown even in a short time.
The blind man is different from everyone else in this passage; not because he is blind, but because he is the only person who realizes that he is blind. This makes the blind man much closer to sight than any of us, for we think we understand life on our own. The blind man, however, is willing to be led by Christ. He is willing to have mud spread on his eyes and willing to be sent to wash in the pool of Siloam. It is for this reason that his sight is healed—and not only his physical sight.
What must we do to grow spiritually?
First, we must stop asking the wrong questions! This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t ask questions at all. However, like the man in the joke or the disciples in this passage, we often ask pointless questions that do not prevent harm from occurring. After all, knowing whether the man or his parents sin does not help the man’s situation in the slightest. Instead, we must learn to ask the right questions. To do this, we must watch, listen, and pray.
There is no reason to judge others—especially when we realize our own spiritual blindness. Instead, we should be quiet and do what Jesus instructs us to do: to do the works of him who sent Christ. Gradually, our eyes will open and we will be able to see.