George Shearing, the great British-American jazz pianist was born blind. With his dark glasses and white cane, he could always count on someone, sooner or later, to offer assistance crossing the busy streets of New York. One day, while waiting on a street corner during rush hour, he felt a tap on his shoulder. “Excuse me, sir,” said a voice, “I’m blind. Could you help me across the street?”
“Certainly, I’ll help you, ” said Shearing. He reached out, found the arm of the other blind man, and strained his ears to decipher the sound of the traffic. After a few moments, he said, “It’s safe to cross. Let’s go.” Together they walked. Shearing heard a great deal of horn-honking and yelling, but he was never sure if it was directed at him or not.
Moments later, the two men safely arrived to the other side of the street. The other blind man thanked Shearing for his help and went on his way.
Shearing later related the incident to an astonished friend who asked, “George! Why on earth did you do such a dangerous thing?”
Shearing smiled, “Oh I couldn’t resist the irony of it! The blind leading the blind and all that!. And you know, that was the biggest thrill of my whole life!”
As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”
Perhaps you know someone who was born blind, or with some sort of physical or mental disability. Perhaps you know of a child with leukemia or some other serious illness.
If so, then the question the Jesus’ disciples raise is not a theoretical exercise. It’s a question that throbs at the very core of our own grief and pain. It’s not just an intellectual question, but a deeply emotional and spiritual question: Why would an all-powerful God allow people to suffer?
We all know we live in a less-than-perfect world. We also know that many times the evil acts of some often go unpunished and suffering often falls on those who are innocent. In this broken and fragmented world, we often suffer unjustly.
There is no easy answer to that question. But as we walk alongside Jesus and watch him as he deals with this man who is blind from birth, we may catch a glimpse of God’s eternal purpose in the pain of human existence.
The thinking in Jesus’ day was that sin was the reason there was something horrible to deal with in life. Either the individual had done something wrong and was being punished for it with some sort of physical suffering, or, in the case of someone “born that way,” it was a result of their parents’ wrongdoing.
Jesus doesn’t try to explain the connection between sin and suffering. He goes beyond the theoretical and existential theological implications to something that is practical and positive. In effect he’s saying, “This man’s blindness is not a meaningless disaster. It is an opportunity for God’s power and character to be manifested through this man’s suffering.
“As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.
Before we get derailed by the fact that Jesus used spit to make mud for the man’s eyes, we must know that saliva was used for all sorts of medicinal purposes!
The other interesting note is that Jesus sends the blind man on a journey to wash. The pool of Siloam was not right there in the temple area. It was down a deep ravine. It was a rugged walk even for a sighted person, and there were many obstacles along the way. It would have been very difficult for a blind person to traverse. They needed to ask for directions and help, and they might easily fall into some of the ruts along the road.
The 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?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He 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.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”
The only thing the man knows about Jesus is his name. That’s the sum total of his knowledge and his faith. Then a new difficulty arises.
They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then 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.” Some 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.
I love the man’s simplicity and directness. He answers their questions and shuts his mouth. Throughout the divisive debate, the formerly blind man sits and listens quietly. We see the effects that these events are having on this man’s faith.
So 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.”
We’re seeing how this man is growing spiritually. He still regards Jesus as a man, but sees him as a gifted man, a man with insight and understanding; a prophet. All of the Pharisees’ resistance accepting this remarkable event has actually deepened his insight and understanding!
The Pharisees cannot accept this man’s assessment of jesus. it sets their teeth on edge! So they try another plan of attack. Somehow they need to undermine the man’s credibility as a real blind man in order to assail Jesus’ credibility as a healer. So they involve the man’s parents in the issue.
The 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 and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but 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.” His 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. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”
The man’s parents were not ready to go very far in helping him. They admitted he was their son. They confirmed that he was born blind, but they would go no further. They knew the religious leaders had already threatened that anyone believing in Jesus was to be put out of the religious community. To these deeply religious people, this was a frightening possibility.
Now the resistance grows even more intense. The Pharisees call the man who was born blind to the witness stand.
So 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.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”
The man refuses to be drawn into their theological arguments. (Smart man!) He simply shares what Jesus has done for him. Maybe we can take a lesson from this man. Many people are afraid to say anything about their faith because they fear they’ll be dragged into a theological argument that will be over their heads. We don’t need to understand theology to share what God has done in our lives. All we need to do is what the man did: tell what God has done in your life.
You may not be an authority on theology, but you are the world’s greatest authority on what has happened to you. When you stand on your own experience, no one can argue with that! No one can deny what God has done in your life.
The Pharisees are now about to dig a pit for themselves. Here they fall into their own trap:
They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He 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?” Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.”
The Pharisees have made a fatal mistake! They’ve admitted there is something they don’t know and the blind man seizes upon it.
The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”
Now he has them! He puts it back to them: “How do you explain this miracle if this man did not come from God?”
In this short period of time he has grown in his own faith and understanding. At first, he only knew the man that healed him as “the man they call Jesus.” As his understanding grew, the man saw Jesus as a prophet. Now he says Jesus is “from God.” His insight has grown progressively. He’s now come to a place of understanding who Jesus is.
Needless to say, he gets kicked out of the religious community. But Jesus and the blind man are brought back together for an important dialogue.
Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.
What I love about this passage is that the man didn’t have to find Jesus. Jesus found him.
The Lord of Light reveals himself to us in our darkness. Perhaps we come to Jesus through difficulty, hardship, trial, or resistance. But that’s all part of God’s way to show us the full spectrum, all the rainbow of colors of God’s light. As we look to Jesus, the light of the world, tears may cloud our vision and it may be difficult to see him clearly.
We may find it hard to see Jesus because of our suffering, or the suffering of someone close to us. We may say, “How can a loving, all-powerful God allow such suffering in the life of this innocent person?” And it is true: very often suffering comes into our lives for no apparent reason. Suffering is often simply a result of this broken, imperfect world into which we are born.
But Jesus stands ready to break through our darkness, and even our suffering. Jesus waits to be the light of our world.
Sunday bonus: Sir George Shearing recently passed away February 14, 2011 at the age of 91. He was not only a gifted jazz pianist, but his compositions are still standards played today. Here’s a 1987 video of him playing his Lullaby of Birdland.
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