Not too long ago I got lost while trying to find a mortuary. I was on my way to attend a memorial service—thankfully, I wasn’t supposed to officiate at this one—and I just couldn’t find the place. I entered the address into the GPS system in my car and followed the directions explicitly until the bossy GPS lady who lives in my dashboard said rather brusquely, “You have arrived at your destination.” Honestly, I don’t think she likes me. It’s her tone of voice, you know what I mean? She’s always so abrupt. “Turn left NOW.” “Turn right NOW.”
Anyway, when she told me I had arrived at my destination, I looked over to my right, where my directions indicated the mortuary was supposed to be, and I didn’t see anything that looked at all like a mortuary. I also didn’t see any kind of address numbers on the building that was there, so despite the confident insistence of the GPS lady, I was pretty sure I was in the wrong place.
Across the street, though, was a very large church and a very large graveyard that took up that whole block. Aha, I thought, I’ll bet the mortuary is somewhere over there. So I drove around the church and graveyard. Three times. But I never found any way to get in. All the gates in the tall iron fence that surrounded the place were chained and locked. So even though there was a graveyard, there was no mortuary. At least not one that I could see.
I pulled over and reset the address I had been given into my car’s GPS, then followed the bossy lady’s terse directions again—honestly, she really does sound like she’s annoyed about something—and once again I arrived at the same place where she had originally told me to go. And once again, I didn’t see any mortuary. So I drove home.
When I got home, after sending a text to my friend to apologize for my absence at her loved-one’s memorial service, I looked up the address I had been given in Google maps then clicked Street View. And there it was, right where my GPS lady said it was. Google even labeled the building as “Such And Such Mortuary.” I realized that I had been right in front of it all along. But I hadn’t seen it because it didn’t look like I expected a mortuary to look and it wasn’t in a spot where I expected a mortuary should be.
It was there, but I couldn’t see it. Sometimes we miss what’s right in front of us because we can’t see past our assumptions.
One day, as Jesus was walking through Jerusalem, he saw a man who had been blind from birth. The text doesn’t tell us, by the way, how they knew he was born blind and didn’t become blind later. Maybe he had a sign that said “Please help, born blind.”
Anyway, while passing by, Jesus saw a man who was blind. His disciples, on the other hand, saw a karmic punishment for sin. That’s the first blinding assumption we encounter in this story. This man is blind? Somebody must have sinned. That’s how the disciples understood the universe. If you see an affliction, it must be that God is punishing someone. Things like being born blind don’t just randomly happen…someone is to blame for this, right? So they ask Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, so that he was born blind?”
“What’s wrong with you guys?” said Jesus. “Nobody sinned! What’s with all the blaming and shaming?” Well, that’s not what he actually said, but that’s what it sounds like to me. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” is what he actually said.
And then we come to a translation problem. In verse 3, the NRSV has Jesus saying, “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work.” Some translations read, “This happened so that God’s works might be revealed…” But here’s the problem: the words “he was born blind” or “this happened” are not in the Greek text. They are a translation insertion that makes it sound like the man’s blindness was predestined just so Jesus could come along and demonstrate God’s power. It reads like God set him up to be a stage prop.
But that is not what the original text says. So what does it sound like if we follow the actual Greek words and re-work the punctuation, which was also added by translators and not part of the original text? It reads like this: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. So that the works God might be revealed in him, we must work the works of the One who sent me while it is day. Night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
In other words, “Nobody sinned. This isn’t about sin. But since I’m here and he’s here, let’s use this opportunity to bring some light into this man’s life and reveal the power and presence of God while we’re at it.”
The traditional translation sounds like this poor blind man was being manipulated by God. But the original text sounds like he experienced the grace of God when Jesus gave him the gift of sight. That is so much more in keeping with what we read in John’s prologue: “From his fullness we have received grace upon grace” or “one gift after another.” (John 1:16)
Jesus made a paste of mud and spit and smeared it on the man’s eyes then told him to go wash his eyes in the pool of Siloam. He went and washed and came back able to see. And ran smack-dab into more assumptions.
“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, “Hello?? It’s really me!”
The verbs in this section are all imperfect active indicative which suggests a continuing argument or impasse. They kept saying it wasn’t the same man. He kept insisting “It really is me, your formerly blind neighbor.”
Isn’t it just so human that some of them assumed that he couldn’t possibly be the blind beggar they had been seeing every day because this guy, obviously, can see! Their assumptions blinded them to the miracle right in front of them. How could it be the same guy? People born blind don’t just suddenly see. The world doesn’t work that way. God doesn’t work that way. If they accepted that it really was the same person, they would have to change the way they understood God, history, the world, the universe and everything. So these doubting neighbors deny the evidence of their eyes and assume that it must be someone who looks like him.
It’s easier for some people to ignore the facts than to accept new facts that require them to change the way they see and understand the world.
The doubting neighbors brought the man who had been blind to the Pharisees to see what light they might shed on the situation, but as it turned out, they had their own version of assumption blindness. When the formerly blind man told the Pharisees how Jesus made a paste of mud then smeared it on his eyes and that when he washed it off he could see, they did not ignore the facts in front of them, but some of them did twist the facts to their own benighted purposes.
Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the Sabbath.” Others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” So, to summarize, Jesus gave the blind man his sight on the Sabbath. And that’s not kosher. You’re not supposed to do any kind of work on the Sabbath. And if you wanted to be a real stickler, Jesus was specifically violating the restriction against kneading dough on the Sabbath when he made the mud paste. True, mud and bread dough aren’t quite the same thing, but kneading is kneading, and they were needing an excuse to discredit Jesus in some way.
Once again, it’s easier for some people to ignore the facts, or twist the facts, or invent their own facts than to accept new facts that require them to change the way they see and understand the world. “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness cannot comprehend it.” (John 1:5)
Like detectives interrogating a criminal, the Pharisees made the formerly blind man tell his story repeatedly. When some of them asserted that he had never really been blind, his parents were brought in to affirm that yes, he was born blind, and no, they didn’t know who gave him his sight, and by the way he’s an adult and this has nothing to do with us. When they asked him one last time to go through the facts again, the formerly blind man was just plain exasperated. “I have told you already,” he said, “and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?”
That question really pushed their buttons. They were supposed to be the authorities on all things sacred, and the suggestion, even if it was a bit facetious, that they might become disciples, students, of this Jesus who dared to do questionable things like healing on the Sabbath? That really set them off. They doubled-down on their commitment to Moses and Mosaic law, then circled back to their cultural assumption that the man was born blind because of sin. “You were born entirely in sins,” they said. And then they threw him out.
And that’s when Jesus came looking for him.
“Do you believe in the Son of Man?” asked Jesus. “Who is he, sir,” the man replied. “Tell me so that I may believe in him.” “You have seen him,” said Jesus, “in fact, he is the one speaking to you.” “Lord, I believe,” said the man and then bowed down to Jesus in reverence.
In John’s gospel, to believe is to trust. Belief is relationship.
“To those who receive him, who believe in his name, he gives power to become children of God.”
The man who had been born blind was now the one who could truly see Jesus as the Christ. As Jesus predicted, the work of God had been done through him not only by Jesus giving him sight, but also by his testimony that challenged the assumption blindness of his neighbors and the Pharisees.
“I came into this world for judgement,” said Jesus to the man, “so that those who cannot see may receive their sight, and that those who think they see may become blind.” “And this is the judgment,” we read in chapter 3, “that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were harmful.”*
In a world where we can pick or choose our sources of information to suit our biases and our agendas, we need to remember that facts are facts even when we don’t particularly like them or if they challenge our assumptions. People following “alternative facts” or simply inventing harmful narratives erodes our common understanding of reality and truth, and that can be extremely destructive, sometimes on a massive scale.
As followers of Jesus we should have a particularly strong devotion to truth. In his prayer for us before he was arrested, Jesus prayed, “Sanctify them in your truth. Your word is truth.” In John’s gospel, the last thing Jesus said to Pilate before he was handed over to be crucified was, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18:37)
The blind man’s doubtful neighbors and the Pharisees missed the truth that was right in front of them. They couldn’t see past their assumptions to see the One they had been looking for their entire lives. May God help us all to put aside the assumptions that blind us so that we don’t drive right past the thing we’re looking for.
* ponera is the Greek word. It is usually translated as “evil” but can also mean “worthless” or “harmful” or “weak.”