It will come as no surprise to you all that I gravitated toward Jesus’ use of the dirt in this Gospel story. You all are probably sick of me talking about dirt and dust and remembering that we are these things, but I am going to keep talking about it because, well, all evidence points to the fact that we all keep forgetting. And, in any case, remembering that we are dust, that we are of the dirt, is the reason for the season.
Once again, our Gospel during Lent focuses on sight: who can see, what do we see, and can we see at all? We quickly discover in this story that this man’s healing – the physical healing – is hardly the point! Rather, Jesus opens his eyes to reveal just how tightly we hold our own eyes shut. Our faulty memories – forgetting that we are of the dirt and dust – lead us, like the Pharisees and disciples, to see the world from the position of the Creator rather than as creatures. This is a dangerous game because, as we see in this story, the way we see and understand the world determines how we relate to the world and our fellow creatures.
The question of the disciples in the very beginning of this Gospel story launches the focus of the whole thing: “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Many smart folks will want to say that this is a cultural assumption, that it is part of the worldview here that this physical disability is caused by some personal or ancestral sin. They’re probably right, but I’m not sure it gets to the point of the disciples’ question.
What is the point of their question, then?
The disciples see this man, they see his physical difference from them, and they immediately read his body as a judgment on how sinful he is. I had a teacher who used to say that we are, from a very early age, taught to read a room – taught to see who is there, taught to look for certain kinds of people, and taught to judge the quality of the gathering by simply glancing at the bodies that are present.
So, yes, this may be the way the culture thought about sickness and other physical differences like paralysis and blindness, but it does not change the fact that the disciples, and later the Pharisees, read this blind man’s body and judge his holiness by his physical difference.
But Jesus puts an immediate stop to this line of thinking: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; rather it is so in order that the works of God might be revealed in him.” And Jesus, with the same dirt he used at the creation of Adam, picks up a handful, spits in it, and, with this newly baptized mud, wipes it on this man’s eyes. He tells him to go wash, and that is that.
But of course, everyone was curious about this change. They barely recognized him, and some didn’t believe it was the same man. So long he had been identified by this physical difference that they could not recognize him – they could not see him – without it. “He kept saying, ‘I am the man.” Even now, they cannot let him identify himself, cannot let him speak of his encounter with Jesus without calling his own story about himself into question.
So, instead of taking him at his word, “They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind.” Instead of hearing him tell of Jesus, they take him to the people who have the authority to judge between sinner and saint – the religious leaders. The formerly blind man stands under the judging gaze of the religious and social elite, those who apparently know how to see rightly. This formerly blind man is still held in suspicion, so they ask his parents who confirm that he was indeed born blind, but that’s all they will do out of fear of those who have the power to determine who is on the inside and who is on the outside.
Finally, they turn back to the man to ask the question, but they’ve already made up their minds about the answer. His healing is no longer the issue. It doesn’t matter that he was healed. They have judged both him and Jesus as sinful.
They ridicule him for being in cahoots with this Jesus fellow, and they claim their authority as those who are disciples of Moses. But this man does not leave it alone. He does not let them reject him or Jesus outright, and he pushes their own argument back on them. According to them, sinners don’t have an audience with God, yet here is this man who has been healed. “If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”
But they will not allow this man, this one they have marked for a sinner from the very beginning, they will not allow him to teach them anything about God. “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” This sinner can have nothing to teach those who hold the keys to knowing God.
Both the disciples and the Pharisees looked at this man, looked at his physical condition, and they judged him a sinner simply by looking at him. For the Pharisees, even learning his story could not pull him out of the category they’d set for him.
We are not unfamiliar with this way of looking at the world, with looking at physical differences, different skin tones, and different bodies and assigning judgments to them. Harsh words like criminal and terrorist are assigned to particular bodies. We judge the morality or worth of a person by looking at physical appearance – color, size, shape, gender, age, disability. We have been taught to read these things and judge these things. But the truth is heard most clearly in Jesus’ reply to the disciples: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; rather it is so in order that the works of God might be revealed in him.”
And so we are brought back to the dirt, to the reminder that this is where we come from. We do not stand above the world with the power to organize the world in the way that we would like. This is not the position of the creature. So we must be reminded again and again.
And Jesus’ response – “that the works of God might be revealed in him” – reveals the deeper truth of our identity as God’s creatures. That is, we are not simply creatures; we are beloved creatures, born of the dirt and filled with the life of God’s breath and Spirit. So Jesus points to this man, this one who has, by everyone else, been deemed deficient, and he says, “This one – this is the one through whom God will work.”
Part of remembering that we are creatures, that we are born of the dirt and the breath of God, is learning to see every creature as one in whom God might work and speak and reveal. God is not confined to our way of organizing the world, and so God will continue to reveal and work through means and people we would least expect. This ought to change the way we relate to our neighbors, our friends, our enemies, and the whole of creation. It is all “charged with the grandeur of God.”
This is our invitation to the table. This same God who reveals Divine work through dust and spit and mud, through black and white, male and female, young and old, rich and poor, friend and stranger – this same God invites us to see the Divine presence in Bread and Wine. Come that you may see, for the one who calls you is he!