One of my favourite accounts of the people who met Jesus, comes in chapter 9 of St John’s gospel. Weighing in at 41 verses and covering the whole chapter, it is a good deal longer than most far better-known stories of Jesus’s life. The story comes in three parts: in Act 1, Jesus restores the sight of a man who had been born blind; Act 2 sees the man being cross-questioned by the religious leaders about his blindness and healing, whilst the final Act is a second meeting between Jesus and the man, with a discussion about the spiritual life. The story is all about light and dark, seeing and not seeing.
Whilst Jesus is of course the central character in the story, which includes one of his most memorable all-time lines when he says “ I am the light of the World,” the man who is healed gets my nomination for best supporting actor. He is open and hungry for whatever Jesus can give him and positively uppity with the religious leaders.
The story goes something like this. Jesus and his disciples are walking along the road and see a blind beggar. The disciples ask whether it is the man’s fault or that of his parents that he was born blind. Neither, said Jesus – it is simply an opportunity for the power of God to be displayed in his life. He then proceeds to heal the man in a theatrical and visually powerful way. Jesus spits in the dust and makes a paste which he applies to the man’s closed eyes. He then sends him off to wash in a nearby pool and carries on his way. The man does what he is told. No discussion or debate – he just does it. As soon as he washes in the pool, he is able to see.
Neighbours and those who had previously seen the man begging argue as to whether he was the same person or not. Some said he was just a look-alike. “I am that man,” he insists. “Okay,” they say, “if you really are the same person, how come you can see?” So he tells them what happened. “The man called Jesus did it; he made some mud, put it on my eyes, told me to wash in a nearby pool and then I could see.” Their response deliberately ignores what the man has said about the miracle that has happened. “So where is he now then?” they ask. He doesn’t know.
Next, they take him to the religious leaders who cross-question him. They already had strong views about Jesus. They regarded him as a rebellious upstart, flouting their authority and teaching, whilst mixing with the worst elements in society and seemingly enjoying their company. Once again he has overstepped the line, because he healed the man on the sabbath, a day when the religious authorities say that no work should be done. Elsewhere Jesus tells them that they are wrong, doing good on the sabbath is never a bad thing. Here however, there is no sign of Jesus so they have to make do with the man. He tells them what happened. Straight and simple. Instead of believing in the miracle, they doubt that he was really blind. It’s just a trick. So they send for his parents. When they arrive, you get a strong sense of a frightened elderly couple, wanting to be honest about the fact that their son had been blind all his life and could now miraculously see, but desperate to avoid offending such powerful and vindictive officials by saying the wrong thing. So they pass the buck. “He was born blind but we don’t know how he can see again. He is of age – ask him yourself”.
Re-enter the ex-blind man from stage left. The religious leaders start off by telling him Jesus is a sinner – implying that the man needs to choose his words carefully. But nothing is going to stop him now. “I don’t know anything about that,” he says, “but one thing I do know is that I was blind, but now I can see”. Get out of that! Alright they say, if you know so much, how did he manage to restore your sight? So he tells them the miraculous story once again and with a nice touch at the end, asks whether they want to become his disciples since they’re so interested in hearing the story. It doesn’t go down well! They hurl insults at him – “You’re his follower, not us. We follow Moses who God spoke to, not this fellow. We don’t even know where he comes from.”
This is the blind man’s finest hour. He is not to be silenced and you can hear his sarcastic tone as he replies – “How remarkable! You don’t know where he comes from and yet he healed my blindness. Nobody ever heard of a man born blind being healed. If this man were not from God he could do nothing!” That does it. “How dare you lecture us!” they say and proceed to throw him out of the temple.
Jesus hears about the exchange and the outcome. He finds the man and declares himself to be from God. The man’s response is immediate and he becomes a follower. Jesus then uses the opportunity to use blindness as a metaphor for the spiritual life. His work, he said was to give sight to the spiritually blind, and with a pointed dig at the religious leaders, he was there to show that those who thought they could see, were in fact blind.
If you strip away all the detail, what is really astounding about this story is that a man who was born blind receives his sight and people don’t believe, or rather, don’t want to believe. Miracles really don’t get much bigger than this but both the local population and the religious authorities go out of their way to avoid believing what had happened. Why was this? I think that like so much of what Jesus said and did, he offended their sensibilities, challenged their comfortable views of the world, highlighted the misuse of power and showed how hopelessly lost and blind they really were. The blind man could see reality, the so called enlightened religious leaders could not.
So what of today? Would people believe? Interestingly, recent surveys in the UK have shown that 60% of adults believe in miracles, even though those who would claim to have any sort of religious faith is far lower. An amazing 72% of people aged 18 to 24 believe miracles can happen — more than any other age group. Figures are even higher in the United States. One of the greatest and most consistent of miracles of our time is people with addictions who by now should be dead but whose lives have been saved by following a 12-step programme of recovery. God is still restoring sight to the blind. Not only have their lives been saved, but they live life in a new and different way – life in all its fullness was how Jesus described it, because they have had their spiritual sight restored. And in the most interesting parallel to the story in John’s gospel, there are many doubters of these miracles; those within the treatment establishment, who take offence at the self-help, spiritual nature of this programme. “What place does the idea of God have in treatment provision?” they say. “This only works for a small number of people”. Academics too have their doubts and demand “an evidence base” when there are hundreds of recovered people now well, against all the odds, a walking, talking evidence base. “Isn’t going to AA meetings just another addiction” someone in the church once said to me, oblivious to the fact that they probably attended as many church services a week as most people in recovery attend meetings, yet they would never see this as an addiction or sign of weakness. So the miracle is ignored. But it doesn’t go away. Like the light, salt, and yeast that crop up repeatedly in the stories of Jesus, people in recovery are quietly, steadily and miraculously playing their part in God’s big plan of restoration, the Kingdom of God that Jesus talked about. Research has shown that 5 years into sobriety, people in 12 step fellowships are contributing more to society than others who have never had an addiction.
Miracles happen, but for all this, there is something of the doubter in all of us. Offended by things which don’t fit our given perspective or philosophy, what are the miracles that we don’t see and maybe go out of our way to ignore? God has a track record of helping the blind to see, so our prayer must be for our eyes to be opened too, so that we are able to see the miracles taking place in us and around us, each moment of every day.
Miracles happen every day; change your perception of what a miracle is and you’ll see them all around you. Jon Bon Jovi
Miracles are not contrary to nature, only contrary to what we know about nature. St Augustine
Open your eyes, look up to the skies and see. Freddie Mercury/Queen
There are two ways to live: you can live as if nothing is a miracle or you can live as if everything is a miracle. Albert Einstein
Miracles happen every day. Not just in remote country villages or at holy sites halfway across the globe, but here, in our own lives. Deepak Chopra
Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see. C. S. Lewis
I was waiting for the miracle, for the miracle to come. Leonard Cohen