“Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” To this they replied, “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!” And they threw him out. (John 9.32-34)
The 1937 screwball classic Nothing Sacred kicks into high gear when a hoodwinked Manhattan reporter tries to save his career by chasing down a young Vermont woman allegedly dying from radiation poisoning. He has the finest intentions. He hopes to lionize her as a heroine, using her story as a cautionary tale of technology gone awry. When he reaches her village—a company town owned by a watch manufacturer—his reception is less than ideal. The local store manager tells him “they don’t want any scandal-mongering New Yorkers snooping around.” Adults turn up their noses, kids pelt him with slush from an ice wagon, and a tyke bolts through a picket gate to bite his leg. By the time he locates her, he realizes he can’t help her if he hangs around the village. So he whisks her to New York, where she melts the city’s cold heart and madcap chaos ensues. It turns out she’s as phony as the shyster who nearly ruined the writer by posing as a sultan. But dwelling on that aspect steers us from why I mention the film in relation to this Sunday’s Gospel: the healing of a man born blind in John 9.
Without diminishing its profundities, this extraordinary episode unfolds in a bizarrely comic manner that very much reminds me of Nothing Sacred. The chapter takes off quickly, initially presenting the blind man as an incidental character Jesus uses to make a bigger point. He’s with the disciples in Jerusalem when they notice the man and, since his blindness is congenital, they ask whose sin caused the condition, his or his parents’. “Neither,” Jesus says, explaining the man was born blind “so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (v3) He goes on to say, “As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” (v4-5) Thus, the sole purpose for the man’s disability leads to this moment, when Jesus combines miracle and metaphor to verify His divinity. In a gesture indubitably meant to evoke humanity’s creation, Jesus spits on the ground to make mud, packs it on the man’s eyes (ergo, recreating them), and sends him to wash in the Pool of Siloam. The man returns with perfect sight—which would be great, except Jesus and the disciples are long gone, leaving him to deal with the madcap chaos that ensues.
John makes one thing clear right away: Jerusalem is a company town full of people who don’t like anyone upsetting the status quo. They’re not interested in rejoicing in the man’s miracle. They need to get to the bottom of things before the bosses show up. First, they confirm it’s the same guy who was born blind, since the whole thing may be a hoax. Next, they want the name of who’s behind it. But the man can’t identify who healed him. So they bring in the Pharisees, who get hung up on a huge detail the others miss. It’s the Sabbath. Whoever did this broke the rules! The whole thing’s crazy, as the anonymous Healer is a sinner and everybody knows sinners can’t work miracles. The Pharisees rustle up the man’s parents, asking if he’s really their son, if he truly was born blind, and if so, how is it he can see all of a sudden. “That’s our boy, alright,” they answer. “And he’s been blind since birth. But we have no idea how he’s cured or who did it. He’s an adult. Ask him.”
The comedy darkens. They recall the man for another grilling. After he sticks with his story, they resort to insults, basically asking, “Do you take us for idiots?” They accuse him of being Jesus’s disciple—a co-conspirator blindly following a sinner, nobody in their eyes. They pull rank, boasting, “We’re Moses’s disciples! God spoke to him. This Fellow? We don’t even know where He’s from.” But the once blind nobody sees through their religious darkness and blows them away with their own argument, which is crazy. “Nobody’s ever heard of opening the eyes of man born blind,” he says. “If this man weren’t from God, he could do nothing.” That does it. They won’t hear another word. They revert to the unenlightened myth that set off the uproar when the disciples asked whose sin is to blame for birth anomalies. The Pharisees bellow, “You were steeped in sin at birth. How dare you lecture us!” and they toss him out. If this were a screenplay instead of a Gospel, we might read:
Slowly fade to black, so the audience sorts out the irony. The man was blind since birth; the Pharisees are blind, deaf—and dumb—for life.
If this were a movie, it could end here. The irony is writ so large across the screen anything more would be anticlimactic. But since John is writing a sacred text about people who are gifted to misread sacred texts, he has more to do. News of the controversy has spread across Jerusalem (true to form for any company town) and Jesus comes looking for the man. He asks if the man believes in the Son of Man, i.e., the Messiah. The man replies he would if he knew who the Messiah was. Jesus says, “He is the one speaking to you,” and the man worships Jesus, saying, “Lord, I believe.” Here’s what Jesus tells him to believe: “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.” (v39) Outraged Pharisees keeping tabs on the man, perhaps to uncover his Healer’s identity, ask, “What? Are we blind too?” Jesus ends with the perfect button—screenwriter parlance for a closing line that puts the entire story into perspective: “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.” (v41)
Most of us feel confident we know this story fairly well until we reread the full chapter and learn we only remember the first six verses, in which Jesus uses mud to cure the man’s congenital blindness. We may not even recall his condition is congenital or why that’s the linchpin for the entire story. As the narrative progresses—and we observe how screwy it gets, along with how cleverly John builds to a concluding statement that socks us in the gut—we start to sense why so many prefer to focus on the healing and leave it there.
The miracle is merely a set-up for a scathing satire on insular faith communities and leaders who’d rather not see, hear, and learn the truth that Christ’s light incontrovertibly exposes. They’d rather cling to myths about sin and Sabbaths—obsolete doctrines and rituals—than embrace the uncertainty and faith the cured man witnesses by saying, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!” (v25) When we say that, we confess we aren’t wise enough to predict what Christ will do, whom He will save, and how He will work.
Opening our eyes, ears, and minds to Christ’s light opens our lives to His justice, which insists no one is shaped or hobbled by sin, that everyone is created from birth to display the works of God. Jesus, the Light of the World, demonstrates God’s power of recreation. Alleged anomalies—sexual orientation, inherent sensibilities, purported inferiorities, and so on—that we’ve lived with our whole lives are merely seeds of life-changing renewal. “Sin” has nothing to do with our making. It’s the chosen occupation of those who choose to be deaf, blind—and dumb—for life. In the end, madcap chaos and lunacy we endure due to small-minded, religiously benighted communities and leaders are secondary. Jesus finds us, reveals His true identity, and we worship Him, saying, “Lord, I believe.”
Sin is the chosen occupation of those who won’t see, hear, and learn the truth that Christ’s light incontrovertibly exposes.
Postscript: Company Town
Here's the sequence from Nothing Sacred that set me down the path of viewing John 9 as a satire. It's hard not to imagine that many of the provincial, fearful attitudes lampooned in this movie aren't similar to those Jesus confronted in Jerusalem--a company town if ever one existed.