One day, Jesus said, “I am the light of the world.” Everything else pales in comparison to this astounding claim. In a world artificially lighted, we might miss the significance of Jesus’ claim, but Jesus is not offering to light the parking lot in shopping malls. He is offering to flood the darkness in our hearts and minds with light. John wraps a story around the claim. Let this mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus – and that takes light penetrating our foggy-bottom darkness, our mewling compromises with the beasts who would rule our world in fear.
As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. We often don’t see other people, especially if they are in need. We don’t like being uncomfortable, do we? A homeless man once shouted at a passerby, “Look at me. I’m not going away just because you won’t look at me. At least have the decency to see me and acknowledge my presence.”
Jesus lived in the NO COMFORT zone. Wherever he went, emergency rooms opened on the side of roads, around village wells, and in the heart of the slums of the city. Matthew tells us, “Great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others.” Jesus had more trouble getting a day off than any preacher in history. He exhausted himself as the only physician in a floating MASH unit. No wonder he slipped away at night to spend time with the Father in prayer. Jesus lived his life with his eyes open to need. The word spread like lightning on steroids because wherever Jesus went empathy flowed out from him into the streets.
How much empathy do we have? Humans are born with as much capacity for empathy as for selfishness. I call it original empathy in contrast to the awful doctrine of original sin. Students of the human brain tell us our brains are wired with “mirror neuron circuitry.” These circuits integrate action and perception. Our “mirror neuron circuits”, located in the premotor cortex, fire when we either perform a given action or see someone else perform the same action. Mirror neuron circuits are connected to the posteromedial cortex, which must be active in the experience of empathy and compassion (Lakoff, The Political Mind). This is a reason for us to imitate Jesus. His “mirror neuron circuits” fired 100% of the time. Jesus zoned in on need, want, sickness, hurt, and pain.
We can use our imaginations to increase empathy even in a culture of darkness. For example, in Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, we meet an old man who has served a succession of ten-year sentences in Soviet camps and prisons. And yet he has never been broken and he has never lost his spirit. Shukhov, our narrator, describes this old man sitting at the table for the meal of gruel. His back was straight in a camp of men with bent backs. He was upright. His eyes didn’t dart about the room but were fixed on some invisible spot of his own. As he eats, he carries the spoon all the way to his mouth as if he were giving himself Holy Communion. He takes out a little square of carefully washed cloth and places the bread on it. We don’t know the history of this old man, but I see him as a priest in the Orthodox Church and in his imagination he sees his Lord and Master and the church and he is partaking in the holy sacrament of communion. He is a man in the image of god, formed by a long liturgical tradition, surviving and reflecting as in a mirror the glory of a suffering servant. When the God we claim becomes the God we show, God has glory. After all, Jesus is the “reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.”
Did you know we have three sets of eyes? Jumping spiders have four sets of eyes, but did you know that we have three sets of eyes? Physical, mental, and spiritual. The mental eyes help us see the answer to an equation. We have an expression for the working of our mental eyes: “I see it!” It means “I get it!”
Paul says that we have a set of spiritual eyes in Ephesians 1:18 – “the eyes of your heart.” I believe empathy comes from “the eyes of the heart.” When we see with our heart we have more empathy.
The disciples see the same blind man. Instead of need they see a theological debate: “Who sinned?” What a contrast. Jesus sees hurt and need; the disciples see sin. Jesus is obsessed with human need; the disciples with human sin. See the difference? What about us? Jesus asks, “How can I help you?” Time and again, the disciples fail to see the need. Jesus sees people as lost sheep without a shepherd. The disciples see people as a nuisance. One time James and John ask if they can pour down fire from heaven on a Samaritan village that refused to welcome Jesus. When Jesus asks the woman at the well if she would like living water the disciples ask what he wants for lunch. Jesus offers to feed 5,000 people; the disciples calculate the cost and say that they can’t afford to feed that many hungry people. Can you imagine arguing that “We can’t afford it” when we have all this human need?
The question of “who sinned” smacks of bad theology. This is the sort of bad theology we have to grow out of. Bad theology is about not trusting God, about approaching God as critical or hostile rather than the Almighty who can be trusted to keep promises and provide us maximum support (Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust). Generations of Sunday school teachers and hordes of preachers have repeated this nonsense about God punishing us with sickness because of our sin, and we just sit there and take it. Some church members are like Clyde Edgerton’s Raney who tells her husband Charles: “I have been going to Bethel Free Will Baptist Church for twenty-four years now, and Mr. Brooks, Mr. Tolley, Mr. Honneycutt, and all these other men have been studying the Bible for all their lives and they say that [Jesus turned that water into grape juice]. All added together they’ve probably studied the Bible over a hundred years. I’m not going to sit here in my own kitchen and go against that.” Well, I’m going against it and if you are clinging to the old tale that God punishes us with sickness, please put down your Bible, step away from the table, take a deep breath, and get some new beliefs.
Yet in the dark world of the man born blind, Jesus was quick to say: “I am the Light of the World.” Way back in Genesis 1 we read: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.” Have you noticed that the darkness, the deep, and the earth are already present? This is not a story of creating from nothing but of creation out of something pre-existent. Then God said, “Let there be light.” The opening of John’s Gospel, the story of the New Creation, gets this dance of the light shining in the darkness started: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life,* and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:1-3).
What does Jesus do? Of all things, he mixes mud and saliva and puts it on the blind man’s eyes. The narrator of the second creation story, in Genesis 2 says, “The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground.” What an amazing theological gesture that Jesus makes a mud pie out of dirt and spit and spreads the mud on the blind man’s eyes. Any true-blue Gnostic would excise this story from the New Testament canon. Gnostics can’t stand getting their hands dirty with real live human existence. No wonder my biblically-immersed father would often tell me when I was hurt in a baseball game, “Rub some dirt on it.” Or “Spit on it and keep moving.”
Jesus then sends the blind man to wash in the pool of Siloam. We call this a miracle! I believe in miracles but have never worked a miracle. As soon as the formerly blind man returns to the stage, the crowd hounds him for answers: “How were your eyes opened?” Asking the patient for a medical explanation is as strange as our current habit of watching ads for miracle drugs on television, then going to the doctor and telling the doctor, I want some of those pills I saw advertised on CBS.
The blind man answers, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I washed and received my sight.’”
The religious authorities, protective of their turf, barge in with questions that are biting, condescending, and judgmental: “How did you receive your sight?” He told them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.”
Not liking the man’s answer, the Pharisees called the man’s parents. Surely parents will defend even a grown child. The parents refuse to answer the questions. They were afraid. John tells us the parents “washed their hands” of their own son because they were afraid of being excommunicated from the synagogue. The formerly blind man gives believers the model for how they are to act. Even if our parents forsake us, we will bear witness that Jesus has given us light for our darkness.
The Pharisees made the man return for a second round of questioning. They give this man more trouble than a Senate committee grilling a Supreme Court nominee. The man’s answer: “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” What a great witness!
The blind man now seeing frustrates the Pharisees. They ask him to repeat his story. I love his answer: “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. And they drove him out. This is how bullies always respond: abuse, insults, threats, and excommunication.
“And are you trying to teach us?” The Pharisees ask a condescending question, revealing that they believe they can’t be taught anything at all by a man born blind. Here is the root of much spiritual blindness – the lack of a teachable spirit. My dad once gave away an expensive bird dog. He simply gave up trying to train the young pointer how to hold his point until Dad was in place to shoot the quail. As soon as this pup pointed the covey, he would bark and dash into the middle of the birds, scattering them everywhere. Dad said, “You just can’t teach that dog a darn thing.” There are people who lack teachable spirits. Like Paul says, “The time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.”
Badgered by religious experts, ridiculed by the crowed, abandoned by his family, kicked out of his synagogue, what’s the formerly blind man to do? Well, look again. Who is that coming toward him on the street outside the Temple? Why it’s Jesus! Here comes Jesus – back for the born-blind man. Jesus comes back to be his friend, supporter, helper. Even when we can’t work miracles we can be like Jesus. No follower left behind. Jesus comes back for us. Jesus even promises to come for us in the time of our deaths: “I will come again and will take you to myself.” That promise has done more to calm my fear of death than any other Scripture.
Now do we see? The story is an offer of light for people walking in darkness. This story challenges us to receive a new world of possibility through the power of God, a new world that shatters our blind spots, our lack of empathy. Once I was blind, but now I see!
One day Jesus said, “I am the Light of the world!”
One day Jesus said, “I am the light of the world!” I believe him! Do you?