Although I love the Samuel stories, and this first reading is a great Samuel story of political intrigue that would rival Scandal or House of Cards, filled with all that iron age detail to unpack as we rediscover those primitive instincts still shaping us despite our modernity; I think today we are even more challenged by the story in the third reading.
What is it about the gospel of John? Did you notice how long, I mean, long the gospel reading was? It’s too long. No really. It is too long. A story like this should be just about eight to ten verses. That’s how long it usually takes Jesus to do a major healing in the Bible. A quick introduction, some character formation, a description of the event, and some follow-up verses on the reactions or consequences, and then we are on to the next story. Why is this healing so long that we needed to actually sit down for the gospel reading this Sunday? What is John up to? Is he just verbose?
The case could be made that John is too wordy, especially for today’s reader. But this is a peculiar long story in which most of the verses do not involve Jesus. That’s unusual for the gospels. For twenty seven verses Jesus is not part of the story. The story’s characters in those verses are the blind-now-seeing man, his parents, and various priests and religious authorities. In all of the gospels, the only other times that Jesus is not acting or speaking for so many verses are the stories of his birth in Matthew and Luke, where the parents, shepherds, Eastern sages and Herod are the principle players. So this reading today from John is long, unusual, and complicated even for John’s standards. What is going on in this extended drawn out tale?
Jo-Ann Brant, in her commentary, John (Baker Academic, 2011), identifies what John may be up to as he tells this particular story. The story of the healing of the blind beggar and the reaction of the people is a mise en abyme (mis-on-abeam) or a scene within a scene: a little story within the bigger story. The effect of the mise en abyme is to place the reader between two mirrors, so that there is a deepening of the visual or the meaning as one stands between a series of infinite reflections. Such a little story comes often in the center of the bigger story, just as we are almost halfway through the book of John. And the little story tells us what is going on in the bigger story. They are reflections of each other. Shakespeare sometimes puts a play within one of his plays in this way: the little play helps reflect what is happening in the larger play.
Here, chapter nine is the story of the blind man. But it is also the story of Jesus in the larger gospel of John. The blind man and Jesus are reflections of each other. The crowd deliberates on the identity of the blind man, just as in the passion the crowd deliberates on the identity of Jesus. The story of the blind man comes in scenes marked by exits and entrances in the interrogation by Pharisees and authorities, just as it is in the story of Jesus in his coming passion and death. In the story of the blind man, the key phrase is “I am the one,” just as in the passion Jesus says “I am he.” Both the blind man and Jesus speak frankly in their appearances before the authorities. Both express a sarcastic astonishment that the Pharisees do not get this. Both Jesus and the blind man are treated as invalid witnesses in their trials. Both are accused of being sinners. Both are accused of teaching without authority. Both have complicated relationships with their parents and families. And as the blind man is thrown out of the assembly; in the coming holy week, Jesus throws the money changers out of the temple. Just as words alone do not heal the blind man, but the physical is required; so also it is only through physical crucifixion that the healing of the world can be accomplished.
In many ways, this chapter is so long because the blind man is the Jesus of the passion, and in this chapter, in this little reflecting story within the larger story of Jesus, we have a foretaste of what is to come. What is coming is the healing of the world, reflected in infinite iterations, so that all might see God. This healing of the world will require the physical. The healing and the physician who brings it will be interrogated and rejected by people who just don’t get it. But in the end, we will encounter that someone who says, I am the one. I am the way, the truth, the life, the shepherd, the door, the lamb, and the light. I am the one who will help us see our way into a new relationship with God, each other and the world.
At first this morning we may not have seen Jesus in the blind beggar, just as we often don’t see Jesus in the homeless and street people around us. And yet it is in the face of the poor, the marginalized, the sick, the dying, the lost, the homeless, the rejected, and the forsaken that we find the image of God. Not just in John, but on the streets of Madison, God is a blind beggar, healed and healing, with a long, sometimes too long, story to tell. And all of that is what we are called “to see.”
But this story within the story is not just about Jesus and the beggar. Its reflections are infinite. Our lives become reflections: become little stories within the larger story of God’s recovery of the world. We are invited into this story, invited to identify with Jesus and the beggar by the details of life, rejection, death, and healing we share together. Our lives also come in scenes marked by exits and entrances of various friends, adversaries, and family members, as we face a variety of challenges and authorities. Those around us deliberate on our identity, as people ask, “Well, who do you think you are?” when we try to do what is right.
In our own lives, one of the key things we need to do is figure out who we are so that we are able to say, “I am who I am. I am that one. This is who I am.” With both the blind man and Jesus, we too need to speak frankly at least now and then. With both Jesus and the blind man, we may be astonished that those around us are clueless. With both Jesus and the blind man, those around us may invalidate our stories, or consider us sinners. With both Jesus and the blind man, our explanations can often be discarded. And sometimes every one of us has been asked to leave one group or another. And just as words alone do not heal the blind man nor the world, so also now and then we need to get physical and use a little grit and spit to accomplish our muddy purpose.
Until our own story becomes one of many reflections, a little reflection used by future readers “to see” the larger image of God’s expanding grace for all creation.