Within the court of the temple, in the presence of the Pharisees and their satelites, Jesus had said, I am the light of the world; he that followeth Me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.” The saying, resented as egoistical and arrogant, led on to that altercation which ended in their taking up stones to cast at Him, and in His hiding Himself in some mysterious way and passing out of the temple, “going through the midst of them.” At one of the temple gates, or by the roadside without, “as Jesus passed by He saw a man which was blind from his birth,”—a well-known city beggar, whom Jesus and His disciples may have often passed in their way up to the temple. Now at the very time when we might have imagined Him more than ordinarily desirous to proceed in haste, in order to put Himself beyond the reach of the exasperated men out of whose hands He had just escaped. Jesus stops to look compassionately upon this man. He sees in him a fit subject for a work being done, which in the lower sphere of man’s physical nature shall illustrate the truth which He had in vain been proclaiming in the treasury, that He was the light of the world. As He stops, His disciples gather round Him and fix their eyes also upon the man whose case has arrested their Master’s footsteps, and seems to have absorbed His thoughts. Rut their thoughts are not His. They look, to think only of the rarity and severity of the affliction under which the man is laboring—to regard it as a judgment of God, whereby some great sin was punished—the man’s own, it would be natural to suppose it should be; but then, the judgment had come before any sin had been committed by him—he had been blind from his birth. Could it be that the punishment had preceded the offence; or was this a case in which the sins of the parents had been visited on the child? “Master”, they say to Jesus in their perplexity, “who did sin, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” The one thing that they had no doubt about,—and in having no such doubt, were only sharing in the sentiment of all the most devout of their fellow-countrymen,—was that some original sin had been committed, upon which the signal mark of God’s displeasure had been stamped. It was not as to the existence somewhere of some exceeding fault that they were in the least uncertain. Their only doubt was where to lay it. It was the false and deep conviction that lay beneath, their question that Jesus desired to expose and correct when He so promptly and decisively replied, “Neither hath this man sinned nor his parents,” neither the one nor the other had sinned so peculiarly that this particular visitation of blindness from birth has been visited on the transgression. Not that Jesus meant to disconnect altogether man’s suffering from man’s sins. Had He meant to do so, He would not have said to the paralytic ‘whom He cured at the pool of Bethesda, “Go thy way, sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon thee”; but that He wanted by vigorous stroke, to lay the ax at the root of a prevalent superstitious feeling which led to erroneous and presumptuous readings of God’s providence, connecting particular sufferings with particular sins, and arguing from the restive severity of the one to the relative magnitude of the other.
Nor was this the only instance in which our Savior dealt in the same manner with the same popular error. But a few weeks from the time in which He spake in this way to His disciples, Jesus was in Perea. There had been a riot in Jerusalem—some petty premature outburst of that insurrectionary spirit which was rife throughout Judea. Pilate had let loose his soldiers on the mob. Some Galileans who had taken part in the riot, or were supposed to have done so—for the Galileans were always in the front rank of any movement of that kind—were slain—slain even while engaged in the act of sacrificing, their blood mingled with their sacrifices; an incident so fitted to strike the public eye, to arouse the public indignation, that the news of it traveled rapidly thru the country. It reached the place where Christ was teaching. Some of His hearers, struck perhaps by something He had said about the signs of the times and the judgments that were impending, took occasion publicly to tell Him of it. Perhaps they hoped that the recital would draw out from Him some burning expressions of indignation, pointed against the foreign yoke under which the country was groaning; the deed done by the Roman governor had been so gross an outrage upon the national religion, upon the sacredness of the holy temple. If the tellers of the tale cherished any such expectation they were disappointed. As upon all like occasions, when any purely political question was brought before Him, Christ evaded it. He never once touched or alluded to that aspect of the story. But there was another side to it upon which He perceived that the thoughts of not a few of His hearers were fastened. It was a terrible fate that these slaughtered Galileans had met—not only death by the Roman sword—but death within the courts of the temple—death upon the very steps of the altar. There could be but one opinion as to the deed of their murderers—those rough Gentile soldiers of Pilate. But the murdered, upon whom such a dreadful doom had fallen, what was to be thought of them? Christ’s all-seeing eye perceived that already in the breasts of many of those around him, the leaven of that censorious, uncharitable, superstitious spirit was working, which taught them to attach all extraordinary calamities to extraordinary crimes. “Suppose ye,” said Jesus, “that these Galileans were sinners above all Galileans because they suffered such things? I tell you nay.” To give His question and His answer a still broader aspect—to take out of them all that was peculiarly Galilean—He quotes another striking and well-known occurrence that had recently happened near Jerusalem—a calamity not inflicted by the hand of men. “Or those eighteen,” He adds, “upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you nay.” He does not deny that either the slaughtered Galileans or the crushed Jerusalemites were sinners. He does not say that they did not deserve their doom. He does not repudiate or run counter to that strong instinct of the human conscience which in all ages has taught it to trace suffering of sin. What He does repudiate and condemn is the application of that principle to specific instances by those who know so little as we do, of the Divine purposes and aims in the separate events in life—making the temporal infliction the measure of the guilt from which it is supposed to spring. It is not a wrong thing for the man himself whom some sudden or peculiarly severe calamity overtakes, to search and try himself before his Maker, to see whether there has not been some secret sin as yet unrepented and unforsaken, which may have had a part in bringing the calamity upon him. It was not a wrong thing in Joseph’s brethren, in the hour of their great distress in Egypt, to remember their former conduct, and to say, “We are verily guilty concerning our brother, therefore is this distress come upon us.” It was not a wrong thing for the king of Besek, when they cruelly mutilated him, cutting off his thumbs and great toes, to say, “Threescore and ten kings having their thumbs and great toes cut off gathered their meat under my table. As I have done, so God hath requited me.” But it was a wrong thing in the inhabitants of Melita, when they saw the viper fasten on Paul’s hand, to think and say, that, “no doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he hath escaped the sea, yet vengeance suffereth not to live.” It was a wrong thing in the widow of Zarephath, when her son fell sick, to say to Elijah, “What have I to do with thee, O thou man of God? Art thou come to call my sins to remembrance, and to slay my son?” It was a wrong thing for the friends of Job to deal with their afflicted brother as if his abounding misfortunes were so many proofs of a like abounding iniquity. It is a very wrong thing in any of us to presume to interpret any single dealing of God with others, particularly of a dark and adverse kind, for all such dispensations of His providence have a double character. They may be retributive, or they may be simply disciplinary, corrective, protective, purifying. They may come in anger or they may be sent in love. And while as to ourselves it may be proper that we should view them as bearing messages of warning, we are not at liberty as to others to attribute to them any other character than that of being the chastenings of a wise and loving Father.
“Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents, but that the works of God should be manifest in him.” Those works—works of mercy and almighty power—were given to Christ to do, and here was an opportunity for one of them being done. To pause thus by the way, to occupy Himself with the case of the poor blind beggar, might seem a waste of time, the more so that the purpose of His persecutors to seize and to stone Him had been so recently and so openly displayed. But that very outbreak of their wrath foretold to Jesus His approaching death—the close of His allotted time of labor; and so He says, “I must work the works of Him that sent Me while it is day; the night cometh, when no man can work. As (long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” “I said so to those proud and unbelieving men from whose rough violence I have just escaped. I will prove now the truth of what I said by bringing the light physically, mentally, spiritually, to the poor bind beggar.”
All this time not a word is spoken by the blind man himself. Whatever cries for help he may have raised when he heard the footsteps of the approaching company, as they stop before him he becomes silent.
He hears the question about his own sins and his parent’s sins put by strange Galilean tongues to one addressed evidently with the greatest respect. He hears the one thus appealed to say, with an authority that he wonders at, “Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents,” grateful words to the poor man’s ear. He may have thought in common with others, that he had been signally marked as an object of Divine displeasure. The words that he now hears may have helped to lift a load off his heart; already he may be more grateful to the speaker of these few words than if He had cast the largest money-gift into his bosom. But the speaker goes further: He says that he had been born blind “that the works of God should be made manifest in him.” If it were not the works of God’s anger in the punishment of his own or his father’s sins, what other work could it be? And who can this be who is now before him, who speaks of what He is, and what He does, and what He is about to do, with such solemnity and self-assurance?
Who can tell us what new thoughts about himself and the new calamity that had befallen him, what new thoughts about God and His purposes in thus dealing with him, what wonderings as to who this stranger can be that takes such an interest in him, what flutterings of hope may have passed through this man’s spirit while the brief conversation between Christ and His disciples was going on, and during that short and silent interval which followed as Jesus “spat on the ground and made clay of the spittle?” This we know that when Christ approached and laid His hand upon him, and anointed his eyes with that strange salve, and said to him, while yet his sightless balls were covered with what would have blinded for the time a man who saw, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam,” he had become so impressed as quietly to submit to so singular an operation, and, without a word of arguing or remonstrance, to obey the order given, and to go to the pool and wash. It lay not far off, at the base of the hill on which the temple stood, up and around which he had so often groped his way. He went and washed, and lo, a double miracle—the one wrought within the eyeball, the other within the mind—each wonderful even among the wonders wrought by Christ. Within the same compass there is no piece of dead or living mechanism that we know of, so curious, so complex, so full of nice adjustments, as the human eye. It was the great Creator’s office to make that eye and plant it in its socket, gifting it with all its varied powers of motion, outward and inward, and guarding it against all the injuries to which so delicate an instrument is exposed. It was the Creator’s will that some fatal defect, or some fatal confusion of its parts and membranes, should from the first have existed in the eyeball of this man. And who but the Creator could it be that rectified the defect or removed the confusion, bestowing at once upon the renovated organ the full power of vision? Such instant reconstruction of a defective, or mutilated, or disorganized eye, though not in itself a greater, appears to us a more surprising act of the Divine power than the original creation of the organ. You watch with admiration the operation of the man who, with a large choice of means and materials, makes and grinds, and polishes, and adjusts the set of lenses of which a telescope is composed. But let some accident happen whereby all these lenses are broken and crushed together in one mass of confusion, what would you think of the man who could out of such materials reconstruct the instrument? It was such a display of the Divine power that was made when the man born blind went and washed and saw.
But however perfect the eye be, it is simply a transmitter of light, the outward organ by which certain expressions are made upon the optic nerve, by them to be conveyed to the brain, giving birth there to the sensations of sight. But these sensations of themselves convey little or no knowledge of the outward till the observer’s mind has learned to interpret them as signs of the position, forms, sizes and distances of the outlying objects of the visible creation. It is but slowly that the infant learns this language of the eye. It requires the putting forth of innumerable acts of memory, and the acquiring by much practice a facility of rapid interpretation. That the man born blind should be able at once to use his eyes as we all do, it was needed that this faculty should be bestowed upon him at once, without any teaching or training, and when we fully understand (as it is somewhat difficult to do) what the powers were which were instantly conveyed, the mental will appear not less wonderful than the material part of the miracle of our Lord—that part of it, too, of which it is utterly impossible to give any explanation but the one that there was in it a direct and an immediate putting forth of the divine power. The skillful hand of the coucher may open the eye that has been blind from birth, but no human skill or power could confer at once that faculty of using the eye as we now do, acquired by us in the forgotten days of our infancy. It may be left to the fanaticism of unbelief to imagine that it was the clay and the washing which restored his sight to the man born blind, but no ingenuity of conception can point us to the natural means by which the gift of perfect vision could have been at once conferred.
Yet of the fact we have the most convincing proof. It was so patent and public that there could be no mistake about it. It was subjected to the most searching investigation—to all the processes of a judicial inquiry. When one so well known as the blind beggar, whom so many had noticed on their way up to the temple, was seen walking among the other worshippers, seeing as well as any of them, the question was on all sides repeated, “Is not this he that sat and begged?” Some said it was; others, distrusting their own sight, could only say he was like him; but he removed their doubts by saying, “I am he.” Then came the question as to how his eyes were opened. He told them. Somehow or other he had learned the name of the healer, “A man that is named Jesus made clay and anointed my eyes, and said to me, Go to the pool of Siloam and wash, and I went and washed and received my sight.” But Jesus had not yet been seen by him; he knew not where He was. It was so very a singular thing this that had been done—made more so by its having been done on a Sabbath day—that some of those to whom the tale was told would not be satisfied till the man went with them to the Pharisees, sitting in council in a side-chamber of the temple. They put the same questions to him the others had done, as to how he had received his sight, and got the same reply. Even had Jesus cured him by a word, they would have regarded it as a breach of the Sabbath, but when they hear of His making clay and putting it on his eyes, and then sending him to lave it off in the waters of Siloam—all servile work, forbidden as they taught—they seize at once upon this circumstance and say, “This man is not of God, because He keepeth not the Sabbath.” The question now was not about the cure, which seemed in truth admitted, but about the character of the curer. Such instant and peremptory condemnation of Him as a Sabbath breaker roused a spirit of opposition even in their own court. Joseph was there, or Nicodemus, or someone of like sentiment, who ventured, in opposition to the prevailing feeling, to put the question, “How can a man that is a sinner do such miracles?” But they are overborne. The man himself, at least, who is there before them, will not dare to defend a deed which he sees that a majority of them condemn. They turn to him and say, “What sayest thou of Him that hath opened thine eyes?” They are mistaken. Without delay or misgivings he says at once, “He is a prophet.” They order him to withdraw. They are somewhat perplexed. They wish to keep in hand the charge of Sabbath-breaking, but how can they do so without admitting the miracle? It would serve all their purposes could they only make it out that there had been some deception or mistake as to the man’s having been born blind—the peculiar features of the miracle that had attracted to it such public notice.