In the spaghetti westerns that established Clint Eastwood as a global star, his characters were known as “the man with no name.” The credits listed names, like Blondie in The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly or Joe in a Fistful of Dollars, but Eastwood’s antiheroes were really anonymous drifters, like high plains wraiths without a past or future.
The 4th Sunday of Lent – for April 3, 2011
As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth… (John 9:1)
The ninth chapter of John’s Gospel depicted a different type of “man with no name.” And yet one thing is decidedly the same because for forty-one verses—for what is one of the longest stretches of Gospel covering a single person’s story outside of the Holy Week events—the “hero’s” name is never mentioned. Instead the hero is called: “blind from birth,” “this man,” “a beggar,” “formerly blind,” “son,” “of age,” “disciple,” and “sinner.” In the NRSV, within those forty-one verses, the central figure is unimaginatively called “man” at least ten times. The print’s so small in the Bible I use for study, I didn’t attempt to count the uses of the more mundane “he.”
Poor fellow. We never know his name!
In the vast sweep of the story, from the first encounter with “the man,” through Jesus’ healing of his blindness, and all the way to the end where “the man’s” neighbors run him out of town, we never know what to call him. Even in the scene with his parents—his parents!—they mention him by using the phrase, “he is of age.” I felt like screaming: speak his name! At least call him Blondie or Joe before he drifts away from the story.
Where does your name come from? For me, my first or Christian name, was a “gift” from a Methodist pastor named Lawrence who married my parents in a military chapel during World War II. They promised the pastor, if they had a boy, that he’d be a Lawrence. George, my middle name, is my father’s middle name. Patten likely has English or Scottish roots, but I’m intrigued it’s only one letter shy of paten, the traditional name for the plate used to hold the bread in a communion service. I could share many tales—some factual, some not so factual—about my first, middle, or last name. The same goes with the various nicknames I’ve had over the years. Indeed, revealing our name’s history is one of the best icebreakers for a blind date or the first session of a newly formed group.
But the Gospel’s “beggar” and “son,” “disciple” and “sinner,” before when sightless or after as he happily viewed the world . . . remained without any known name.
Blind he was though when we first meet him. His neighbors confirmed his blindness. His parents wouldn’t deny it. When healed, he thought what Jesus did was astonishing. Seeing was astonishing!
Seeing isn’t astonishing for everyone. In Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, she writes about reactions to the first successful cataract surgeries by western physicians. Many of the patients marveled at their newfound sight. Others did not . . . “A fifteen-year old boy, who was also in love with a girl at the asylum for the blind, finally blurted out, ‘No really, I can’t stand it anymore; I want to be sent back to the asylum again. If things aren’t altered, I’ll tear my eyes out.’”
If things aren’t altered, if the fifteen-year old couldn’t return to not seeing, he thought he couldn’t stand living.
Sometimes, we prefer certain kinds of “blindness.”
Several years ago I was in conversation with friends who knew my first wife, and were supportive while I struggled through a divorce. As we chatted, they talked about feelings and situations from three decades before I couldn’t recall. So much of that relationship was painful—and I’d instigated more than my share of mistakes and missteps that added to the pain—I’d blocked much from my memory. I’m sure my friends told the truth about my past, just as I’m sure I’d become “blind” to the old anguish and self-inflicted disappointments. My blindness was my way of surviving.
But I’m far from a soul survivor with some of my “blind” spots. In John’s Gospel story of the blind man, Pharisees speak haughtily and harshly about the “beggar.” They act superior, as know-it-alls. I’m more like the Pharisees (my fellow religious authorities) than I’d care to admit. There have been enough times in public preaching where I’ve taken a particular position about scripture that the “common” people in the pews should be grateful to hear . . . after all, I’m the educated professional, the purveyor of sacred secrets. There have been enough times in my private counseling where I’ve used the power of my official title to stop or start conversations based on my whims, fears, or because I’m just having a bad day.
I can so easily be selectively blind to my pompousness.
Because of my “blindness,” isn’t the writer of John’s Gospel brilliant? As a reader and believer, I can enter the story and give my name to the man with no name. Yes, I’m too much like the Pharisee and have improperly wielded power. Yes, I’ve played the roll of the parents, who prefer to avoid taking responsibility for anything. But more than any “character,” I am that unnamed man at the chapter’s beginning: blind, and in need of healing.
In this Lent, and certainly after Lent’s forty days conclude, help us see. It’s a prayer I should humbly whisper every day with my name in the sentence. Help Larry see.