This story can lead us to two conclusions. The first conclusion is that this man, like other people who have been born blind and subsequently gained their sight, did NOT have a properly developed visual system and so could not make visual sense of his world even when he gained his sight. After all, if he had been blind for 15 or 30 (or more years), his visual system would not have had the opportunity to develop because he did not have any visual experience. If this is the case, we may have a situation of someone who ended up being dissatisfied with his miracle. After all, what good is a miracle (gaining sight) if it makes your world more confusing and disorienting? This also suggests the possibility of an incomplete miracle – is it possible that Jesus healed the man’s eyes but did not give him the ability to understand what his eyes saw? Most people find this conclusion to be an unsatisfactory one.
The alternative conclusion is that when the man gained his sight, he did have a properly developed visual system and so could make use of the visual information his newly “opened” eyes gave him. And this is where we get a better picture of the nature and size of this miracle. In order for the man to make sense of what he saw, his visual system would have had to be completely rewired – the tens of millions of nerve cells that constitute his visual system would have to be organized and arranged so that they could process the visual information he received.
So we get a sense of the nature of the true miracle – instead of the miracle we assume (“Oh, Jesus fixed the man’s eyes.”), the deeper, grander miracle is that the man’s brain had to be reorganized and rewired, and it is this process which allowed him to see – to understand what his new sense was telling him. We get a glimpse of this process of rewiring elsewhere in the Gospels, when we consider the healing of a blind man at Bethsaida.
22 They came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. 23 He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, “Do you see anything?” 24 He looked up and said, “I see people; they look like trees walking around.” 25 Once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. (Mark 8:22-25).
One implication of this scripture is that the miracle here was a process. Jesus laid his hands on the man and the man’s sight was partially restored (and his brain was partially rewired to make sense of this information). The man was able to see but experienced some confusion – people looked like walking trees. Jesus laid his hands on the man again, and the man then “saw everything clearly.” There was more than the restoration of sight; the hidden work of laying a (neural) foundation for the man to see was also completed.
Let me end with two thoughts. First, let us be aware of the danger of focusing on everything surrounding a miracle (everyone’s reactions) and not recognizing the majesty and greatness of the miracle itself. In the case of the man born blind, taking the miracle for granted, especially if we focus on the surface layer, can detract from our appreciation of the size and power of the entire miracle and of the subtlety of much of God’s work. Second, let us keep mind that when God does a miracle, in addition to the surface layer of the miracle that we recognize, the foundational and surrounding elements, which we may not see or think about, are part of the miracle as well. Indeed, sometimes God’s greatest work is not what we see, but is what occurs behind the scenes.