Not long ago I returned to my childhood home. I stood in the gangway between the two-flat I grew up in & the two-flat next door. When I was small, this gangway was a canyon. Now my shoulders nearly brushed the bricks of the two buildings. I looked up. The walls of the buildings squeezed my sight. All I could see was a narrow rectangular slice of sky. Then I remembered.
One summer day when I was about 7, workers were tarring the roof. I was in the gangway, loitering around their ladder, staring at the strange, ugly, & foul-smelling tar machine & looking up at the tar bucket that hung over the side of the room. Some tar fell and hit me in the eye. My instincts were fast & I closed my eyes in time. But the tar burned: it caked & hardened over one eye. I couldn’t see.

My mother took me upstairs & put hot cloths on my eyes. She carefully washed away the tar, gently stroking & pulling. Eventually, the closed eye opened. I could see fine. I was thankful. To return me to complete normalcy, my mother walked me to the corner coffee shop & watched me slurp down a chocolate milkshake.

Early Christians called Jesus eye-salve. He cured blindness. The title came from the Gospel of John called “The Man Born Blind”. The man born blind was not one unseeing man, but the condition of every person. Jesus spits in the earth & makes a paste. He then rubs the paste on the man’s eyes & sends him to wash in the pool of Siloam, which means “Sent”. He washes & sees. The symbolic message is: the seeing are sent.

This is Jesus’ message to his hometown folks. The prophecies of promise are meant for all. The election of the people of Israel is for mission. They are not to hate the Gentiles & band together against them. The destiny of Israel & the destiny of the rest of the world are closely connected. Jesus is re-reading their history so that they may see and be sent.

However, they are blind. They are portrayed as suffering from stereotypical myopia that is encountered by someone who “goes home to the village where he was reared.” They are insular, turned in on themselves, unable to see a larger reality, & greedy for whatever benefits them. They live under a narrow, rectangular slice of sky & tar has fallen into their eyes.

When he arrives they think he is the same old Jesus. But he has changed. He has descended into the water & then through prayer received the gift of the Spirit. He has been tested in the desert, in mid-air, & on the pinnacle of the temple. A young man left; a seasoned man returns. They welcome him for who he was. They try to kill him for who he has become.

There is a special poignancy to Jesus’ initial reception & final expulsion from Nazareth. Did Jesus first hear the Isaiah passage in that very synagogue? As a small boy, did many of the people now listening to his boldness nurture him with the stories of the prophets? If Jesus is like the rest of us, his upbringing planted seeds. Where he is NOW is indebted to where he has been. This is the community & tradition that have provided Jesus with the language & vision to explore his beloved status. To talk about himself he borrows from Isaiah.

Many people find themselves in similar positions. They say, “I have outgrown the narrowness I grew up with.” This may be the case. But often a more subtle judgment is called for. The things that made for growth then are not the things that make for growth now. What now is seen as insularity was once the protective environment needed for nurture. Who you are now is not totally different from who you were then. One stage of development should not denigrate another. Most likely, you have carried more with you than you left behind. When Jesus walked through their midst & out of their village into his world, I am sure he took Isaiah with him.

The famous quote says, “You can’t go home again.” Sure you can. But you probably can’t stay. In the worst of situations they will push you out. In the best of situations you will carry home in your heart. It will be the memory of your first eye-salve. Your mother will be washing the tar from your eye, and you will see, and seeing you will be sent.


From Gospel Light (Crossroad, 1988)