The man who ran the snack bar where my father worked was blind. George hadn’t been blind his whole life. In fact, in his teens and early twenties he had played semi-pro baseball. He was a pitcher… and evidently a pretty good one from all accounts. One night, in the middle of a hotly contested game, he bent over to pick up a rosin bag to dry his hands. When he stood up, he couldn’t see. Just like that he had gone blind.
The doctors eventually figured out what had gone wrong. It had to do with weak blood vessels and the optic nerve and such. The diagnosis, however, was not what occupied George’s mind. What occupied George’s mind was the prognosis… and the prognosis wasn’t good. The doctors said they were sorry. They told George there was nothing they could do. So George gave up his dream of being a ballplayer, enrolled in a school for the blind, and eventually opened a snack bar at the Fernwood Division of the New Jersey State Highway Department in Ewing Township. And he seethed.
When I was a little girl, my mother would often take me with her to pick up my father from work and he’d take me to the snack bar. My father would tell me not to bother George because George wasn’t always in a good mood. But I was fascinated by George. I was always amazed that George knew the products and the money be their feel. He always made correct change. I was always amazed that he could swing his white cane around and not trip or run into anything.
One day George wasn’t there. My father told us that George had saved up his money and had traveled to Lourdes, a place that reportedly was the site of miraculous healings. George had gone to get his eyesight back.
Everyone waited anxiously for George’s return, and one day he came strolling back in… with his dark glasses and with his white cane. My father reported that the men all muttered “hello” and cleared out of George’s way, certain that since he had been ill-natured before his really expensive trip, he would be unbearable coming off of a failed miracle.
But George responded good-naturedly to each “hello.” “Hey, Jonesy.” “Hi, Tom.” Daddy said that no one was quite sure what to make of it. George had been blind and disagreeable… then he spent untold amounts of money to go to some shrine in some far away place, and he comes back… still blind — but pleasant. Making George see would be a miracle. Making George pleasant was beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.
My father told us that he went to the snack bar later in the day and George was still in a good mood. “I don’t understand,” my father said. “You went to Lourdes because you were blind and you come back here and you’re still blind, but you’re different. What gives?”
“Well, Tom,” George said to my father, “now I’m just blind in my eyes.”
“Now I’m just blind in my eyes.” In that city far away at some ancient shrine, something had happened to George. He received a different kind of vision. Something changed his attitude.
I always think of George when the gospel about the deaf man with the speech impediment rolls around. “Ephphatha,” Jesus had said. Encounters with the Holy One change people. The man locked up in silence was changed from isolation to proclamation through Jesus’ touch and the utterance of the simple command “Ephphatha.” “Be opened.”
There are those who would say that George, the blind man who ran the snack bar, wasn’t as lucky as this nameless man from the area of the Decapolis. That man, after all, could finally hear and speak plainly, but George remained blind. But as George would be the first to remind us, after his encounter with the Holy One, it was only his eyes that were blind, not his heart.
Ephphatha… Be opened… isn’t so much a direction to the senses as it is an imperative for our hearts and our minds. The danger in viewing this miracle strictly in terms of physical healing is that such a narrow reading suggests that God is present only when things work within the limits of our standards of normal — 20/20 vision… hearing a pin drop or a whisper across a room… enunciating clearly. But normal isn’t always optimal. After all, the scribes and Pharisees heard what Jesus said and they heard what people said about Jesus… And they certainly spoke clearly… indeed, clearly enough to make Pilate understand that this dangerous man must be killed.
And so, at the end of the day, we must ask: of what value is the ability to hear if it is not used to listen to one another… or to listen to and for God’s Word? And of what value is the ability to speak plainly if the words spoken are curses instead of blessings? And of what value is the ability to see if we look only for problems instead of potential… the here instead of the hereafter? Of what value is vision if we cannot en-vision?
Ephphatha… Be opened… This is how God would have us be.