Exploring the Gospel of John: 9

EXPLORING THE GOSPEL OF JOHN

By the Rev. Dr. Michael Petty [Fr. Michael Petty]

St. Peter’s Anglican Church [2006]

 

Jesus and the Man Born Blind

John 9:1-41

Readers can best understand this episode as a sequence of seven scenes:

(1) Scene I:

9:1-7:  The focus of this scene is the healing of the blind man.  It begins with a question, posed by the disciples, who assume that blindness is punishment for sin, either the sin of the man’s parents or the sin of the man himself.  Jesus dismisses the premise of the question and substitutes his own premise: The blindness is due neither to the man’s sin nor to the sin of his parents but “that the works of God might be displayed in him” (9:3).  The reader should understand the man as providing Jesus with the opportunity to perform another life-giving work.  Not only does Jesus “re-frame” the disciples’ question, he also indicates a sense of urgency in that he “must work the works of him who sent me while it is day” (9:4).  None of Jesus’ deeds are merely random but are part of his larger “work,” which he will finish, finally, on the Cross (19:30).  The proper context of the healing of the blind man is this:  It confirms what Jesus said, in 8:12, at the Feast of Tabernacles and repeats the emphasis of 1:4, 5, 9:  “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (9:5).  The Gospel writer quickly describes the actual healing, which involves the use of spittle and mud.  In the ancient world, spittle was thought to have healing properties and healers often made use of it.  Jesus then sends the man to the Pool of Siloam (which played a role in the Feast of Tabernacles) and whose meaning is translated here as “Sent.”  This underlines what Jesus has just said:  he is doing the works of him who sent him. The man returns from the pool, with his sight fully restored, but Jesus is no longer present.

(2) Scene II:

9:8-12: This scene focuses on establishing the fact that the man who now sees is the man whom the villagers knew to be a blind beggar.  The man, who was formerly blind, bears witness to his identity by saying, “I am the man” (9:9).  Then, a villager asks the man how he received back his sight.  The man provides a brief account of what Scene I tells us.  The thing to notice is that the man is largely in a state of ignorance about Jesus.  When asked where Jesus is, he simply replies, “I do not know” (9:12).

(3) Scene III:

9:13-17: This scene is, in fact, a mini-trial.  The man is brought to the Pharisees, not merely to satisfy their curiosity, but because the Pharisees assume that the actions of Jesus have breached the Sabbath [9.14].  Strictly speaking, Jesus is guilty of a double violation of the Sabbath, in that he has both engaged in healing and has made clay.  There is immediately a division of opinion about Jesus, with some concluding that “this man is not from God” and others concluding that a sinner could not do such signs (9:16).  The man, compelled to voice some opinion about Jesus, says that he is a “prophet” (9:17), meaning that he is “of God,” that God has authorized his mission.  This is the first step in this man’s spiritual awakening.

(4) Scene IV:

9:18-23:  In this scene, the sympathetic Pharisees disappear and “the Jews” replace them (9:18).  Two new witnesses appear: the man’s parents, whom “the Jews” question.  The parents will only go so far as to say that this is, in fact, their son and that he was born blind.  They refuse to speculate on how he received his sight or who restored it.  The narrator supplies the reason for this refusal in 9:22: the parents that Jesus is a controversial figure and that those who “confess” him will be “put out” of the synagogue.  It is quite likely that John wrote this Gospel, during a time when officials made a distinction between Christian and Jew, with Christians being excommunicated from the synagogue.  Notice that the parents, who are certainly Jews themselves, are said to act as they do because “they feared the Jews” (9:22).

(5) Scene V:

9:24-34:  This is the final trial scene and the officials recall and question the previously blind man.  It is now clear that they have reached a verdict:  “We know that this man is a sinner” (9:24).  The admonition, “Give glory to God” (9:24) makes it clear that the witness is under solemn oath.  Ironically, we already know that the way to give glory to God is to believe in the one whom he has sent (6:29).  The officials question the man, yet again, about the manner of his healing.  The man now appears to be much more confident -– he is no longer an ignorant man, standing in fear before his betters.  This confidence shows up in his counter question:  “Do you also want to become his disciples?” (9:27).  Does this also indicate that the man is now a disciple?  It seems highly probable and most likely accounts for the man’s newfound confidence.  This leads the interrogators to give their estimation of the situation:  “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses” (9:28).  This goes back to the contrast between Moses and Jesus in the prologue (1:17) and to the repeated assertion that God speaks through Jesus (3:34; 7:16; 12:49-50).  In this context, being a disciple of Moses and being a disciple of Jesus are only incompatible if one understands the former state to be a denial of the latter state.  The statement that they do not know from where Jesus comes is ironic; it is meant to be part of the reason for dismissing his claims but appears, in the light of what we have seen thus far, to be a statement of fundamental ignorance -– they do not know that Jesus has come “from the Father” (8:42).  The man formerly blind offers an argument that they cannot refute:  “This man opened my eyes.”  We know that God does not listen to sinners (meaning that he does not grant them what they want).  The healing of a person born blind is unheard of.  How then could this man possibly be a sinner?  “If this man were not from God, he could do nothing” (9:33).  The authorities can only respond to this argument by dismissing the man as a sinner (“You were born in utter sin”) and scoffing at him (“ . . . and would you teach us?”).

(6) Scene VI:

9:35-38:  Two important things happen in this scene. First, Jesus finds the man, after the authorities have driven him.  Second, Jesus draws out his incipient faith. He does this by asking a question:  “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” (9:35).  In John, as 5:27 illustrates, “Son of Man” and “Son of God” are synonymous terms. The man is open to such belief and only wants Jesus to point out the object.  Jesus makes it clear that the object of belief is himself:  “You have seen him, and it is he who is speaking to you” (9:37).  This statement produces full belief and the proper response:  worship (9:38).  The man’s restored sight now mirrors his spiritual sight.

(7) Scene VII:

9:39-40:  This episode ends with Jesus making a solemn pronouncement:  “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind” (9:39).  This is an echo of 3:19-21 and reminds us of the theme of 8:14-18.  The judgment Jesus exercises has both positive and negative consequences -– the nature of the consequences depends on the response to his person.  Jesus has come to restore sight to the blind (as an anticipation of the resurrection of the body) and to bring judgment upon those who have the illusion of sight.  The episode ends with Jesus applying the same judgment to the Pharisees that they applied to the man:  They are in sin.

Questions for Reflection

(1) The focus of this episode is the man’s coming to faith in Jesus by gradual steps.  What are the things that have to happen to him, to bring him to the point of worshiping Jesus? What does this tell us about the way in which God works in us?

(2) One of the main themes of this story is that of blindness, particularly spiritual blindness.  Does this episode give us any ways to deal with our own blindness?

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Filed under The Gospel of John, theology and doxology

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