Fourth Sunday in Lent
April 3, 2011
Commentary on the Texts
As with all the miracles and dialogs of Jesus in the Gospel of John, the story of the healing of the blind man in chapter 9 is not told simply for its own sake as an event in the lifetime of Jesus. Rather it is recounted as a starting point for theological reflection on issues that John intends to raise for the community of believers in the post-Easter period. That's why the seven miracles in John are called signs; they point to the ongoing significance of Jesus for the Christian community in the lifetime of the Gospel writer toward the end of the first century.
This episode in John 9 presents in action form the theological theme of light and darkness that is first introduced in the Prologue of the Gospel (1:1-18). In Jesus, the Word was made flesh, the light shines, and the darkness could not overpower it. Even though the forces of darkness will eventually crucify him, the final outcome is that the darkness will not be able to extinguish the light. He is "the true light, which enlightens everyone . . ." (1:9).
In chapter 3:19-21, the theme of light and darkness comes up again as a commentary on the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus, this time with the further thought that this light will not automatically enlighten everyone because not everyone will respond positively to the light (see Commentary on John 3:1-17). Some in fact will prefer to stay in darkness because their works are evil. Even though the coming of the light was for salvation, by its very nature it will result in judgment for those who prefer the darkness. Their rejection of the light will be their own undoing.
In controversy with the religious leaders in chapters 7-8 Jesus declares, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light life" (8:12). At the very end of that long debate and right before the story of the blind man in chapter 9 John gives us the ominous conclusion: "So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple" (8:59).
Then in chapter 9 John says that as Jesus walked along he saw the man who was born blind. Without being asked, Jesus performs the miracle. But before the miracle story, Jesus repeats the words of the previous chapter: "As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world" (9:5). There is no question then that John's interest in this healing is not simply the miracle itself but a host of other issues that the story raises. John is not interested simply in the past historical events in the life of Jesus but in the continuing significance of those events for the ongoing story of the Christian community in the time when the Gospel was being written.
A few days before his death, Jesus makes one final statement about light and darkness. He says to the crowd, "The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light" (12:35-36).
In chapter 9, the miracle story is told first in quick strokes. Following the miracle story itself John presents several dialogs that take place between various parties, all of whom are in one way or another trying to resolve a dilemma created by the miracle. Thus the chapter may be broken down as follows:
1. The healing of the blind man (vv. 1-7)
The story begins with a question that the disciples ask Jesus: "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" While this question of theodicy (attempting to explain the goodness of God in the face of evil in the world) is raised here at the beginning, the rest of the chapter does not really dwell on it. The thrust of the chapter is in a different direction. However, since the question is raised and a response given by Jesus, some attention must be given to it. The idea that a person may suffer the consequences of the parents' sin is an issue that's raised in several contexts in the Old Testament. In the Ten Commandments the Lord says that he is a jealous God, "punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me" (Exod 20:5). Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel argue against such a thought (Jer 31:29-30 and Ezek 18).
Implicit in the question of the disciples is also the suggestion that the blind man may have sinned before birth while still in his mother's womb. Orthodox Christianity has adopted the doctrine of original sin, that all of humanity is sinful from birth. Jesus says that neither the man nor his parents sinned, but that he was born blind "so that God's works might be revealed in him" (v. 3). Without careful exegesis both the question and the answer could be taken into extremes with destructive notions about God and his activity in the world.
The fact that Jesus denies a connection between sin and suffering in the case of the blind man ought to be our starting point. Furthermore, Jesus' second statement, that the man was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him, should not be taken to mean that God somehow caused his blindness. Disease, disabilities, disasters happen in our world. Jesus does not say that God causes them. What he does say is that even in such unfortunate circumstances God's works may be revealed.
There is some discussion among exegetes as to the exact meaning of the Greek hina, translated "so that." In most cases, hina introduces a purpose clause. However, in a few cases it introduces a result clause ("with the result that"). In other words, the man was born blind, which will result in God's being glorified in him. But even if we translated it "so that" or "in order that," there is no compelling reason to conclude that God is to be held responsible for his blindness.
The thrust of the chapter, as stated earlier, does not dwell on this theological issue. Instead, the lengthy discussion revolves, oddly enough, around the healing. How is it that such a wonderful happening causes so much turmoil? Why is it that such good news can produce so much pain? The chapter raises a number of questions concerning the miracle of healing. To begin with, the neighbors (vv. 8-12) don't believe that this is the same man . The assumption here is that such a thing cannot happen. In our modern, scientific worldview we are quite familiar with such perspectives: miracles don't happen! Apparently even in the ancient world there were people who doubted the possibility of miracles.
The neighbors interrogate the healed man to find out what happened and how. He tells them that a man named Jesus healed him. He cannot say much about Jesus other than calling him a man. The neighbors wanted to know where Jesus was. He says, "I do not know" (v. 12). How can a miracle worker disappear so quickly? Why does he not stick around to answer questions, to prove something, or at least have his picture taken for the local newspaper?!
However, the issue in this chapter is not simply whether miracles are possible. By and large the ancient world did not have problems with miracles as modern people do, especially in the Western world. The issue in John 9 is that the miracle is attributed to Jesus. That is what causes the problem. Most of the chapter is a discussion between the blind man who was healed and others. Although Jesus is absent for the most part from the debate scene, the real subject of discussion is not so much the blind man who was healed but Jesus who did the healing. Why should that be a problem? That's the question at issue in this chapter.
The absence of Jesus from the scene where the man is interrogated by different parties is a description of events not only in the historical setting of Jesus but also in the historical setting of the Johannine community. That is, the community of Christians among whom the Gospel of John was produced did not have Jesus physically present among them. This theme is carried forth in the farewell discourses in chapters 13-16. Jesus says to his disciples, "I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you" (14:18). "I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever" (14:15).
The community of believers is living in this world but is not of the world (17:14-18). The reader can feel the pathos in the words of Jesus in John 16:16-24 where the statement of Jesus, "A little while, and you will no longer see me," is repeated three times. The Johannine community was experiencing the struggle of coming to grips with the fact that there was a widening gap between the present time of the community and the past time of the earthly Jesus. It was in the process of learning to conduct its life as a second and third generation faith community separated in time and space from Jesus of Nazareth. Yet it was also conscious of the fact that Christ's presence was made real through the activity of the Holy Spirit, the Advocate. Thus the story of the blind man in John 9, who is struggling to hold his own in the face of questions and attacks while Jesus is out of sight, is in effect a picture of what the Johannine community was going through in the face of opposition.
In the next scene in the story, the neighbors bring the healed man to the Pharisees to be questioned by the experts in the Law of Moses (vv. 13-17). The healed man tells them that Jesus did two things to give him his sight, both of which were not lawful on the Sabbath: making mud and washing. There are two factions among the Pharisees. Some of them say that since Jesus does not observe the Sabbath he is not from God. The other faction disagrees. "How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?" they ask.
The Pharisees are divided into two camps. Earlier, in chapter 7, Nicodemus the Pharisee had voiced some sentiments in support of Jesus (7:50-52). The Pharisees are faced with a dilemma. They cannot deny that a miracle had taken place. Yet the one who performed the miracle violated the Sabbath rule. Their old religious paradigm is faced with a severe test. The facts don't add up. If Jesus were from God he would not violate the Sabbath rules. On the other hand, they recognize that a miracle has taken place and therefore Jesus must be from God. Something will have to give. They will either have to make a change in their traditional understanding of what can or can't be done on the Sabbath, or else deny that a miracle has taken place. They decide to go with the latter option (v. 18). Instead of considering the possibility that their traditional assumptions about the Sabbath may have been wrong, they persist in their traditional views and deny that God acted through Jesus to bring sight to this man.
Here is an issue that we must face as a faith community. When is it appropriate to give up some fond element in a religious tradition so that there can be an openness to new things that God may be doing that don't quite fit the old mold?
The Pharisees ask the healed man what he thought of Jesus. He says, "He is a prophet" (v. 17.) In verses 18-23 the parents of the healed man are called to verify that this indeed is their son. They admit that he is their son, but because of fear they are not willing to say how he received his sight. They are afraid that if they said anything positive about Jesus they would be thrown out of their Jewish synagogue. Fear of religious authorities keeps them from testifying to the truth.
Now the Pharisees interrogate the healed man even more aggressively (vv. 24-34), telling him that Jesus is a sinner. The man cannot argue with them on theological grounds but simply says, "I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see." In the Gospel of John we are repeatedly given hints that a particular narrative progresses on two levels, the literal and the metaphorical. So also here. The man was physically blind but now he sees. At the same time there is a gradual progression from spiritual blindness to sight, or from darkness to light. His christological insight grows and will continue to grow as the story progresses. He started out by calling Jesus a man, then a prophet. In the present paragraph he affirms that Jesus cannot be a sinner but that he is from God (v. 31).
The Pharisees are irritated at his increasing boldness and blurt out, "You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?" When they say that he was entirely born in sin, they are referring to his being born blind. The irony is that they admit he was born blind, which means they admit he did receive his sight! But in spite of this admission, or perhaps because of it, they drive him out. John's narrative skill can't get any better than this. When things get hot and the evidence is against them, they simply kick the man out, as if that would make everything right.
Fortunately, however, the story does not end there for the blind man that was healed. When Jesus hears that he had been driven out, he finds him and asks him if he believes in the Son of Man (vv. 35-38). Jesus finds the man as soon as he hears that the Pharisees had shut him out. Apparently Jesus had no knowledge of what was going on with the man up to that point. But when he hears the news, he looks for him and finds him. Jesus leads him step by step to the point where the man falls on his knees before Jesus and makes a climactic confession of faith, "Lord, I believe." Jesus has not abandoned him after all. Jesus finds him when he is at the most vulnerable point in his life. When his religious community drives him out, and Jesus hears about it, it is at that point that Jesus comes to him and leads him into a full recognition of his true identity. Thus in many ways the faith journey of this man is similar to the faith journey of the Samaritan woman in John 4 (see Commentary on John 4:5-42)
The chapter ends in a final scene in which Jesus and the Pharisees exchange a few words, the point being that if the Pharisees had only admitted that they were blind, they would not have sin. But now that they say, "We see," their sin remains (vv. 39-41). The narrative ends where it began. What is the connection between blindness and sin? That was the question the disciples asked Jesus at the beginning of the narrative. In the case of the blind man, Jesus' answer was that there was no connection but that God's works will be revealed in him. But at the end of the narrative, quite ironically, Jesus says that there is a definite connection between the Pharisaic type of blindness and sin. Apparently the healing of physical blindness is relatively easy compared to the healing of spiritual blindness.
There are so many possibilities for preaching in this chapter that one hardly knows what direction to take. I will simply list in summary form the ideas that have emerged from the above reflections on the narrative. Perhaps the overall theme can be stated succinctly in terms of light and darkness, seeing and blindness, faith and unfaith.
One can begin with the issue of sin and blindness that the disciples raised at the beginning of the story. Such views of God must surely be put to rest once and for all. Yet when tragedies occur, people instinctively ask, Why did God do this to me? Why is God punishing me? God must have a purpose for allowing my child to be killed. Jesus says that there is no connection between sin and physical blindness, but that even such tragedies may be an occasion for God to manifest his works.
The blind man's neighbors raise another sort of question. They don't believe that this is the same man that was blind. Such a miracle cannot happen. It's never heard of that a man born blind should receive his sight.
There is no suggestion here that we believe uncritically anything that comes along. On the other hand, humility in the presence of God's mysterious ways is a proper attitude to have. How does God work? Can we understand it all? People with genuine faith recognize the limitations of their knowledge and reserve judgment until such time that there is a better understanding. The church in past history has condemned Copernicus, Galileo, and other scientists because of their novel theories about the solar system. Later the church had to retract its condemnation of these individuals when their theories became established facts. Hasty pronouncements in the name of faith may not be genuine faith after all.
The parents of the healed man demonstrate another type of spiritual darkness. Fear of speaking out and failure to stand up for truth and justice will keep us in darkness.
In this narrative John presents the negative example of the Pharisees. They persist in their religious heritage so staunchly that they turn a deaf ear and close their eyes to new things that God was doing. That is blindness! One can apparently be extremely religious and faithful to the old-time religion and be blind.
On the other hand, the narrative presents an opposite picture. At the center of the controversy is the lone figure of the blind man who was healed and now has to answer questions. His healing leads into turmoil instead of jubilation. Where is Jesus when the man is being questioned, harassed and attacked? Why is Jesus absent? While this healed man is trying his best to answer questions, it is obvious that his knowledge of Jesus is far from perfect. Yet in these circumstances there is no sudden flash of revelation and insight from heaven. The man simply stumbles along, doing his best with his limited knowledge of Jesus. But the more he is attacked, the deeper he seems to grow in his understanding of Jesus.
No doubt the Johannine community was also experiencing the same sort of opposition and ostracism that the healed man in John 9 was going through, as implied in 16:2. The question for John's circle of believers was how to go on living the life of faithfulness to Jesus when Jesus was not around. How do we answer difficult questions that opponents ask? How does a second, third or fourth generation faith community continue its life when the original founders of the movement are no longer around? How should a life of faith be lived out in these new times? What does it mean to be faithful to one's tradition and heritage and at the same time find answers to new questions that are being asked?
The Gospel of John is a good model for us. John takes the old stories of Jesus and recasts them in such a way that they bear witness to Jesus with great power and luster in a new setting that is linguistically and culturally so different from the Galilean, Judean, Palestinian setting where Jesus had lived and ministered. The Gospel of John tells the story of Jesus in an entirely different way than the other three gospels. Do our doctrines, theological language and categories of thought have to remain as they were fifty, one hundred, or two hundred years ago? We can learn a vital lesson from the Gospel of John--how to remain faithful in our witness to God's work in Christ while adapting our modes of expression to the cultural milieu in which we live.
Yet in a real sense, Jesus was not absent in the story of John 9, nor is he absent from our own story today. Jesus is at the center of all the controversy, the questions, and the insults that the healed man is experiencing. He is giving witness to the work of God that Jesus had done. His witness is at times weak, incomplete, inadequate, but it is growing. And in the end, when he is kicked out by the Pharisees, Jesus finds him and leads him to a fuller understanding. Jesus does not abandon him. The blind man receives his sight, a miracle in the physical realm. But much more significantly, his spiritual eyes are opened and his darkness turns to light as he falls on his knees before Jesus and says, "Lord, I believe."
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