A Provocation: The Fourth Sunday in Lent: March 26, 2017: John 9:1-41

John 9:1-41
9:1 As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.

9:2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

9:3 Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.

9:4 We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.

9:5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

9:6 When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes,

9:7 saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

9:8 The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?”

9:9 Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.”

9:10 But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?”

9:11 He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.”

9:12 They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

9:13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind.

9:14 Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes.

9:15 Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.”

9:16 Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided.

9:17 So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.”

9:18 The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight

9:19 and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?”

9:20 His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind;

9:21 but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.”

9:22 His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.

9:23 Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”

9:24 So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.”

9:25 He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”

9:26 They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”

9:27 He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?”

9:28 Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses.

9:29 We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.”

9:30 The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes.

9:31 We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will.

9:32 Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind.

9:33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”

9:34 They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

9:35 Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”

9:36 He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.”

9:37 Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.”

9:38 He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.

9:39 Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”

9:40 Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?”

9:41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

A Question or Two:

  • How many kinds of blindness are there in this scene?
  • Why aren’t people sure whether the healed man is the same man who had been a beggar?
    • “Some were saying, ‘It is he.’ Others were saying, ‘No, but it is someone like him.’ He kept saying, ‘I am the man.'”  (v. 9)
  • It was as if people couldn’t see him because he was blind.
  • Did you miss this instance of blindness?

Some Longer Reflections:

This scene is complex.  Even for the gospel of John.

It is about blindness.

Actual blindness.  Blindness from birth.  Intractable.  Incurable.

It is also about blindness of the metaphorical kind, which may, or may not, be similarly intractable in the mind of the storyteller.

It is about sin.

“Who sinned?,” ask the disciples.  It is easy to dismiss their imagined connection between misdeeds and congenital blindness.  Too easy.  Imagine the parents holding their baby.  Imagine them realizing that their baby cannot see.  Imagine the gut-level reaction in the room.  Imagine.

When people are faced with something inexplicable, they cast about for some kind of meaning, some way to make sense.  Sight can be lost through disease or injury.  Of those losses we can make sense.  But blindness in a baby freshly born….

It is about ethical monotheism.

One of the great gifts given to the human race, given particularly by the Jewish faith, is the gift of ethical monotheism.  Ethical monotheism is committed to comprehensibility.  There is one world.  One system of organization.  One set of principles that govern events.  Ethical monotheism is committed to Cause and Effect, and this commitment prepares the soil for the development of the natural sciences centuries later.  Without a solidly established sense of the real connection between locatable cause and observable effect, events in the world are read as the inscrutable acts of capricious deities and human beings are reduced to imagining the whims of the gods as they try to make sense of a dangerous world.  A commitment to Cause and Effect frees us to study the world and know it.  It raises us to our strongest attempts to interact with the world, biologically, chemically, physically, and leads eventually to an ability to understand deadly diseases and cure them.

In this scene, such comprehension and such cures are millennia away.  Nevertheless, notice that ethical monotheism puts God on the side of comprehensibility.  God presides over a world of which we can make sense, and God cares how we act in that world.

That leads to some unfortunate theology along the way to the polio vaccine and the reading of the genetic code.  “Who sinned?,” ask the disciples, thoroughly committed to the principle that the world MUST be comprehensible and that ethics (not religious ritual) matter in that world.  This theology is put to rest in this scene, and not a moment too soon.  But do not scoff at the naïveté of the disciples with their painful question before you notice the gifts given us by ethical monotheism.

Notice also that Jesus’ theological response to the disciples might just be more troublesome than their question.  The man’s congenital blindness, says Jesus, exists “so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”

You can rough this theology up and twist it a bit, and it can be shaped into a  claim that existing disabilities offer occasions for God to act kindly in the world.

But that is not exactly what Jesus says.

His blindness, says Jesus, has a purpose (implying that God, therefore, caused the condition), and that purpose is to make evident the way God works in this world.  The world is comprehensible, says Jesus.  God caused this blindness just so the man could be healed after living life as a beggar.  I have blind colleagues and colleagues who cannot hear, and they are uniformly tired of being treated as if they are somehow “damaged goods,” as if they add up only to their minuses, as if their disabilities define them.  These colleagues might also want a go at this passage, and might choose to argue that a protest against the idea that God causes blindness is finally a protest against them and the way they live.

Point taken.

But the scene is also not making that argument.  The man is only blind, says Jesus, so that he can be healed.

Think this theology through carefully before you let Jesus ride in and save the day.  I might even prefer the theology put forward by the disciples.  Just saying.

And then there is the complication around the Pharisees criticizing Jesus for healing on the Sabbath.

It is clear enough that the storyteller wants us to cheer for Jesus and boo for the Pharisees who do not see the evidence that is right in front of their faces.

Again, point taken.

Congenital blindness is identified as a condition that no one had ever cured.  The ancient world was full of healers.  Some were charlatans.  Some were Elijah the prophet.  Jesus healed congenital blindness.  No one else had done that.  The storyteller wants us to notice that and to take it as evidence for the extraordinary status of Jesus.

It is not just a matter of being a bigger, better healer.  The storyteller has Jesus link blindness with a statement about light.  This link is rooted in ancient understandings of how perception took place.  Vision required a collaboration between light and eyes.  Light exists for eyes, and eyes exist for light.  Each implies the other, and each cooperates with the other.  They belong together.

And this is not the first time that light has danced through John’s gospel.  It’s not even the tenth.  And all of the references to light are tied back to the first chapter of the story, which is the anchor point for important themes in the story.  In the first chapter of John, light is knotted together with ζωὴ (life), and λόγος (word, or story, or Torah, or rational principle), and ἀρχῇ (beginning, or organizing principle).  These are the most important words in John’s whole story because all of them are tied to the central argument of the story: Jesus came into the cosmos from God, entering as messiah and more.  Seeing his signs amounts to seeing him (and the cosmos) for what it really is.  The man who had been congenitally blind sees this.  The Pharisees do not, though, in the eyes of the storyteller, they should have.  They should have seen that bringing light to the eyes of a man born blind is a task for the λόγος made flesh, the Act of God in the cosmos.

But be wise.

The Pharisees raise the question of healing on the Sabbath, not because they are blind, rigid, rejecting hypocrites.  They raise the question of the Sabbath because the Sabbath is part of the Logic (λόγος) of the universe, the λόγος that holds the cosmos together.  They are right to see it this way.  The fact that most Christians these days ignore the Sabbath completely, or nearly so, does not make it less significant.  Remember: It is not so much that the Jewish people have kept the Sabbath; what matters is that the Sabbath has kept the Jewish people (to paraphrase an important Jewish teacher).  Jesus did not come into the cosmos (in the gospel of John, anyway) to make the world safe for those who ignore matters of faithfulness.  Careless, heedless selfishness is not to be confused with faith.

Even if the storyteller strongly disapproves of the Pharisees, their question about Sabbath is justified.  Given the way Sabbath has preserved the Jewish people through all the millennia, they are right to ask whether anyone sent from beside God would drill a hole in the boat that kept faith afloat on the sea of raging chaos.  Even if the healing is truly extraordinary and should serve as evidence of the presence of the messiah, that messiah would not drill a hole in the boat below the waterline.  The Pharisees identify themselves as disciples of Moses, and they are.  And this matters.

And it should matter to us.

When the Pharisees tell the man born blind to “Give glory to God,” they show that they are not opposed to the healing itself, not opposed to the good that has come to the man.  They are just cautious.  I am not opposed to caution.

When I am told by supporters of the president-for-now that I should be glad for the good that he has done (and his supporters clearly assume that he has done some good), I will wait for a chance to  check the whole balance sheet.  Isolated improvements surrounded by the loss of the EPA, Meals on Wheels, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting do not add up to any kind of a bargain.

Or when politicians and partisans point out that the newly proposed health care plan will increase the numbers of young healthy people with health care (though this is a point much disputed), I will insist on checking the total impact of any proposed replacement for ObamaCare.  If the repeal-replace proposal adds young healthy people and improves the balance sheet by raising health care premiums to impossible levels for the soon-to-be-elderly, that is not an improvement.  At such moments it is wise to be cautious.  The Pharisees have good reason to be cautious.

There is a lot at stake.

Wise interpretation remembers this.



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