Commentary on John 9:1-41
This week’s text is another in a series of encounters with Jesus in John with this one focused, along with the Old Testament text, on seeing rightly.
Blindness and sight are explicitly mentioned in 24 of the chapter’s 41 verses, including the first and last ones. The details of the miracle itself are repeated four times — that Jesus put mud on the eyes of the blind man and then he regained his sight. At the center of the narrative, standing before the healing and eternally after it, is Jesus, the giver of sight and the very light of the world in which true sight becomes possible.
The story is linked thematically to the Feast of Tabernacles, which is the setting for chapters 7 and 8. The Pool of Siloam, where the man born blind is sent to wash his eyes, figured in water ceremonies at the festival, and Jesus has already invited the thirsty to come to him and drink on the great day of the festival in 7:37-38. Light was also an important theme, and Jesus declares himself the light of the world at the festival in 8:12 and again here in 9:5.
Underlying the discussion of light and sight and blindness is a question about who Jesus is, the question that stretches across all the Lenten texts. Alongside this in chapter 9 is the question of who is sinful and what constitutes sin. Sinfulness as a secondary theme is introduced already in the initial question of the disciples when they see the man born blind and ask Jesus whose sin was the source of his blindness, his or his parents’. Jesus rejects this interpretation of the man’s blindness, which he interprets instead as an opening for the glory of God to be revealed while it is day and the light of the world is active. The coming night of 9:4 will arrive explicitly with the departure of Judas in 13:30.
The theme of sinfulness then runs through the episode. The Pharisees discuss Jesus’ sinfulness in v. 16 and again in vv. 24-25 and v. 31. In v. 34, they return to the sinfulness of the man born blind, with another reference to his birth in sin. But the story ends with Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees, whose sin remains because unlike the blind man, who recognizes the grace of God in Jesus’ bestowal of sight and light in his blindness, the Pharisees insist that they see and know everything already. They are closed to the gift of Jesus, the judge, who can only give sight to those who know they are blind.
Sight and water have also come into play in the encounter with Nicodemus in 3:1-5. There, as here, Nicodemus, the Pharisee, is quick to say what “we know” about Jesus only to find that what he thinks he knows cannot begin to contain the enormity of the gift of God in Jesus, which will culminate in his lifting up on the cross.
This story about light in conflict with the opposing powers of unrelenting darkness is flanked and colored by vivid images of what that darkness will do — with the attempted stoning of Jesus immediately preceding the chapter and then the shepherd discourse, with its reference to Jesus’ laying down his life, immediately following. The conflict with the Pharisees shapes the entire central section of the passage, first as they encounter the man born blind, then as they interrogate his parents, and finally as they interrogate the man born blind a second time and then drive him out.
Then the shepherd discourse, which emerges directly from chapter 9 — Jesus is still speaking as one chapter ends and the next begins — is surely directed, at least in part, at the religious authorities. They are perhaps among the thieves and bandits to whom the sheep would not listen or, at best, the hired hands who run away when the wolves come.
As the attitude of the religious authorities hardens and darkens, the man born blind grows in insight so that the narrative tells parallel tales of spiritual and physical blindness and sight. The man moves from identifying his healer only as “the man called Jesus” to replying when pressed by the Pharisees that Jesus is a prophet and then, when further pressed, that he must be from God.
Finally when the man has been driven out, Jesus (who we know from 6:37 will never drive out those whom the Father gives him) finds him and reveals himself fully to him as the Son of Man: You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he. And the man bows down before him in worship, the only time in this Gospel that anyone is said to do this.
In the reference to being put out of the synagogue in 9:22, scholars have observed a reflection of occurrences in the life of the community out of which the Gospel emerged, so that the narrative reflects both the experience of the ministry of Jesus and the later experience of the comforting presence of the risen Christ in the community under threat.
We also ask how the narrative reflects our lives today, the lives of the people in front of the text for whom the narrative is also life-shaping. In some places even now, it is risky to be a Christian, and even in some contexts in the United States and Western Europe, where Christianity is often, sadly, too tame or too much in line with the prejudices and desires of the powers that be to be threatening to anyone, it is sometimes no longer socially desirable to be a Christian. At the very least John insists, as do all of the evangelists, that we are living in an alternative reality that sets us apart.
As the fruit of Jesus’ vine, we are on display and stand for something Other. If we never find ourselves at odds at all with the powerful and the status quo, that perhaps should give us pause. The blind man, unlike his parents, has the courage again and again to say what he knows, to speak truth to power, to tell what he can about the amazing grace by which he has been touched.
This is fundamentally a story about grace, and the blind man sums it up beautifully for all of us: “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”
April 3, 2011