The Gospel reading today (John 9:1-41) is an account of events around the sixth of seven carefully selected miracles recorded by John in the “Book of Signs” that attest to the messiahship of Jesus. John unequivocally and passionately states his belief that Jesus is the Christ – the promised messiah in the opening five verses of his Gospel. (John 1: 1-5). He unashamedly admits to being selective about the material he records (John 20: 31-32) with the express purpose that his readers – “ … come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God”, and – “so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Almost certainly this gospel was written by John, or a group of people (the Johannines) living in the town of Ephesus in the year around 90 A.D., about the time when John died. The gospel is very different from the other three gospels in the New Testament. It makes no attempt to present a historical record, and basically covers the events of just 20 days in the life and three year ministry of Jesus, and most of that in the last days.
It seems likely that the gospel was initially intended for a smallish group of disaffected ex-pat Jews living in Ephesus who had been excommunicated from temple worship because of their belief that Jesus was the promised messiah. But John 3:16 makes it clear that the Gospel is intended “for everyone who believes”. It is not clear how much interaction they might have had with the group established by Paul in the same town.
There is a widespread scholarly view that John’s gospel can be broken into four parts:
- a prologue, (John 1:-1:18),
- the Book of Signs (John 1:19 to 12:50). This is a carefully written and carefully selected accounts of miracles performed by Jesus that irrefutably present the case that Jesus is the promised messiah – because each of the miracles is one of the seven signs that would characterise and define the messiah. The book of signs is full of symbolism and numerology (especially the numerology of the numbers 6 and 7 which essentially highlight the imperfection and sinfulness of man (the number 6) and the perfection of God (the number 7), that the Jews would understand from their history and the prophecies enshrined in their sacred scriptures. Also embedded in this section are the seven I AM statements of Jesus which all have roots in the prophetic writings about the promised messiah.
(See the attached handout listling the seven signs and the seven I AM statements of Jesus that are embedded in the narratives in the Book of Signs. This handout also gives you a brief statement of the biblical understanding of the numerology of the numbers 6 and 7). See links at foot of this page.
- the Book of Glory (or Exaltation) (John 13:1 to 20:31), which essentially covers the passion of Jesus and the resurrection;
- and an epilogue (chapter 21).
The healing of the man born blind
The narrative the healing of the man born blind – it is the sixth sign (deliberately chosen because it deals with the question of sin and its cause) in the Book of Signs that establish Jesus as the messiah. At that time it was believed that being born blind (or having some other disability) was a punishment by God for the sin of the person himself or of his parents, even down to the third and fourth generation (Exodus 34: 6-7 and Deuteronomy 5: 8-10) and hence was a sufficient reason for exclusion from temple worship and marginalisation in the community. Hence the question – “Who sinned?” (John 9:2-3)
While we may rail against this kind of thinking it is remarkably resilient in today’s world. So we still hear that people for whom life does not go well are at fault, whether that is about a disability, unemployment or sickness. Its corollary usually holds such an attitude in place: people who prosper are blessed; people blessed are good people. Other people are bad people! Biblical texts can be cited to support the claim. Nevertheless the opening of this narrative does focus our attention on something quite basic in human nature: the sense that our actions have consequences. And it is refreshing to hear Jesus saying – “No, it was not the fault of either the man himself or his parents” (John 9:3). In comparison, it is important to see that the moral teachers of the community at the time were of a different opinion, blaming the man or his parents. (John 9:34.). Even so there are many subtle ways in which the ancient search for guilt is still with us. What is more, sometimes people are indeed guilty.
But, there is something a bit tricky about the comment “ he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” (John 9:4) Is God really like that? Whether the historical Jesus would have seen the needy as opportunities for self promotion is doubtful. We need not have an explanation of others’ ills in terms of God’s benefit. God more likely weeps at others’ ills than sees an opportunity for enhancing reputation. But then as now people found many ways of detracting from the dignity of others.
In the drama which John unfolds here for his congregations the rhyme and reason for the disability was a matter of promoting the importance of Jesus. But to fully appreciate how this plays out we need to focus on the whole narrative (which extends all the way to Chapter 10:21) – i.e. to miss seeing the forest because of the individual trees.
What we see coming through the narrative is that the healing act demonstrates Jesus’ compassion. John’s story lifts our eyes to a wider perspective. Jesus is not just a healer, but light for the world’s darkness (John 9:5), which was another language for saying: God so loved the world!
The details of the healing act are remarkably simple – (John 9:6-7) –Jesus spat on the ground, made some mud with the spittle rubbed the mud on the man’s eyes (and importantly) told him to take some action by going to the Pool of Siloam and to wash his eyes. The Pool of Siloam – the name in Hebrew means “sent” or “to send”- has great symbolic links for the Jews since it was from the Pool of Siloam that the water was drawn at the first Feast of the Tabernacles (Leviticus 23:34-44).
There are doubtless deliberate echoes of another healing by a pool near Jerusalem (John 5:1-18), which also occurred on a Sabbath , and also seriously upset the Pharisees.
The drama them launches into seven scenes of to-ing and fro-ing as the Pharisees interrogate the man twice (John 9:13-17 and John 9:18-23) which exposes them as obsessive about their laws. (John 9:22); interrogate his parents who fear that becoming off side with the Pharisees could lead to expulsion from the synagogue – probably a real experience for many in John’s congregations.
The drama heightens (John 9:24-34) as the Pharisees urge that glory be given to God, which had been Jesus’ intention all along – “to glorify God’s works” (John 9:3 and also John 11:4). The Pharisees profile themselves as righteous and Jesus as a sinner, but in the process further expose their obsession. Hearers of this gospel to this point would know that rather than remaining faithful to Moses and the Law these Pharisees betray it. Its sole function of the narrative now was to point to Christ’s validity. The former blind man makes simple responses which unmask the critics. For that he is expelled. All it needs is for Jesus to find him and tell him the truth about himself as the Son of Man (John 9:35-38). The drama is nearly over.
Jesus’ final words are about judgement, (John 9:39-41) which probably explains why he referred to himself as the Son of Man (John 9:35) in speaking with the blind man. In a different way Matthew (Matthew 25:31-46) shows the two are closely linked: the Son of Man will be the judge. It is then scarcely subtle when the Pharisees ask: ‘We are not blind are we?’ Answer: a resounding: yes! They are the sinners! The situation has been reversed and we have an unexpected answer to the question -Is blindness evidence of sin?
This carefully crafted piece would have reassured John’s hearers who had experienced the pain of being forced out of the synagogue communities. Their claims about Jesus had gone too far. They had in effect set aside the biblical Law or, better, redefined its role to now function only as a witness to the Messiah. They now attributed to him claims once made of the Law: that he was the (in fact the only, the true) light, life, truth, word and bread.
It is not difficult to see the passage mirroring the experiences of John’s community. Here were Jews in conflict with Jews. Like many passages in John the images, loosed from their Jewish moorings, can sail off to join the armada of anti-Semitism. The Pharisees, like Nicodemus in John 3, are stereotypes. Once we see this, other doors open and we recognise conflicts of our own day – also within Christianity. Wherever rules take precedence over people, we have darkness, even if they are divinely warranted in scripture.
Obsession with observance is a characteristic of religion which makes it very dangerous, as many forms of fundamentalism have shown in recent times. Such rigidity at the expense of people is not, however, limited to certain widely acknowledged types, but can flourish on both the left wing and the right, among the biblicists and among those serving other ideologies. It is also at home where people read John and the Bible as vehicles for propaganda for their Jesus and their God, to ‘win’, instead of as testimony to divine compassion which puts people first. As the blind man might have said: ‘Well I don’t understand much about all of that, but I know when I see people getting helped and I’m happy to be part of that!’
We can end the examination of the reading at this point, but to fully appreciate what is happening in this narrative we need to read on into Chapter 10 (John 10:1 -21) where Jesus himself comments on the healing and provides a theological framework to interpret the meaning of the sign. He does this by telling a parable of the sheepfold and then gives his discourse in which he makes two of the seven I AM statements – I AM the Door and I AM the Good Shepherd who looks after his sheep – unlike the current church leaders who are more concerned with obsessive compliance with the letter of the law rather than caring for their people. This assertion spills over into a division among the Jews over whether or not Jesus has a demon (making him a number 6) and if a demon can open the eyes of the blind thus directly connecting Jesus’ teaching chapter 10 to the healing of the blind man in chapter 9 and his judgement that because of their stubbornness in refusing to see the light, they are the ones at fault and in sin.
By interpreting the whole narrative (John 9:1-10:21) as a unit yields a richer understanding of the story of the healing of the man blind from birth. While a first interpretation of this narrative tends to focus on the importance of seeing, or “spiritual sight,” when it comes to the recognition of Jesus, – basically the point at which we stopped earlier. When the story of the blind man is heard along with its discourse, we also note the importance of hearing. In fact, the blind man first responds to Jesus’ voice. Jesus tells him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam,” which the blind man does. He hears Jesus, and takes action – a step of faith – before he sees Jesus. The story also narrates his gradual growth in ‘spiritual sight’, from hearing Jesus’ voice, experiencing the compassion of Jesus in the healing act, taking a step of faith, meeting and seeing Jesus as “the man called Jesus” (John 9:11), recognizing and addressing him as “Lord” and worshipping him (John 9:38). In fact, Jesus himself reveals the importance of both sight and hearing when it comes to belief, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is that one.” (John 9:37)
Yet, the importance of hearing and seeing comes into full relief when we ourselves hear Jesus’ words in 10:1-21 along with the healing of the blind man. It is in the discourse that Jesus interprets the meaning of seeing and hearing and believing. There, Jesus reiterates that those who know him, his sheep, hear his voice and follow him, and “knowing” in the Gospel of John articulates relationship. In the figurative language of the sheep and the shepherd, Jesus recasts the importance of seeing and hearing by creating new images for what has already occurred in chapter 9 between the blind man and Jesus. The blind man is more than one whom Jesus heals; he is one of Jesus’ sheep and a member of the fold. Like the sheep, the blind man hears Jesus’ voice. Like the shepherd, Jesus finds the blind man when he has been cast out (John 9:35). Jesus provides for the man born blind much more than sight–he provides for him what he, as the good shepherd, gives all of his sheep–the protection of his fold (John 10:16), the blessing of needed pasture (John 10:9), and the gift of abundant life (John 10:10). As a result, hearing and seeing are much more than ways by which one recognizes or believes in Jesus. They are, in fact, expressions of relationship with Jesus and relationship with Jesus means also relationship with the Father (John 10:14-15). Sight and hearing are critical for both the story and the discourse to recognize Jesus and God at work in the healing of the blind man. Without both chapters together, one sense is afforded greater significance over the other and the blind man’s “sight” is then reduced to mere example or miracle. In fact, he embodies that of which Jesus speaks in 10:1-18.
May we be drawn into the fold of the Good Shepherd and share in the abundant eternal life he offers. May we be free of overconfidence that we can see but through slavish, obsessive compliance with rules we are blind to the needs of those around us.
Here the materials referred to above:
The Seven “I Am” Statements.
Bible Numerology the numbers 7 and 6.