John 9:1-34: In chapter 9, John continues the pattern of story and teaching, but here the story comprises most of the chapter, and it is a wonderfully told story. Jesus is walking along with his disciples in the area in or around Jerusalem. They encounter a blind man and a theological discussion begins – “who sinned?” It is a popular notion that nothing happens except for a reason, and in the thinking of the time (and of many in our time) sickness has something to do with someone doing something wrong. But who committed the wrong so that this man was born blind – he or his parents? Jesus redefines the debate. The man in not blind because of sin, and his blindness will be the occasion for God’s work to be done. Is Jesus saying, then, that God is responsible for this man’s blindness? No. His blindness just is, but that it is will provide and opportunity for healing. Evil and harm are not easily explained, but we know they exist. To say that every situation in life provides us opportunity for learning and growth would be more in keeping with the spirit of Jesus’ words here. Of course there are some extreme circumstances where the first order of business is safety, not learning. Not only will this man’s condition be the occasion for the work of God to be done, but that work needs to be done when it can be (verse 4). Verse 5 is a bit of a play on images – Jesus is light, being blind is an absence of light.
Jesus utilizes a rather unique method of healing, making mud with his spit and rubbing it in the man’s eyes, only to be washed out later. The place of washing has symbolic meaning – Siloam means “sent” and it is Jesus who is the one sent by God. John offers a nod toward the previously used image of Jesus as providing living water. We also are getting clues in the language being used that the healing will be more than the restoration of physical sight. The man, now healed is noticed by his neighbors who begin to ask questions, as would we all. The man gives credit where credit is due – the man called Jesus made mud and used the mud and water to heal.
The man is brought to some Pharisees (who, by John’s time were the leaders in Jewish synagogue life). We have the beginnings here of yet another controversy over the Sabbath. The man had been healed on the Sabbath. That debate becomes almost secondary to the debate about who this healer is. If he is cavalier about the Sabbath, can he really be a person of God. But if he is not a person of God, how to explain the healing. In a comic twist, the learned Pharisees turn to the man who was healed and ask his opinion. “He is a prophet.” Sometimes all our learning doesn’t guarantee wisdom.
Obviously this is not what they wanted to hear, so they question whether or not he had really been blind. His parents testify to the fact that this is their son, but don’t make any claim about how he came to be healed. Elements here reflect John’s time more than the time of Jesus. By John’s time, there was a growing rift between Jewish followers of Jesus and other Jews, and apparently, some of the followers of Jesus had been asked to leave synagogues. So the leaders go back to the man who had been healed. The man provides a moving testimony. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see. These words have become a part of the hymn Amazing Grace. They are a strong testimony to the importance of experience in the life of faith. Experience is not everything, but it matters. I am reminded of a Buddhist story in which someone comes to the Buddha telling him that he will not practice until all his philosophical questions are answered. The Buddha compares this person to a person wounded by a poisoned arrow who will not let anyone remove the arrow until he knows all the facts about the person who shot the arrow. He will die waiting. This blind man was not concerned to have his theology about Jesus all in line before letting Jesus heal him. Theology is important, but more important is living life, being healed and offering healing. In this case the leaders are using their theological arguments to avoid dealing with Jesus directly. They press the man again for more “information,” and here John adds another comic twist. The man says to the leaders: Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?
Again, the leaders avoid dealing with Jesus. They are certain of their own tradition, rooted in the teaching of Moses. They are not open to the possibility that the God who spoke through Moses was now working and speaking through Jesus. All this conversation with learned theologians has given this man insight, or rather their conversation has given him the ability to articulate the new insight into life that was given him by Jesus. The healing went well beyond his eyes. He understands that God must be here somewhere in Jesus or else he would not be seeing. In another bit of irony, the leaders who only moments ago had been asking the man for his viewpoint now reject anything he has to say.
John 9:35-41: The story continues, but Jesus returns and uses this as an opportunity to offer another metaphor, another symbol for who he is as one sent by God. Jesus asks the man if he believes, and the man only wants to know in whom he should believe. Jesus has already said he is the light of the world (verse 5). Here he spells out the implications of that. Marcus Borg, in Jesus argues that Jesus, as with others, is a wisdom teacher. Wisdom teachers point out that there is something amiss in common human life, and offer a way out of that predicament. Borg also argues that there are a variety of metaphors in the New Testament to describe the human problematic and the way out of it. One such metaphor is that of blindness and sight. The very form of Jesus’ teaching – parable and aphorisms – are invitations to a different way of seeing. Their function is to bring about a radical perceptual shift. Borg comments specifically about this story. The meaning of the healing is that, as the “light of the world,” Jesus brings people out of darkness into light and gives sight to the blind…. Our condition is blindness, being “in the dark,” unable to find a way. The solution is to regain our sight, to see again, to have our eyes opened, to come into the light, to be enlightened (196-197). The People’s New Testament Commentary offers some helpful words about this story, and especially about these final verses. One cannot turn on a light without creating shadows. In an absolutely dark room, all are equally blind. But when the light is switched on, the coming of the light separates those who are truly blind from those who can see. John Sanford also offers helpful commentary. Psychologically, the great sin is not the fact we do not possess all the truth. Who can say that he or she possesses all the truth? The great psychological blindness comes when we mistake our ignorance and error for truth…. When we persevere in the erroneous conviction that we see and understand all there is to be known about ourselves, life, and God, then we are truly blind. (Mystical Christianity, 208)