John Michael Gutierrez, PhD
The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to John
1 As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3 “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. 4 As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. 5 While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6 After saying this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. 7 “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means “Sent”). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing. 8 His neighbors and those who had formerly seen him begging asked, “Isn’t this the same man who used to sit and beg?” 9 Some claimed that he was. Others said, “No, he only looks like him.” But he himself insisted, “I am the man.” 10 “How then were your eyes opened?” they asked. 11 He replied, “The man they call Jesus made some mud and put it on my eyes. He told me to go to Siloam and wash. So I went and washed, and then I could see.” 12 “Where is this man?” they asked him. “I don’t know,” he said. 13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had been blind. 14 Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud and opened the man’s eyes was a Sabbath. 15 Therefore the Pharisees also asked him how he had received his sight. “He put mud on my eyes,” the man replied, “and I washed, and now I see.” 16 Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.” But others asked, “How can a sinner perform such signs?” So they were divided. 17 Then they turned again to the blind man, “What have you to say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” The man replied, “He is a prophet.” 18 They still did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they sent for the man’s parents. 19 “Is this your son?” they asked. “Is this the one you say was born blind? How is it that now he can see?” 20 “We know he is our son,” the parents answered, “and we know he was born blind. 21 But how he can see now, or who opened his eyes, we don’t know. Ask him. He is of age; he will speak for himself.” 22 His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders, who already had decided that anyone who acknowledged that Jesus was the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23 That was why his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”
24 A second time they summoned the man who had been blind. “Give glory to God by telling the truth,” they said. “We know this man is a sinner.” 25 He replied, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!” 26 Then they asked him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27 He answered, “I have told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples too?” 28 Then they hurled insults at him and said, “You are this fellow’s disciple! We are disciples of Moses! 29 We know that God spoke to Moses, but as for this fellow, we don’t even know where he comes from.” 30 The man answered, “Now that is remarkable! You don’t know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes. 31 We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly person who does his will. 32 Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. 33 If this man were not
from God, he could do nothing.” 34 To this they replied, “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!” And they threw him out. 35 Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36 “Who is he, sir?” the man asked. “Tell me so that I may believe in him.”
37 Jesus said, “You have now seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you.” 38 Then the man said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him. 39 Jesus said,[a] “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.” 40 Some Pharisees who were with him heard him say this and asked, “What? Are we blind too?” 41 Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.
The Gospel of the Lord
When you read and/or study the Fourth Gospel, it doesn’t take long to realize it’s a narrative with sophisticated literary organization and complex theology. Our Gospel lesson, covering the entire ninth chapter, is widely regarded as a masterpiece in storytelling. So at this point we as readers should not be surprised other literary-theological strands have been woven into a substantial cable. It will benefit us to unravel the cable a bit here and there. Ch. 9 begins by telling us Jesus heals a blind beggar on a Sabbath in Jerusalem. But this is only one lengthy scene in a wider context. The actual context stretches from ch. 5 to 10, and is staged mostly in Jerusalem, sometimes in the Temple, during three festivals: Passover, Sukkoth, aka Pentecost and Dedication, aka Hanukkah. This single block of five chapters narrates a “dust up” played out between Jesus, Temple and Pharisaic religious leadership, collectively identified as the “Judeans” (9.18), festival crowds and some of Jerusalem’s residents. The conflict simmers in chs. 5,6,7, then power boils in ch. 8 and 9, then boils over in ch. 10. From ch. 11 onward, the scenes are setting the stage for the final rejection of Jesus and his mission. May I say to you at the outset: this is a limited “family” dust up. A dispute carried on between Jesus and some religious leaders and other Jewish folk, not all religious leaders or folk, either then or for all time.
Readers enter the scene as the disciples and Jesus are about to pass by a blind beggar on a Jerusalem street. We know how begging usually works, then and now. With difficulty, daily, he makes his way to some spot on a road and calls out to passers-by for spare change. But a blind man cannot “see” his prospective donors coming so he has to listen very carefully for the sounds of people passing by. The blind man hears footsteps stop in front of him. He has been seen! He can feel it in his bones. We are not told he asks for spare change. But why wouldn’t he? He listens to voices talking about him in the third person. Nothing unusual here – Everyone talks about him as if he was invisible. To most folk, he was a nuisance, and the way to avoid him was to not “see” him. So why should this day be different? Little does he realize how different this day and many others will be! Then a voice questions: “Rabbi, who sinned, this one or his parents, that he was born blind?” (9.1-2). I doubt whoever raises the issue of sin, my money is on Philip and Andrew, does it under their breath. So the blind man overhears the question. Then another Voice rejects the “sin” reasons. Listen to the Voice’s rejection in Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message. It’s insightful: “You’re asking the wrong question. You’re looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. See instead what God can do.” The Voice says blindness
is not about the parent’s sin or even his own sin. He had not gotten what he deserved. (b. Shabb. 55a). The Voice says: “what is about to happen is a sign that the Lord sees (9.3).
Doing God’s work involves “seeing” while there is opportunity to act. Doing God’s work is about making a difference in someone’s life. The Voice will say “I am the light of the world” set down into the midst of people’s lives in vs. 5. But notice the writerly skill—before the “I” there is a “we” in vs. 4 “we must do the work of him who sent me”. Anyone, you and I, anywhere, on any street, can be of service, meeting needs, treating people right.
Then the Voice acts. The blind man hears someone spit. He flinches at the sound then realizes he hasn’t been spit upon. He thinks triumphantly “Hah, Missed!” At first sight, what must surely feel cruel to him, mud is being put on his eyes. Then the Voice tells him to go over to the Siloam pool and wash his eyes. The Voice promises nothing and says nothing further. As he turns to go, he hears the Voice’s footsteps going the other way. Arriving at the pool, he washes the mud off his eyes. He can see light. He can see people. He can see for the first time in his life!
As the now sighted man enters his neighborhood, a new cast of characters enters the story—”neighbors” who knew him primarily through his blindness. And others who knew him primarily as a beggar. In his first telling, he eagerly contrasts his sight gift with the gross way it started. “I heard this person, Jesus, spit, then felt a wet, gritty mud anoint my eyes. Then he told me to go wash the mud off, and then I could see!” (vs. 11). We don’t know how he knows Jesus’ name. He cannot say much about Jesus other than calling him a person. But the neighbors are now uncertain as to his identity. Note carefully, there’s no joy in this hood. Rather than seeing smiles the first time he ever sees his neighbor’s faces or hearing sounds of celebration, he sees frowns and mouths arguing whether it’s actually him. What should have been a restoration of social relationships has been turned upside down. He is made to defend himself. There’s only questions about his being a “blind impersonator”, demands to identify who did this and, finally, demands about where this person “Jesus” can be found (vss. 8-12).They could understand, they could live with sin or supposed sin that led to his blindness, sin that led to a breakdown in social relationships. But this, this healing, it doesn’t fit into their worldview. Watching the awkward debate about whether or not he is who he says he is, he pleads “it’s me, for heaven’s sake!”(vs. 9). Deflecting his plea, they want to know where this person, Jesus is. He says, “I don’t know” (vs. 12). The neighborhood is thinking: How can a miracle worker disappear so quickly? Why didn’t he stick around to have his picture taken for the Daily Prophet?
The heated neighborhood conflict hits power boil when the now sighted man, and soon after his parents, are brought before religious leadership, Pharisees and temple authorities, named collectively “the Judeans” in vs. 18. The tension is ratched up at least a couple more notches when the narrator informs us “Jesus made mud on a sabbath”(vs. 14).
The once-blind man tells them a clearly edited version of the incident. He no longer says that Jesus “anointed” his eyes only that he merely “put” mud on them. Neither does he name Jesus and says nothing about washing at the Siloam pool. But from what he does tell them, they determine Jesus did things which were not “lawful” on a Sabbath: spitting to make mud, anointing and allowing washing (b. Yoma 84b; p. Shabb. 14, 14d, 17ff; b. Av. Zar. 28b; m. Shabb. 7.2).
They hear evidence of his restored sight and now “see” he is able to “see”. Yet they turn to debate about the nature and timing of the healing. They argue over Jesus’ authority to make mud, to heal on a Sabbath. Just as there’s no joy in the neighborhood; there’s no joy in this synod. Instead we hear their “voiced” belief-conflicted dilemma: some of them argue, theoretically, a godly person could do a healing but others argue only a sinner would ever do this kind of act on a Sabbath (vs. 16). Don’t miss the point of their dilemma: both want to preserve supervision authority over ritual and behavior. So fast forward to vs. 28. “We are disciples of Moses”. Here we need to unravel a theological cable. Why does “making mud and healing on a Sabbath” make Jesus a sinner? It’s because he disregards their Oral Torah. In the Second Temple period Oral Torah was an evolving collection of supposed “original” interpretations passed down from Moses. The Pharisees were describing the Oral Torah as a “fence” around the Sinai Torah (m. Avoth 1.1; m. Shabb, 7.2, 8.1). They were in the process of elevating this collection to co-status with Sinai’s Torah. Their interpretations, the Oral Torah, are a way of clothing the covenantal experience of obedience with a regulated, supervised conformity. For the Pharisees, a fence keeps things out. But as Jesus repeatedly confronts this pharisaic remodeling project in all four gospels, he keeps pointing out that “traditions of men” not only keep ideas out, but the “fence” keeps the authoritative Torah from getting out also. The pushback is especially acute in the 4th Gospel right from the first chapter where Jesus, identified as the Word, is theologically presented as the authoritative, the only Oral Torah who was born and moved into the neighborhood (1.14).
The formerly blind man knows he has experienced something mysterious, transforming. For him, Jesus is now a prophet not merely a person and by the end of the story he will be Lord (vs. 17, cf. vs. 11, vs. 38). Then the authorities make another move. In order to confirm that he was born blind they bring in his parents. They ask “Is this your boy, who, you say, was born blind? How is he able to see?” (notice boy not man!). But they will only confirm he was born blind. They don’t know who did this or how it happened. And they back out of the scene (vs. 21). The narrator tells us the reason for their departure: the Judeans were threatening anyone who confessed Jesus as messiah (vs. 22). The parents were not prepared to deal with such a threat. But what’s such a threat to this man? He’s been an outcast, on the edges of social religious relationships his whole life. He won’t be bullied by their increased hostility.
In vss. 25-33, the now sighted man tweaks the Judeans’ nose “Why do you want to hear it again? I’ve already told you twice and you haven’t listened”. He slyly asks, “Do you also want to become his disciples?” He delivers a pointed theological lecture. Again Eugene Peterson “This is amazing! You claim to know nothing about him, but the fact is, he opened my eyes! It’s well known that God isn’t at the beck and call of sinners, but listens carefully to anyone who lives in reverence and does his will. That someone opened the eyes of a man born blind has never been heard of—ever. If this man didn’t come from God, he wouldn’t be able to do anything.”
Their rage explodes, “How dare you lecture us!” In their anger, they spit “You were steeped in sin at birth” (vs. 34). And the man thinks triumphantly “Hah, Missed!”. The Voice already rejected that reason. (vs. 3). The synod scene exposes how deeply the authorities were threatened by Jesus. Gales force winds are gusting down upon their “fencing” project. The religious leaders were unable to accept the healing. This healing doesn’t conform to their understanding of religious propriety. The Lord doesn’t heal on a Sabbath, they assert. Healing only occurs in prescribed ways and times, they claim. Anything else cannot come from the Lord, they believe. At this point, the religious leaders have flat out rejected the healing as the Lord’s act. They’ve returned to their understanding of the man’s blindness as a product of sin and nothing more.
And they give him the left foot of fellowship. And Jesus heard they expelled him, goes looking for and finds the man (vs. 35). Vss. 39-41 tells us the story has flipped. We thought this is a story about the hardships of, and judgments about blindness. Only to find out it’s criticism about the judgements of social and religious blindness to how the Lord acts. And we realize John’s storytelling can’t get any better than this.
As for me, sometimes I get stuck when I “see” the Lord being/acting contrary. I don’t like it when the Lord goes rogue. I like the Lord to color between the lines, to drive the speed limit, in fact, to stay in the far right lane. But it’s Gospel lessons like this that let me “see” the Lord likes to speed, sometimes likes to change lanes – without signalling. Not only does the Lord not color between the lines; it sometimes appears that he doesn’t even know that the lines are there. The authority, the position involved in mediating access to divine knowledge is seductive, not only for the Judeans. When I “see” the Lord and his acts in the world through my interpretation of how he could or should behave, I have “fenced” him in. Chasing that which I cannot capture, I have created, in the words of the Anglican Bible translator JB Phillips, “a God who is too small”.
Lenten Peace, my Beloved.