The Gospel of John is a prime example of the point of view that you can take the Bible literally or you can take the Bible seriously–but you can’t do both.
A couple points are in order to explain:
1. Even more than the other three Gospel accounts, John is not a simple biography of Jesus but much more a reflection of the post-A.D. 70 Jewish-Christian community from which it was written. The temple was gone, leaving the synagogue as the centerpiece of Jewish life. And the Johannine community most likely had been kicked out of synagogues by rigidly puritanical Pharisees and remnants of the Jewish authorities who previously had controlled the temple. The Gospel writer generally shortens his identification of the latter group simply as “the Jews.”
This era marked the beginnings of what solidified within a century or so as the way Jews and Christians primarily self-identified: as “non-Christians” and “non-Jews.” Not a healthy development for either, especially for the latter group, which frequently crossed over from “non-Jewish” to aggressively “anti-Jewish.” Follow that path a couple millennia and you end up in Nazi Germany.
2. The Gospel writer obviously loved long narratives. Two weeks ago in the lectionary it was the story of the nighttime visit to Jesus of Nicodemus (who confidently proclaimed “We know…” but who, in the end, couldn’t “see” and accept who Jesus really was). Last week the somewhat longer story of the Samaritan woman at the well (a foreigner, no less, who did “see” Jesus as the Messiah and enthusiastically and evangelically shared her good news). This week it’s a really long tale presented in seven distinct scenes of Jesus healing someone blind since birth (and the deeper meanings that reveals).
3. (Yeah, I know: three is
technically literally more than “a couple,” but let’s just set nitpicking aside so I can make my point.) It’s not just us 21st-century types who typically jump to the questions that really concern us above all else: Who can we blame? Who’s at fault?
There’s a large cast of characters in this story. At the center, of course, is a beggar who’d been blind since birth. His presence in the storyline occasions a question to Jesus by his own disciples: Whose sin caused this man’s blindness and suffering–his or his parents? Now, to our modern ears that’s probably not the first question we’d ask (or at least I’d hope we’d ask!), but it’s indicative of theological understandings in the ancient world: If something awful happens to you it’s because of sinful behavior. Just ask Job’s friends.
Fortunately, Jesus sets them straight:
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
The Gospel writer is here giving us a major clue that this story is not simply about healing a blind beggar; it’s about the reality of God’s presence in the world and how “none are so blind as those who choose to not see [God in Christ Jesus].” This foretells the coming death of Jesus and the limits of his earthly ministry. But while he’s still “in the world” Jesus will show signs of divine power and presence. In this case that means bringing sight to eyes that have never seen the light of day.
Unlike other stories of healing, Jesus doesn’t ask the man if he wants to be healed–he just goes ahead and does it. Now this is all taking place on a Sabbath, so we now have a new element: Jesus’ first concern is not keeping the tried-and-true laws of his people. No doubt John’s later community was charged with something similar by the keepers of the law, as well. Jesus breaks several Sabbath “work” rules: (1) he digs around in the dirt and scoops some up, (2) he spits into his hand [yes, that was against the Sabbath law, too!], (3) he mixes the spittle and dirt together [much the same as mixing flour, oil, and water together to make bread, a forbidden task on the Sabbath], (4) he applies it to the blind man’s eyelids, and (5) instructs the man to go wash himself in a nearby pool [washing oneself is work]. But the big problem is that Jesus heals the man. If he had healed the man in a crisis to save his life, that would be okay on the Sabbath. But this was not a crisis; all this could just as easily have waited until the next day.
At this point we 21st-century types are all thinking the same thing: Are you people crazy? But, of course, that’s not the point, because a good, disciplined, religious life requires rules. Once you start breaking those rules, well, it’s a slippery slope. The next thing you know you’re not really “one of us” anymore but have become outsiders. Once again, this is just as much about John’s post-A.D. 70 community as it is about a blind man–maybe more. Now that I think about it, maybe this isn’t quite so out-of-keeping with the way things work in our own time.
But let’s return to the story. The man’s neighbors and friends are astonished by the fact that this man who’d they’d always known to be blind could now see. How’s that possible? And so the man recounts his story. Some people aren’t even sure it’s the same guy, much less that something miraculous had taken place. They dragged him to the Pharisees, who are supposed to know everything and therefore can surely provide an explanation. The Pharisees, though, are divided because all they appear to be focused on are side issues. How could this happen on a Sabbath? How could an obvious sinner be the one responsible for healing?
They can’t come up with a conclusive answer so they turn it back on the healed man, who can only recite once more the details of how it all took place. But then he adds, the man who healed him was a prophet. Now that got the Pharisees going! They tried a different tack, and called for the man’s parents to be brought in so they, hopefully, would clear everything up by saying their son had never really been blind after all.
This would have been a golden moment for the parents to step up and say the right thing. But alas, they appeared to be more concerned for their own well-being. “Yes, this is our boy and he was born blind but we have no idea whatsoever how he can now see. Don’t ask us any more questions. He’s old enough. Ask him.”
The Gospel writer tells us they were scared because it was well known that anybody who claimed Jesus was the Messiah would be cast out of the synagogue. (Once more, I refer you to the comments about the post-A.D. 70 community.) Here’s where it gets really interesting.
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.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 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?” Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.
I once was blind but now I see. That, simply put, is what happens when God in Christ Jesus comes into human life.
And yet there’s more to this story!
Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. 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.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”
As usual, Jesus gets the last word.
One more thing: The NRSV (as well as other Bible versions) uses the word “believe” in this passage. The trouble with that is that these days we Christians generally define “belief” as intellectual assent to statements of doctrine. But in the original language the word used is much closer to a verb form of “faith.” That’s perfectly all right in Aramaic but, unfortunately, there’s no such thing in English as “to faith.” The closest we can get is either “to be faithful” or “to trust,” although neither is an exact fit. The formerly blind man is actually saying what amounts to “Lord, I faith you.” Ah, if only English were a better language, but it’s what we’ve got to work with.
The copy editor in me cringes but my “inner theologian” is far more comfortable with saying, “I once was blind but now I see. All because I ‘faith’ Jesus Christ.”