Use your eyes!
Week of Sunday March 30 –Lent 4
Gospel: John 9:1-41
As he walked 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?' 3Jesus answered, 'Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him. 4We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.'
6When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man's eyes, 7saying to him, 'Go, wash in the pool of Siloam' (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. 8The neighbours and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, 'Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?' 9Some were saying, 'It is he.' Others were saying, 'No, but it is someone like him.' He kept saying, 'I am the man.' 10But they kept asking him, 'Then how were your eyes opened?' 11He answered, 'The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, “Go to Siloam and wash. " Then I went and washed and received my sight.' 12They said to him, 'Where is he?' He said, 'I do not know.'
13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. 14Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, 'He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.' 16Some of the Pharisees said, 'This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.' But others said, 'How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?' And they were divided. 17So they said again to the blind man, 'What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.' He said, 'He is a prophet.'
18 The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19and asked them, 'Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?' 20His parents answered, 'We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.' 22His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus [lit. him] to be the Messiah [Christ] would be put out of the synagogue. 23Therefore his parents said, 'He is of age; ask him.'
24 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.' 25He answered, 'I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.' 26They said to him, 'What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?' 27He 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?' 28Then they reviled him, saying, 'You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.' 30The man answered, 'Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.' 34They answered him, 'You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?' And they drove him out.
35 Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, 'Do you believe in the Son of Man?' 36He answered, 'And who is he, sir?' [Kurie] Tell me, so that I may believe in him.' 37Jesus said to him, 'You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.' 38He said, 'Lord, [Kurie] I believe.' And he worshipped him. 39Jesus said, 'I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.' 40Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, 'Surely we are not blind, are we?' 41Jesus said to them, 'If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.
10‘Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.’6Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
7 So again Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
11 ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.’
19 Again the Jews were divided because of these words. 20Many of them were saying, ‘He has a demon and is out of his mind. Why listen to him?’ 21Others were saying, ‘These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?’
What can I see?
Jesus said: He was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him. "Well, I wish God's works hadn't taken so long to be revealed, said the blind man." He had a way with blunt statements, and that one should warn us not to build theologies about how all things work to the good upon this story. Such theologies do violence to those who are already suffering.
George Stroup suggests that the "disciples do not know the distinction theologians sometimes draw between natural and moral evil, but they assume that this natural evil [of the man's blindness] must in some way be due to (and therefore explainable by) someone's sin…"; that is, moral evil. (Feasting on the Word, Volume 2 pp120) They are convinced there must be someone to blame; they have not read their Job or Ecclesiastes.
The nature of sin is important to this story; it is where the story begins. The sweep of the story ends not at Chapter 9:41, but at Chapter 10:21: 21Others were saying, ‘These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?’
Indeed, on might wonder if the story really begins in Chapter 8! Brian Stoffregen says: "Our text is "introduced" in 8:12: "Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, 'I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.'" (Part of this is repeated in 9:5.) As he talked about the light of the world "they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple." (8:59) The pattern of expulsion that I will talk about later, has already begun.
The events and conversations pass through the nature of sin, sickness, blame, blindness and healing of sight. Also included are excluding and driving out, and their partner gatekeeping! The Pharisees begin by driving a person out, but end up (in Chapter 10) stealing others. The actual gatekeeper in the metaphor of the sheepfold (10:3) seems neutral, but the stereotypical Pharisees are acting like the stereotypical negative gatekeepers of our own churches, and in the end are thieves, bandits and wolves. They are deciding who will belong. Chapter 10 is at least in part about who has authority and who holds power.
This story is as much about sin, and who gets to define it, as it is about blindness. When we are healed of our blindness and we see Jesus sin and evil look quite different.
Notes to interpret the story
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 matter most and people take second place, we have darkness, even if they are divinely warranted in scripture. Bill Loader
The story is brutal and condemnatory in the sense that it highlights that Jesus has come "into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind." (9:39) It is important to remind ourselves that the Judeans and the Pharisees are stereotypes— object lessons— and there is no warrant for discrimination here; we are being pointed to examine— to search out— our own darkness, not to act like those in the story!
Indeed, stereotypes are themselves a kind of gatekeeping and exclusion. If we forget we are dealing with stereotypes in this story there is surely a darkness in us!
2. Sin and Disease: 'Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?' The use of the word Rabbi denotes respect, but also a lack of understanding of who Jesus really is, and what he is about. At the end of the story, the one man who truly can see calls Jesus Lord.
Both versions of the Ten Commandments equate punishment and sickness with sin. For example;
You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me… (Deuteronomy 5:9)
Although Ezekiel had a different vision—
20The person who sins shall die. A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent, nor a parent suffer for the iniquity of a child; the righteousness of the righteous shall be his own, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be his own— (Ezekiel 18:20)
we still equate illness with fault— we blame— when, often, illness is simply a failing in our biology. Why do we need to blame? Even Ezekiel thinks we deserve it.
In this view, disease, being a result of sin, means we are not holy in the sight of God if we are sick. This was a religious and social disaster for the chronically ill and for those who were disabled.
His blindness was considered part of a moral defect that meant he was ipso facto impure and unable to participate fully in the cultic life of Israel. James Alison
In this logic, disease is therefore a reason to exclude. Exclusion maintains holiness. This is why the Pharisees believe they are justified when they say that the man born blind had been "born entirely in sins." (John 9:34) It is their religious duty to exclude him from the synagogue.
Jesus much goes further than Ezekiel's insight: '"Neither this man nor his parents sinned.'" Disease is not linked to sin. Your behaviour may have the consequence of making you sick, but being sick it is not a sign that you sinned, or have some moral defect.
3. Light and Dark:
In Jesus' culture, people thought of light as a STUFF, a substance that radiated out from itself, a kind of fire that, when present in the human body, could flow out of a person's eyes and allow them to see… Someone who couldn't see just didn't have the stuff in them; their body had darkness in it instead of light. Dylan Breuer
I find this helpful to think through the imagery of light and darkness. The metaphor of "stuff" adds some solidity to the imagery; I have light "in me." The downside of this understanding is that light and darkness are very much more than just "stuff" and have a lot to do with attitude, action, intention, and allegiance.
Why mention this? Emission theory or extramission theory is the [superseded] hypothesis that visual perception is accomplished by rays of light emitted by the eyes. The same Wikipedia article that contains this information says "Winer et al. (2002) have found recent evidence that as many as 50% of American college students believe in emission theory." What do people think of when they think of light and darkness as they read John's Gospel?! Is it just "a stuff," is light merely some "thing" we have in us, rather than attitude, action, intention, and allegiance?
4. The Beginning: "When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man's eyes, 7saying to him, 'Go, wash in the pool of Siloam' (which means Sent)." The reference to mud is repeated in verses 14 and 15. Mud is important to the story. Not only is mud washed off, which could remind us of baptism, but mud reminds us of Adam who is made from the dust of the earth. Adam is made from mud. With respect to his healing, the man who had been blind will say, "Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind." (John 10:32) We are building toward a statement about the nature of Creation itself. I found my self asking, "Are we all born blind?"
5. Sabbath: Suddenly we discover that this healing is on the Sabbath. (John 9:14) Kneading the mud, Brian Stoffregen reminds us, was one of the 39 forbidden tasks on the Sabbath.
Jesus' healing act is not merely an act of disobedience to God. Firstly it is a criterion by which "to judge if the cure came from God or not. The cure was carried out on a Sabbath, so it cannot come from God." That's the logic of the Pharisees.
Not only this, but "the person who doesn't rest on the Sabbath is a sinner, because he is neither obeying nor imitating God." But Jesus says, even before we know it is the Sabbath, "I must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work." There is a similar verse in chapter 5, when Jesus heals a sick person: "My Father is working up until the present, and I also work" (John 5:17). This brings us to Point 6.
6. Creation: James Alison (who I have been quoting here) says that Jesus' Sabbath behaviour and statement
constitutes a formal denial that God is resting on the Sabbath, as well as an affirmation that Creation has yet to be completed, and that for this reason Jesus carries on with his work of bringing Creation to fulfillment on the Sabbath.
Not only has he claimed to be the Son of God doing the work of his Father, but the work which the Father finished on the sixth day, that work which "was very good"… "everything that he had made… was very good," still had work needing to be done!
In other words, Jesus is not simply a heretic. He is turning everything upside down. He is demanding of them that they re-understand their whole world. If he is correct, then their whole world is about to fall to pieces. What will they do?
7. Cognitive Dissonance was first described in the 1950s. A small sect who had expected the end of the world and their rescue by an alien spaceship continued on with the ad hoc explanation that "the aliens … had decided at the last minute not to flood the planet after all… They had given up so much for their faith that they would believe anything rather than admit their sacrifices had been pointless."
The quotation is from Nick Cohen, writing in The Guardian about climate change deniers. You can see why I am attracted to his definition: They had given up so much for their faith that they would believe anything rather than admit their sacrifices had been pointless!
This is a kind of blindness, and perhaps not particularly willful. It is a way of dealing with distress, even terror, as things fall apart.
Cognitive Dissonance occurs when "the facts we know" don't fit our experience. It can be terrifying.
The blind man experienced the same dissonance as everyone else in the story in Chapter 9. He was minding his own business begging when Jesus accosted him. His confusion lessens, and his confidence grows during the story.
The dissonance is destroyed because he concentrates on the facts of his experience, not the theory of how things should be. This is markedly different from the actions of the Pharisees.
8. Scapegoating: is one way to deal with the terror of dissonance. "It's a way for relative (false and non-permanent) unity to be achieved by all (the majority) vs. one (the few). It feels like peace, it brings about a feeling of awe because everything suddenly feels so good once the scapegoat is expelled. Accusers think they are doing G-d’s will."
At the end of the story the blind man is gone, and everyone feels good again. They are blind to the fact that the have just excluded the experience of God from their presence!
Although Jesus is the ultimate scapegoat, because he is murdered on the cross, we do all sorts of minor scapegoating. The blind man who has been healed is made a scapegoat for the dissonance his healing causes within those who think they can see.
Each time we do this, we define someone else as sinful. Paul Nuechterlein says, "We see unfinished parts of creation and turn them into justifications for expulsion, assuming ourselves in the category of being finished."
What do I see in the text?
There are two movements. The blind man progressively sees. Everyone else becomes blind. John is saying we will inevitably choose to be healed— to allow our eyes to be opened— or to become blind.
As the "neighbours and those who had seen him before as a beggar" and Pharisees see and hear more of what happened, their panic increases, and their determination to deny increases. First there is the denial of refusing to recognize him, or that his eyes could "be opened." (9:9-10)
Then it is concluded that Jesus must be a sinner because he heals on the Sabbath, so we can ignore the fact.
Then they begin to close their eyes! They begin the scapegoating. They first pick on the parents, who deny the reality of God's action by abandoning heir son. Then they threaten the man directly: 'Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.' "The accused is seen as violent and as a threat to order, but the accusers are not…" even though violence is implicit in their questioning.
They "reviled him," abused him— what would you know, you sinner?— and drove him out.
In this they have been blind, and paradoxically, with respect to the first verse of the story, their blindness is sin! 41Jesus said to them, 'If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, "We see," your sin remains.'
We might note that the man is the ideal scapegoat. Not only is he sick/impure/sin-full, but no one had ever really looked at him or taken enough notice of him to know if it was him who had been healed.
At first the man who had been blind can only say what has happened; "I went and washed and received my sight." But in the face of their blindness and their denial he increasingly sees what is going on. He sees through them: "Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind." His sarcasm soaks the page!
He sees through the nature of power and abuse and violence that runs the world. His eyes have been opened to a new way of living, of being human.
There is a shift of power. His witness, as he sees more and more, is leading him towards being scape-goated, just as Jesus will be scape-goated. But like Jesus his triumph in life is happening through this! He sees!
All this is happening in the absence of Jesus! "They said to him, 'Where is he?' He said, 'I do not know.'" (John 9:12) Fred Craddock says
It is difficult to believe it is coincidental that the form of the narrative corresponds to the form of the story of the church: Jesus comes with blessing and instruction, Jesus departs, Jesus will return with vindication for his church. The church is now living in the time of Jesus' departure, the period between his first and his final manifestations.
John is talking to the experience of his own churches. We can almost hear their synagogue neighbours asking, "Where is he?" And in the absence of an answer they kick them out.
But the man sees! "He said, 'Lord, I believe.'" (John 9:38)
What is the blindness, and what is the seeing?
Jesus is "the Son of Man." Some see it, some don't. In this view, not to confess him Lord is to sin. It is the kind of blindness that really is a sin. (9:38-41) Perhaps that is enough to take from this reading. If we will trust the way of Jesus— believe— then we will see a different reality.
But what is that reality? Can we see more within this text?
I have said the story is a power play about who is in and out. It is full of blaming; blame the parents, blame the blind man, blame the man who now sees— 'What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.' (9:17). And finally, when reality is intransigent, when it is clear he is not someone else, when the man remains able to see, and becomes defiant as he sees more clearly, they fall back on the last resort to maintain the power of their world view. They choose to scapegoat.
Power to define who is in and who is out is also the power to define sin. Deborah Kapp says
The privileges of defining sin or dispensing grace are powerful ones. … Although the Pharisees lay claim to dispensing grace, it is Jesus who transforms. It is Jesus who heals. (Feasting on the Word, Volume 2 pp119-120)
The power to define sin controls the world.
James Alison says that we see "a revolution in the understanding of sin" in this story.
... at the beginning of the tale, sin was considered in terms of some sort of defect that excludes the one bearing the defect. At the end of the tale sin is considered as the act of exclusion: the real blindness is the blindness which is not only present in those who exclude, but actually grows and intensifies during the act of exclusion.
Everyone feels so much better when we get rid of the trouble-maker!
The man who was driven out is a pre-echo of Jesus who will be driven out "in the definitive expulsion of the crucifixion." I use the term pre-echo because in John's churches, their experiences of being once blind persons who can now see, echo Jesus' experience. They, too, are being driven out.
Sin is recast entirely in the light of the casting out of Jesus. Jesus is quite specifically shown as having no problem with the sort of "sin" that is taken to exclude the "sinner" from the community: he cures the blind man with no problem at all (just as, in the previous chapter, he held nothing against the woman caught in adultery, but everything against those who would stone her). James Alison
When we as a church fall into a life which tries to maintain its coherence and corporate cohesion by excluding, instead of including by being neighbour, when we scapegoat to solve our crises, we are casting out Jesus. We are re-crucifying Christ. And we are blind to our real problems.
The scope of Alison's Girardian analysis is breathtaking.
The question of the sin as being related to the origins of humankind is hinted at in Jesus' use of clay in his restoration, or fulfilment, of creation, as well as in the insistence that the man was blind from birth. The relation of this story to something original is understood by the former blind man himself, who reckons that never (ek tou aiônos) has such a healing taken place. In the light of John's irony this means much more than that a particularly spectacular miracle has taken place, such as has never taken place before. It also suggests that there has been present a blindness from the beginning of the world that only now is being cured for the first time.
Furthermore, when Jesus speaks, at the end, about judgment it is clear that he is not concerned with a particular local incident, but about a discernment relating to the whole world (kosmos). Here we have a highly subtle teaching about the whole world being blind from birth, from the beginning, and about Jesus, the light of the world coming to bring sight to the world, being rejected precisely by those who, though blind, claimed to be able to see. All humans are blind, but where this blindness is compounded by active participation in the mechanisms of exclusion pretending to sight, this blindness is culpable. James Alison
Let's put this into a sketch of hard twenty first century reality, in case there is any sense that John 9 is "just religion."
Climate change denial is the enormous blindness of our age. Beyond the hard core deniers are the rest of us to whom NASA is giving the unwelcome news that industrial civilisation might be headed for irreversible collapse. This is the terror!
"The fall of the Roman Empire, and the equally (if not more) advanced Han, Mauryan, and Gupta Empires, as well as so many advanced Mesopotamian Empires, are all testimony to the fact that advanced, sophisticated, complex, and creative civilizations can be both fragile and impermanent."
The factors [that] can lead to collapse … converge around two crucial social features: "the stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity" [climate change]; and "the economic stratification of society into Elites [rich] and Masses (or "Commoners") [poor]" These social phenomena have played "a central role in the character or in the process of the collapse," in all such cases over "the last five thousand years."
It sounds like the Hebrew Scriptures; the poor are being sold for the price of a pair of sandals. This is the violence.
But what is the cause? Here in Australia we blame the sick and the unemployed. They are bludgers. Benefits are cut back. Along with the refugees they are being defined as the sinners, the ones who threaten society. And so they are kept in camps, excluded, and impoverished by government sanctioned, below award wages.
A ''green army'' of 15,000 young people will be paid as little as half the minimum wage, as fresh details emerge of the federal government's plan to create Australia's largest environmental workforce.
The plans have attracted the ire of the ACTU, which says the workers will be excluded from protections granted by federal workplace laws and says the program threatens to reset youth wage rates sharply lower.... Greens MP Adam Bandt said: ''Only Tony Abbott could create a 'workforce' where the workers aren't legally workers and have no workplace rights. If a green army supervisor and a worker under their command get injured while wielding a pick or building a lookout, the supervisor will have the same safety and compensation protections as ordinary employees but the worker won't.'' Sydney Morning Herald
Here are the scapegoats. And while we are scapegoating we are increasingly blind to the real problem, the greed of the rich, the determination to maintain power, and the exclusion of those who don't fit or who frighten us.
This is called protecting the country. Will we allow our eyes to be opened? Or will we join the feel-good violence and repression which is the real sin? John 9 is not "just religion." The blindness in John 9 is world ending blindness. Do you see?
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!