Lessons from John, ch. 9

John 9 – Blindness 

Home Moravian Church Adult Bible Class, originally broadcast April 1, 2007

Craig D. Atwood, Comenius Scholar

Introduction                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class. Today is Palm Sunday, one of the great festival days of the church year. All around the world children are carrying palm branches into sanctuaries singing praises to Jesus as the Messiah. In Moravian Churches it is traditional to sing the Hosanna antiphonally, which I have always loved. In ancient times, Palm Sunday was the day to baptize converts to Christianity so that they could participate fully in the Easter festivals. Today marks the beginning of Holy Week, which Moravians used to call Passion Week until people started confusing that phrase with TV soap operas. The word Passion originally had nothing to do with romance; it is simply the Latin word for suffering. This is the week in which we reflect on the sufferings of Jesus physically, mentally, and spiritually as he followed the path that led to his death on Calvary.

I hope you will join us at Home Church each evening this week at 7:30 for the Readings from Holy Week. We will have Holy Communion on Thursday; a crucifixion service Friday afternoon, and the Great Sabbath lovefeast Friday evening. There will be a special service of music on Holy Saturday in the evening, and then we will gather a dawn on Easter to proclaim our belief that the Lord is risen. It is a busy time for Moravians and we hope you will be able to share in these special moments of worship. 

I Am                        We did not quite finish ch. 8 last week. The chapter ends with a reaffirmation of one of the major themes of the prologue: the Logos existed before Abraham, and Abraham himself looked forward to the revelation of God in Jesus. Despite John’s hostility toward the Jews who had rejected Jesus, this is the gospel that most clearly makes the claim that Abraham himself would have recognized Jesus as the one sent by God. For John, Jesus was the fulfillment of the promise of the OT, the one who makes it possible to follow the essence of the Torah, which is to leave the enslavement of sin and embrace the entire creation in self-giving love. Once you give yourself in love and rest in the arms of God, then death has no sting and the grave will not be victorious.

Verse 58 is another “I Am” statement of Jesus. “Before Abraham was, I am.” Notice that it is not: Before Abraham, I was. Jesus speaks in the eternal present tense. He is identified with the one who spoke out of the burning bush and who dined with Abraham. Many scholars doubt that the historical Jesus ever said such a thing, especially not in the Temple to his opponents. All I can say is that John’s Gospel makes this claim more strongly than any other book of the NT. John makes the bold claim that when Jesus spoke, healed, and taught, it was the Word of God speaking, acting, and teaching. The big question John asks is how will you respond?

Setting up the Story                        Our lesson for today continues that theme of the response to Jesus’ words and works. It is not clear if the setting for chapter 9 was the feast of Tabernacles, which was so important for understanding the previous chapter. As we saw last week, light was a major symbol in the feast of Tabernacles, and in this week’s lesson Jesus gives sight to a man whose whole life has been lived in darkness. We don’t know for sure when this event took place, though, because this was originally an independent story of Jesus’ work in Jerusalem that was passed down orally before it was incorporated in John’s gospel. It is an important story in its own right, but John uses it to highlight important themes of his gospel.

Overview                        This is one of the longest stories in the New Testament, and is very important in John’s gospel. It involves the healing of a man who had been blind from birth, but the healing itself takes only two verses. Most of the story is about how people responded to this great miracle. Commentators agree that this is one of the best written stories in the gospels and it functions like a drama on the stage. There are always two characters on stage interacting and moving the plot forward. For much of the passage, Jesus is nowhere to be seen, but he remains the central focus of the discussion. Like many good dramas, this story functions on more than one level. There is the straightforward miracle story in which Jesus heals a blind beggar, but that is merely a way to discuss deeper spiritual matters. The irony in this story is that a man who was physically blind gains his sight, but the religious authorities grow increasingly blind to God’s revelation in this event. The blind man is illuminated by Jesus in more than one way, but his opponents choose darkness and ignorance to light and truth. Rather than rejoicing and laughing, the authorities responded with suspicion and oppression.

Read: John 9  

Parallels            There are a number of stories in the synoptic gospels in which Jesus heals a blind person, such as the famous story of the healing of Bartimaeus in Mark. There are some similarities between some of those stories and this account in John, which has led to some people confusing this blind beggar in Jerusalem for Bartimaeus in Jericho. But for the most part, this story in John is unique. Unlike most healing stories, the man does not ask to be healed or profess his faith in Jesus before he was healed. The story begins with a theoretical question by the disciples. What had caused the beggar’s blindness? He was born blind; therefore it could not be punishment for his sins, unless he had sinned in the womb. Was he being punished for the sins of his parents?

Sin             This is a very important question for people who believe in the one God who created all things. Most Jews in biblical times believed that God punishes sin and rewards righteousness in this life. We see this idea in many books of the Bible, and it is in some way the principle behind the Mosaic Law. God rewards the righteous with good things and opposes the wicked, just like parents do in the home. Those who do not clean their rooms do not get to go to the movies. Those who remember their mother’s birthday get showered with praise, like my brother. Sorry, mom. I hope you enjoyed the flowers.

Thanks to our Puritan ancestors, this view of sin and punishment is prevalent in American society, and it contributes to our sense of justice. As Bill Clinton used to say, “those who work hard and play by the rules should benefit” more than those that don’t. Unfortunately, we know that is not really the way things work in our economy. Those born to wealthy parents or who are smart enough to go to an Ivy League school do much better than those who labor all day and night for minimum wage. We also know from medical science that many diseases and illnesses are in some ways self-inflicted. Sometimes illness does seem to be a natural punishment for bad or immoderate behavior. Eating too much sugar; smoking; not exercising; not wearing protective gear; driving while intoxicated; taking drugs; and so forth cause a lot of people to suffer and even die. It is tempting to say that all disease is a result of sin. In our day the disciples might have asked Jesus if the beggar’s blindness had been caused by his mother’s alcoholismThe disciples, like many of us, were looking for a simple cause and effect relationship between the beggar’s blindness and sin. They wanted confirmation that it was someone’s fault that this man had never seen his mother’s face.

Why?                        Why did they want to know why the man was blind? Was it just a theological question that tried to make sense of the world in which they lived? Were they looking for a way to bring meaning in an apparently meaningless universe where one man is reduced to begging because he can’t see while others live in palaces? Were they looking for a justification for their own health; to be told that they were healthy because they were not sinners like this poor man on the side of the road? Were they looking for a reason to reject this beggar, to ignore him in his misery, to look away so that his sightless eyes would not indict them in their selfishness and arrogance? Were they simply enjoying that perverse pleasure that consumes humans from time to time: the desire to be cruel to the weak?

We do not know what was in their hearts as they walked past this man. What we do know is that they did not really see a man; they saw a thing, an object for conservation. They saw a problem, not a person. Notice they did not ask Jesus to use his miraculous powers to heal this beggar. They did not talk to the man or touch him in any way. He was just a theological problem; a statistic; an abstraction; an it. To use modern jargon, they objectified the man, or in Martin Luther King’s colorful idiom, they “thingified” him.

Not Sin            Jesus, who was a teacher as well as a healer, took a teachable moment. He did not rebuke the disciples for their hardness of heart. He gave them the kind of answer that sends students to the dormitory shaking their heads. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.” There you have it – a whole new understanding of human suffering in a few words. Sometimes bad things do happen because you do bad things or your parents did bad things. Sometimes, though, it doesn’t work that way. There are times when it is highly offensive and even cruel to suggest that there is a link between sin and suffering. Jesus states clearly that this man’s condition was not because of anything he or his parents had done. He was not being punished for being a sinner. This beggar was a victim of a natural world that does not always work the way we would like it to. It is a world where there are birth defects, infections, accidents, and misfortunes.

As if to soften the blow of this radical new idea, Jesus goes on to say that the man’s impairment is part of a greater plan. That raises a host of theological problems in itself, but I’m not convinced that Jesus was making a general rule about suffering. In this particular case, this man’s disease provided an opportunity for a greater good. This does not mean that all misfortunes are acts of God, but that this man’s problems were an opportunity to display the goodness of God in Christ. I’m afraid that these few verses do not answer the mystery of illness and suffering. Through the centuries, many thinkers have offered answers to that problem, but every answer fails when it is our loved ones who are suffering. Glib answers to the problem of suffering only work when we objectify those who suffer and treat them as problems instead of people. What Jesus does is puts this individual’s illness in a new context. His actions do not erase the past, but they will help him focus on the future. His blindness will be the opportunity for many to recognize Jesus as the light of the world.

In passing, we should note another difference between this healing story and those in the other gospels. Nowhere does this man express faith in Jesus before he is healed. His healing is entirely an act of grace. His suffering was undeserved; so was his healing. Faith comes latter for the beggar. This is a helpful corrective to those who claim that we heal ourselves through our faith.

Work While it is Day            Jesus makes a very interesting statement here that sounds like a proverb. We must work as long as it is day because the night is coming when no one can work. I attended a funeral on the island of Jamaica 20 years ago, and I still remember the sermon that was preached. The refrain was this verse from John. “We must work while it is light, for the darkness is coming when no man can work.” It was a sermon about making use of the days that we are given while we have them because death will claim us all. Was John saying that Jesus only had so many days in which he could work in this world before his death, or is this a reference to a greater cosmic struggle between the forces of light and darkness; good and evil; being and nothingness? Perhaps it does not matter. For us, it is enough to know that while we have the light of Christ in our lives, we are called to do the work of God in this world. The light of Christ illuminates the areas where we are needed to give words of comfort and do acts of mercy. We are called to show light on the dark places of our world; to reveal injustice and oppression.

What comes next in the passage clarifies the conversation between Jesus and the disciples. He does not debate the man’s condition with them. He does not determine whether this poor beggar was worthy of his help. He does not pass the man by. Jesus takes action. He places his own hands on the man’s eyes. He breaks through the barriers that separate us from one another; that leave us shivering in the darkness of our own despair and misery. The beggar was no longer a thing, an object of pity or derision. He was a person; a beloved child of a good God who longs for the restoration of his creatures. Jesus touched him, and in touching him, he gave him light. If you need a short lesson in the meaning of the Christian religion: here it is. God has seen us in our misery and our hopelessness and enters into our darkened world to touch us and bring us into the light. Thanks to God in Jesus Christ, we can see. We can sing. We can work while it is light not fearing the darkness.

Mud and Genesis            Jesus also uses spittle to make the mud that he puts on the man’s eyes. The only other time in the gospels when Jesus used spittle was one time in Mark. This looked too much like ancient magical rites to the early church, and so the later gospels do not include this detail. Why would John make a point of Jesus making mud to anoint the blind man’s eyes? The other miracle stories in John show Jesus working through words alone.

It is possible, perhaps even likely, that this mention of mud was to remind the hearer of the story of creation. We’ve seen the close parallels between John and Genesis. The previous story ended with Jesus’ statement that he is the I Am who was before Abraham. Immediately after we have a story in which Jesus makes mud as God did in creating Adam in order to restore creation. The one born blind is re-created into a whole human being. Add to that the significance that this miracle involves bringing light to one who was in darkness and the parallel to Genesis is complete.

Baptism            And then Jesus tells the man to wash in the sacred pool of Siloam where the rabbis drew the waters for the festival of Tabernacles. It is appropriate that we are reading this text on Palm Sunday, which is a day for baptisms. Early Christians painted this scene many times on the walls of the catacombs in Rome. Most of those paintings are references to Christian baptism. In the 4th century, this passage was read at baptisms because the washing of the beggar gave him a new life. It is interesting that early theologians referred to baptism as illumination. I hope that during this 25 minutes, you have received illumination in your understanding of the Gospel of John and our Christian faith.

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