by Brian Stoffregen
Gospel: St. John 9:1-41
The outline suggested by Brown (John, Anchor Bible):
As a sign that he is the light, Jesus gives sight to a man born blind (9:1-41)
A. Setting (9:1-5)
B. Miraculous healing (9:6-7) -- [quite a short section]
C. Interrogations of the blind man (9:8-34) -- [quite a long section]
1. Questioning by neighbors and acquaintances (9:8-12)
2. Preliminary interrogation by Pharisees (9:13-17)
3. Man's parents questioned by the Jews (9:18-23)
4. Second interrogation of the man by the Jews (9:24-34)
D. Jesus leads the blind man to that spiritual sight which is faith (9:35-41)
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.) Just as a miraculous feeding of thousands with bread and fish illustrates that Jesus is the bread of life (6:1-14, 35-65); so now he illustrates that he is the light of the world by giving sight to a man in darkness.
The miracle itself is reported in only two verses. The majority of this text centers on the interrogations.
As with most texts of John, there can be a literal level -- the healing of a blind man; and a figurative level -- blindness = not understanding or being open to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Certainly a figurative meaning is meant at the end of v. 39: "those seeing might become blind." I'm not sure that I would care much for a God who would literally cause sighted people to become blind. But those who think they "know-it-all" are often not open to learn or experience something new. (Note how often the Pharisees "know" what is right vs. the "I don't know," from the blind man and others.)
HEALING THE BLIND
It has been suggested that the origins of denominations occurred when the healed blind men met each other. At first they were all excited about the miracle of sight that Jesus had given them, but as they talked about how Jesus had healed them, they began to discover some significant differences. For some, the healing came with simply a touch from Jesus (Mt 9:29; 20:34). Another proudly boasted that he had enough faith so that Jesus didn't have to touch him to perform the miracle (Mk 10:52). Another meekly exclaimed that Jesus not only touched him twice, but also "spit on his eyes" in order for him to see clearly (Mk 8:23). The final one really felt embarrassed to admit that even though a touch wasn't part of his healing, Jesus' "spit" wasn't enough. Jesus had mixed his saliva with dirt and put the mud on his eyes and then told him to go and wash in some pool of water (Jn 9:6-7). Since each one thought his healing was normal and better than the others, they divided into spittites and non-spittites; muddites and non-muddites; touchites and non-touchites. Denominationalism was born.
If nothing else this little description illustrates the different methods reported about the ways Jesus healed the blind. The healing in John is unique with its use of mud or clay (pelos) made from spittle and the command to wash in the pool of Siloam.
What is meant by these unique additions to this story?
HEALING WITH SPIT AND DIRT
The mixing of spit and dirt occurs only in this story. It probably was deliberate to evoke the ire and blindness of the Pharisees. Kneading was one of the 39 forbidden tasks on the sabbath [see O'Day, John, NIB, p. 654]. In addition, since the man had been blind from birth, what difference would one day make. Couldn't Jesus have postponed the healing for a few hours? The fact that Jesus and performed such work on the sabbath led the Pharisees to conclude that he could not have come from God (v. 16) and that he was a sinner (v. 24) -- at least according to their learned understanding of the Law. God certainly wouldn't listen to such a sinful, law-breaking person, but others argued that would a sinner be able to do such things (v. 16 -- note that in Mt 24:24 & Mk 13:22 false christs and false prophets will perform great signs). The formerly blind man simply counters these arguments with his personal experience, "I don't know if he is a sinner. One thing I know: though I was blind, now I see" (v. 25).
What do we do when theology conflicts with experience? The theology of some may believe that God heals the faithful, but their experience may not include divine healing -- even after a multitude of prayers. The theology of others may believe that miraculous healings were things of the past (if they ever really happened), but they may experience unexplainable healings for themselves or for others. Perhaps less dramatic, but more common are those Lutherans, baptized as infants, who have a life-changing, "born-again" experience with God in their lives, who discount the importance of their sacramental baptism. People's experiences with the "charismatic movement" brought great challenges to the theology of many mainline congregations. Many of our Lutheran members don't feel the need for weekly communion -- they are already filled with the Spirit, but my theology and that of many others, says that they should want to receive God's grace in this tangible way as often as possible. There needs to be the attempt to explain experiences in good theological language -- and theological language should reflect our experiences with almighty God.
However, regardless of what words we use, what most people respond to is what affects their own lives. For the blind man, the one thing he knew is that he could now see. For the hungry and thirsty, the one thing they will know is if they receive food and drink. They won't care who brings it or even what motivates their actions. We should ask, "What will 'speak' loudest to the needy people in our community?" If we were to ask: "What is the one thing you know about our congregation?" what would our members say? What would non-members say?
The blind man sees, but it will take a little time and effort for him to more fully understand and verbalize what God had done for him. I've used similar statements in regards to infant baptism. God is doing something for the child, but it will take time and effort and the work of parents, sponsors, and the congregation for the child to understand and verbalize what God has done in the sacrament.
WASHING IN THE POOL OF SILOAM
Since I'm on the topic of baptism, we'll explore some possible connection with washing in the pool of Siloam and the sacrament. The man has been blind since birth. We are sinners from birth. epichrio ("spread on" in vv. 6 & 11 -- its only NT uses) literally means "to anoint" (chrio) + "on" (epi). (chrio forms the basis for words as "christ," "chrisms," "christening," -- it seems to refer to Jesus' baptism in Ac 4:27 & 10:38; and possibly our baptisms in 2C 1:21 and in 1J 2:20 & 27 where the noun chrisma is used.)
The act of washing for healing is reminiscent of Naaman's healing in 2K 5:10-14. Elisha tells him to go and wash seven times in the Jordan. The LXX uses louo = "to wash" (often in terms of the entire body) in vv. 10, 12, & 13, and baptizo = "to dip, immerse, wash" in v. 14. The word used in our text is nipto = "to wash" (often in terms of a part of the body, eyes in our text: vv. 7, 11, 11, and feet in John 13: 5, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14).
John tells us that "Siloam" means "Sent." (apestalmenos = perf. pass. part. = "the one having been sent"). The significance of this name is two-fold. First of all, throughout this gospel Jesus is referred to as the one whom God has sent (51 times). It is not the mud and the spit or the water the cures the blind man. It is the "One who has been sent" -- namely Jesus. Similarly, it is not water that makes baptism important, but the fact that Jesus, himself, is present in, with, and under the water. Secondly, as Jesus was sent as the Word to reveal the Father, so the blind man will seek to reveal Jesus to the Pharisees. Throughout John, a type of mediator is frequently needed for others to come to Jesus: Andrew brings Peter, Philip brings Nathanael, the blind man seeks to bring the Pharisees. Some are successful, others are not.
Words for "sin" occur often in our text: hamartano = "to sin" (9:2, 3; elsewhere in John: 5:14 & 8:11); hamartia = "sin" (9:34, 41); hamartolos = "sinner" (9:16, 24, 25, 31 -- all the occurrences in John)
In a number of ways, Jesus challenges the common perception of sin. First of all, he challenges the thinking that suffering was the direct result of sin. (a) Based on Ex 20:5 // Dt 5:9 where God promises to punish "children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation" -- a birth defect must have been the result of parent's (or grandparent's) sin. (b) Based on Ezekiel 18:20: "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" -- a birth defect must have been the result of sins committed in the womb by the child. These seem to have been the two views present in Jesus' day. Jesus says that it is neither (v. 3; although 5:14 seems to suggest that sin and suffering are connected). Neither can it be assumed that because the Pharisees are healthy and don't need glasses, that they are sinless.
Secondly, he challenges the thinking that sinfulness is directly related to obeying the sabbath laws. Jesus does what is expressly forbidden -- kneading; yet we know he is not a sinner. Neither can it be assumed that because the Pharisees perfectly obey the sabbath laws (as Paul did) that they are sinless.
Thirdly, he challenges the thinking that neither God nor the righteous (Pharisees) should listen to sinners (v. 34). Certainly God listened to the supposedly sinner Jesus and the Pharisees should have listened to the formerly blind man. Neither can we assume that because the Pharisees (or clergy!) appear to be righteous, that God listens to them more than to sinners or that they speak for God any more than sinners can speak for God.
Sin is not primarily the presence of illness in a person. Sin is not primarily violations of the law. Sin is primarily resisting Jesus [see O'Day, John, NIB, pp. 661, 664]. Like the Pharisees who think they already know/see it all, they are not open to the revelations of God in Jesus nor the teaching that they could have received from the formerly blind man. I had a professor suggest that if we really want to see God at work, we needed to go out and find the sinners. Might it also be true that if we want to hear God speaking, we need to listen to the sinners?
Lutherans tend to be educated believers. Most of what we know is good. We have learned many good things about God and Christ and the church. The Pharisees also thought that their religious learning and actions were the very best possible. "We've always kept the sabbath this way." For them and for us, this good knowledge or good obedience can become a new god. (We never make gods of things we think are bad.) Jesus kneads mud and heals on the sabbath to expose and destroy such false gods as trusting in our obedience of the sabbath laws. By his actions, Jesus says, "I am ruining these laws. I am destroying the false security you place in your obedience. I am replacing it with myself. You can either trust your obedience or me; but not both." More specifically in vv. 28-29 one has to choose between Moses or Jesus -- between trusting obedience to the law or Jesus' offer of divine grace. Somewhere I read this quote: "Stop acting so good and start being a Christian." Could that apply to the Pharisees in Jesus' day? Could it apply to some people today?
I wrote a few weeks ago that in John, the calling of disciples was a calling away from one belief to another belief. The first disciples had to stop following John the Baptist to be able to follow Jesus. That theme of giving up one belief in order to believe in something better is also part of this text. I think that it is always a part of our lives as we continually grow in the faith -- making the movement from faith to faith; from old, inadequate beliefs to new beliefs based on new insights given by God through his Word and experiences.
O'Day (John, NIB) writes: "Sight and blindness are not defined by one's physical sight, but by one's openness to the revelation of God in Jesus" [p. 661].
While I believe that, I have also lived among Mormons, for whom the continuing revelation of God in Jesus is at the heart of their beliefs. We need to be open to new revelations from God in Jesus, but I believe that we are also bound by the truths already revealed in scriptures and summarized in our creeds. It might be better stated that we need to be open to new interpretations of scriptures that God might give us. In our text there was the interpretation that kneading on the sabbath was forbidden by God. Jesus "breaks" that law to reveal something more important about doing the works of God.
THE IMPORTANCE OF TELLING OUR FAITH STORIES
By telling his story over and over again in this text, the blind man doesn't seem to convert anyone -- in fact he seems to have made the Pharisees somewhat angry; but he learns much about his faith through his witness to the doubting questioners. When he first talks to the Pharisees, he says that "a man named Jesus" healed him (v. 11). Later he calls him "a prophet" (v. 17). Finally he realizes that Jesus cannot be a sinner (v. 31) and that he has come from God (v. 33). A theme throughout the Gospel is "where is Jesus from." The faithful recognized that he has come from God. Then Jesus takes him another step by helping him understand and confess that Jesus is the Son of Man, whom he then worships (vv. 35-38).
Note also that the formerly blind man extends an invitation: "Do you want to become his disciples?" (v. 27), which has a less than polite response. For the sake of the future of the church, I think we are going to have to learn how to extend the invitation to outsiders asking them if they want become Jesus' disciples -- and be willing to face the possible rejection that can come from that invitation.
Perhaps the most beneficial thing that happens when we share our faith story is the growth that happens within us. That was true for me many years ago when I had to write out my faith story while at the Lutheran Bible Institute in Seattle. I don't know if sharing that story "converted" anyone; but it caused a great deal of growth in me. At a previous congregation, I had council members write out their faith stories, which were shared with each other, and then, with permission, published in our newsletter. At the beginning, they all thought that it would be easy -- until they sat down to put their experiences with God into words. Everyone said that it was harder and took longer than they thought it would, but they were glad they did it. Probably the real benefit of the "missions" that Mormon youth go on, or the "door-knocking evangelism" of the Jehovah Witnesses is the growth of understanding and commitment it causes in the witnesses -- regardless of the effect it may have on any one else. I heard that one Mormon bishop exclaimed that their missionaries don't convert that many people, but very few of those who have been on a mission drop out of the church. Maybe we don't demand enough from our members.
In a discussion on last week's text, I noticed that right after the woman asks for the living water, Jesus tells her to go and invite and bring someone to him. Could witnessing and inviting and bringing people to Jesus be the way we receive living water? That idea is support by the fact that water that is still, e.g., keeping it for ourselves, is not living water. Living water has to be moving and flowing, e.g., through us to other people.
Maybe we've taken the wrong approach to evangelism. We need to evangelize, but not just for the sake of those others who need to hear the Gospel, but in order that our own faith may grow and flourish. I have found that this is especially true when I have had to deal with doubting, questioning audiences -- usually the group where I least want to share my thoughts and ideas and faith -- I discover that I am the one who is probably most changed in the encounter. It forces me to better understand what I believe and how I might more clearly communicate it with others.
A couple other comments about the formerly blind man's witnessing. He didn't have to initiate the conversations. There was such an obvious transformation from the "old" to the "new," that others asked, "What happened to you?" "How did it happen?" "Who did it?" The answers to "what" and "how" didn't change much, but, as I indicated above, his understanding of the "who" increased greatly and he repeatedly shared his story.
MOTIVATION FOR THE MIRACLE
A final comment about the motivation of the miracle. Jesus says in vv. 3-4a [my translation]: "Neither this one sinned nor his parents but that the works of God might be manifest in him. We must work the works of the one who sent me...." [Note that the NRSV adds the phrase: "he was born blind," and includes a footnote that the we is I in some ancient manuscripts.] What motivated the miracle was not the man's blindness, not his needs, not his prayers (he didn't even ask for the healing,) but the need to make God's work manifest. God's work may be manifested in divine healing; but it can also be manifested in living faithfully without healings or with handicapping conditions.
Different commentaries offer some suggestions about who the "we" are in 4a -- perhaps the disciples or all Christians -- and we are to be doing the works of God. However, could the "we" be the blind man and Jesus? For the works of God to be manifest, they need a willing receiver. The willing receiver also needs to recognize his/her dependency on the one whom God has sent.
If a healing miracle happens, it is a divine work that comes from Jesus and is received by faith. If a healing miracle doesn't happen, the strength and courage to live with the chronic condition is a divine work that comes from Jesus and is received by faith. When the time comes for all of us to face death, we can do that with the peace and confidence of the divine work of resurrection to eternal life through Jesus, which is received by faith. In sickness and in health, in living and in dying, we seek to make God's works manifest in our lives.
Blindness - Physical and Spiritual
by Edward F. Markquart, Seattle, WA
A Blind Man - A sermon Based on John 9:1- 41
by John Jewell
Seeing Again for the Very First Time
by John Jewell
The Work We Are Sent to Do
by The Rev. Dr. James Forbes, Jr., New York City
What the Christian Community Can Offer a Polarized Society
by V. Rev. Nathan D. Baxter, Dean, Washington National Cathedral
Sermons, Bible Commentaries and Bible Analyses for 6th Sunday in Great Lent (Samiyo/ The Blind Man)
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