At face value, it is a pretty simple story: a man born blind is healed. But the more closely we read the story, the more complicated—and interesting!—it becomes.
Who is truly blind? And who can really see?
These are the questions we take up in the 9th chapter of John’s Gospel.
As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2His 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 neighbors 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.”
13They 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.” 18The 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 to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.” 24So 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.
35Jesus 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? 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, I believe.” And he worshiped him.
39Jesus 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.” 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.
Like I said: a seemingly simple story. Until we realize that John has some literary tricks up his sleeve. The name of this particular trick? Chiasmus. According to the internet, “Chiasmus is a rhetorical device in which two or more clauses are balanced against each other by the reversal of their structures in order to produce an artistic effect.”
Chiasmus can also serve to shape an entire narrative. In the case of John chapter 9, we have two intersecting stories: one a man who moves from blindness to sight to insight, and one of the Pharisees moving from lack of awareness into something like willful ignorance. If we think of the man born blind as ascending, and the Pharisees as descending, you can imagine the stories intersecting like an X.
Let’s walk through this in a little more detail.
INITIAL HEALING (v.1-7). The first seven verses of this text read like a pretty typical healing story. There is someone who is suffering and Jesus compassionate response, which results in healing. But John adds an unusual element: the question of responsibility. “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” The disciples seem to be stating the conventional wisdom of their day: suffering must be earned by sin. Somebody must be to blame. But Jesus rejects the premise of their question. No one sinned, he says. But this is an opportunity for God to get some glory.
And so he sees.
SEEING BUT NOT SEEING (v.8-12). In the next 4 verses, John starts playing with the idea of “sight” as a metaphor. The people who knew the man born blind do not accept the evidence of their own eyes, saying he cannot possibly be the same man who used to beg. For his part, the man born blind now has the ability to see, but he lacks insight into the identity of the one who healed him.
CONFRONTATION WITH THE PHARISEES (v.13-34). This longest section of the passage unfolds as a confrontation between the man born blind, his parents, and the Pharisees. And as they speak, the pairing of their journeys becomes more evident.
Scholars speculate that this passage reflects a time, perhaps late in the 1st or early in the 2nd century, when Jewish Christians were being expelled from their synagogues for believing in Jesus. There is a heightened sense of drama here –his healing could cost him and his family their place in community.
But a funny thing happens as they argue: the man born blind and the Pharisees harden in their positions. By the end of this encounter, the man born blind seems to have inferred faith in Jesus from his own experience of healing; he has begun to believe: If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” But the Pharisees, for their part, have dropped any pretense of objective investigation. They have come to despise Jesus openly.
WHO CAN REALLY SEE? (v.35-41). So the last part of the passage—the coda—feels like a fait accompli. The man born blind confesses faith in Jesus and worships him. This is one of the most faithful responses that anyone anywhere in John’s Gospel has toward Jesus. But the Pharisees, for their part, are confirmed in their unbelief.
There is so much in this story! Let me offer a couple of quick thoughts.
THEODICY. It isn’t central to the story, but that bit at the beginning (“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”) really grabs me. It expresses a belief that so many of us share: things happen for a reason. People are to blame for their own suffering. This belief is so widespread that it takes both religious and secular forms.
I could go on about it, but your time would be better spent reading Kate Bowler’s thoughts on all of this.
EXPERIENCE. I love the way that the man born blind theologizes out of his own experience. What do I mean by that? He knows he has been healed, and from this fact he goes on to infer that Jesus is a healer and comes from God. And he is not dissuaded, even when his theology draws a rebuke from the elite theologians.
In churches like Plymouth, we have tended to privilege the experience of straight white men and ignored all others. The story of the man bon blind suggests we would do better to encourage all people to own their experiences and theologize boldly from them, especially—especially!—when that experience differs sharply from mine.
WHO IS WHO? I believe every preacher should have to read Mark Allan Powell’s What Do They Hear? Bridging the Gap Between Pulpit and Pew. It is a very accessible introduction to something called reader-response criticism. He focuses, in particular, on “empathy choices.” When I read this story, with which character do I identify? And how does that shape my experience of the story?
(Powell contends that many sermons fail because preachers tend to identify with Jesus and congregations do not).
In the history of the interpretation of this text, Christian readers have been quick to identify the Pharisees as stand-ins for the whole of the Jewish people or for “nonbelievers” generally. This leads to predictable sermons about how much better we are than “those people.”
But a better reading might begin with this insight: I am among the religious elite. (I mean, I graduated from this place). If I am anybody in this story, I am one of the Pharisees.
That should give me pause.
BELIEF IS A CHOICE. John 9 reminds me of a line from Upton Sinclair “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” None of us reasons with complete objectivity or disinterest. We are motivated to believe some things and disbelieve other things.
But in the light of Christ, we are invited to examine ourselves, inquire into our own blind spots and seek to see more clearly.
And the good news—the really good news—is this: in the presence of Jesus Christ, all of us can start to see.
See you (get it?) in church!