Today we hear the third of four stories from the gospel of John in this season of Lent. So far we have encountered Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman. Next week we will meet Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus. Each of the stories explores in detail the relationship between Jesus and these other people; each also offers a wealth of material for our reflection on who Jesus Christ is and how we might enter into deeper relationship with him. These texts are long and complex and it’s impossible to examine in detail the many themes on which they touch.
With the gospel of John, it’s often the case that some of the language or action is so dramatic that it may be off-putting. That’s certainly the case here, in the question that begins the drama. The disciples asked, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
On the surface, this question seems to be the product of a benighted worldview, one that links physical disease and malady to moral failing and Jesus’ response to the question hardly reassures us. While he rejected the disciples’ premise, his reply that the man’s was born blind so that he might be the opportunity for a demonstration of God’s power seems no less callous to us, offering a picture of a capricious and sadistic God.
But let us set aside our discomfort with the first verses and explore in greater depth the drama of this healing story.
Irony abounds in this tale, especially if we remember those large themes of John’s gospel; the invitation to “come and see” offered by Jesus to his first would-be disciples in chapter 1, and as we saw last week, the same invitation made by the Samaritan woman to her fellow townspeople. In our story today, the man born blind from birth comes to see—a physical miracle, as John calls them, “signs.” But it’s not clear that he “sees” Jesus, at least not in their initial encounter.
What’s remarkable in the first few verses is how passive the blind man is. We are not told that he is sitting by the side of the road, begging. We are not told that he asks Jesus to heal him (we’re not told if he even knows who Jesus is at this point). Instead, he really is what Jesus says he is, a mute prop in a demonstration of Jesus’ power. The disciples meant him to be the occasion for a conversation about the meaning and purpose of suffering. Jesus exploits him for other purposes. The gospel writer lingers here, drawing out the narrative of the healing, showing it in all of its earthiness. Having given the blind man sight, neither Jesus nor his disciples seem interested in the man. They continue on their way, leaving him to fend with the aftermath of the healing by himself. It’s not even clear that either the disciples or Jesus know that the healing occurred.
There is only one moment in these first few verses that we see the blind man’s own agency, and it is deeply significant. After rubbing the mud on his eyes, Jesus’ tells him to go wash himself in the pool of Siloam. Unquestioningly, the blind man does so, and suddenly he is able to see. He has heard the voice of Jesus, and responded to it. And he experiences the healing waters, the living water, if you will, that Jesus is offering.
The man goes home and and what a mess he finds himself in! His neighbors confronted him. They aren’t quite sure what to make of him now that he can see. They’re not even sure whether it’s the same man. He insists he is the same man, and that Jesus put mud in his eyes and told him to wash in the pool of Siloam.
His neighbors bring him to the Pharisees—we’re not given a reason fr this. Are they just wanting to cause trouble? Do they want to show off the miraculous healing? Now we learn another detail—it was the Sabbath when all this happened, so that’s a problem. Jesus’ actions in making mud and smearing it on the man could have been construed as illegal activity, although the rabbis made provision for medical care and other emergencies.
Another dynamic begins to emerge here: a debate about the identity of Jesus. It began, or was foreshadowed, in the initial response of the man born blind to his neighbors, when he said, “The man called Jesus took mud.” Now, the Pharisees debate Jesus’ identity and finally ask the seeing man, “Who do you think he is?” Having listened to the Pharisees’ discussion, the man makes another move, saying, “He is a prophet.”
It’s a similar dynamic to the one in the story of the Samaritan woman. In the course of her conversation with Jesus, she calls him, teacher, then prophet, then wonders whether he might be the Messiah. The same thing happens here. First the blind man calls Jesus a man, then a prophet, then declares Jesus must be from God. The difference here is that these progressive and deepening understandings of Jesus’ identity come not through an encounter with Jesus, but through the man’s encounter with and conversation with the Pharisees. Their opposition leads him deeper. Their opposition brings him to an awareness of who Jesus is.
Finally, after he has been abandoned by family and friends, ostracized from his community (having been excommunicated from the synagogue), finally, Jesus returns to him. Having heard Jesus earlier and obeyed him, the man now sees him as well. But there’s one more element in the story that comes out in this last episode. The man had confessed that Jesus came from God when pressed by the Pharisees, but he still didn’t know the significance of that statement he had made, except that it had cut him off from his religious community. Now, when he sees and hears Jesus again, he comes to know Jesus intimately, saying, “Lord, I believe,” and falling down, he worshiped him.
We could focus on the miracle, the sign, the healing. We could focus on the conflict with the Pharisees. But I think our attention should be directed at this little drama of conversion and relationship. In many ways, the man born blind’s experience is very much like so many of our lives. We have an “aha” moment, an epiphany, a conversion. We experience a radical change, a new way of seeing the world. Our eyes may be opened.
But the world we live in really hasn’t changed, and the people around us are the same as they’ve ever been. And life goes on. Sometimes we struggle with questions and conflicts. Sometimes we may feel abandoned and alone and the joy of our earlier experience has become bitter. We may even think Jesus has abandoned us.
And so, we sit all alone by ourselves, struggling to make sense of the world in which we find ourselves, struggling to make our way in it. Jesus may come to us then, with words of comfort and consolation. Jesus may come to us, reminding us of what we saw, what we knew, reminding us of who he is. And in that moment, that new encounter, our relationship with him enters a deeper place, where we can rest in him, know him, and be known by him.
Listen for the voice of Jesus amidst the noise of the world and the noise of our minds. Listen for the voice of Jesus as he calls us by name and invites us into deeper relationship. Hear his voice and open ourselves to his loving presence. In these last days of Lent, as we come nearer to the cross and Golgotha, may we hear his voice and know him more deeply.