Updated: May 19, 2020
In John 9, we find another healing miracle - or 'sign', as the fourth gospel writer prefers to call them - and in many ways it is much like the healing at the pool of Bethesda from John 5:
Again, Jesus heals on the Sabbath. Perhaps it’s starting to look like he only heals on the Sabbath, but I think it is more that it is especially worth noting when he heals on that holy day. It is a reminder that the Sabbath was always meant to be for our good, not a legalistic exercise. It is also worth noting that there had always been allowance for Sabbath laws to be broken for purpose of saving life, and so perhaps what we see here is that Jesus includes in that transforming life - he does not just want to keep us alive but give us the abundant life he speaks of elsewhere in the gospel. And the Sabbath may remember that God rested at the end of his work of creation, but God does not abandon that creation one day out of seven - Jesus says that his Father works so he does too, another display of his oneness with the Father.
Again Jesus enacts a claim made in the previous chapter. In chapter four, Jesus talked of living water; then in chapter five, he fulfilled the role of living water by taking on the role of healing thought to have been done by the pool. And in chapter eight, he said he was the light of the world; then here in chapter nine, he brings light into a man’s darkness. There are lots of cliches we could fall back on here - "actions speak louder than words", "talk the talk then walk the walk", "say what you mean and mean what you say", "deeds not words", "faith without works is dead" - but the point is that Jesus sets for us a pattern of words and deeds in harmony. There is an integrity to Jesus that we too are called to model.
Again Jesus uses an unusual method of healing. Last time, he ignored the healing pool was stood right next to and just used words; this time, he smears mud made from spit on the man’s eyes then tells him to wash. I don't know much about first century Middle Eastern medicine, but it seems unlikely to have been a prescribed remedy for sight loss. It's another cliche to say that God moves in mysterious ways, but over and again we do see and hear unexpected things from Jesus. He gets angry and turns over tables, he has clandestine meetings with religious leaders and forbidden conversations with strange women, he hosts impromptu picnics... These things perhaps don’t surprise us because they are the stories we have always heard, but we should be prepared to be surprised by Jesus, and for following him to lead us into surprising places.
And again Jesus challenges the wider culture. The healing of the man at the pool implicitly challenged the culture which had abandoned him for thirty eight years; here Jesus’ words to his disciples explicitly challenge the culture that blamed man or his parents for his blindness. There is a theme of judgement, or rather Jesus' non-judgement, throughout the fourth gospel - see for example 3:17 (“for God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him”), 8:15 (“I pass judgement on no one”) and 12:47 (“if anyone hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge that person, for I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world”). The men in these stories had been judged as worthless or sinful, but they were the judgements of society, not Jesus and not God. Jesus saw the man at the pool as worthy of his attention and care, and the man born blind as one who revealed God.
That brings us to consider the meaning of Jesus' declaration that the man was born blind so that “the works of God will be displayed in him”. On the back of that, it is easy to see man as a prop in this story, especially as Jesus doesn’t ask him if he wants to be made well, he just gets on and heals him. Perhaps he got a bit carried away, or perhaps the gospel writer has abridged the story and taken that conversation for granted, but there is something quite intimate about the nature of this healing which suggests Jesus did really engage with the man. He didn’t just waft a hand in his direction and carry on with his day, having proved his point.
And as the story goes on, the man proves himself to be far more than a prop, declaring Jesus to be a prophet from God in the presence of the Pharisees. Jesus has spent the past two chapters insisting that he does not testify on his own, and now he has someone testifying for him. The fourth gospel develops something like a trial motif which begins long before Jesus' arrest, and so in a sense the man is now an active part of the drama that leads to the cross. I also love the way the man becomes teacher to the teachers, challenging their lack of understanding. It's a reminder that we all have something to pass on.
In fact, the man gets quite strident with the Pharisees, and he is repaid by being thrown out. We are not told exactly what that means, but given that we are told that his parents are afraid because those who confess Christ are to be thrown out of the synagogue, presumably this is just what happened. One theory is that the Johannine writings, including the fourth gospel, were produced by a community that had been thrown out of synagogues because of their faith in Christ, so this man is possibly one of it's earliest members. It's a bit of an extrapolation, but it's not unreasonable to imagine that this encounter sets the man on entirely different path, not only because he now has sight but also because he now follows Christ.
I want to end by considering some of the difficulties with the language around sight and blindness in this passage. When we looked at the healing at the pool of Bethesda, I expressed concern that the way we focus on healing can lead to unhelpful ideas and assumptions about disability, and some of those concerns reemerge here. The story begins with Jesus healing physical blindness and ends with him criticising the teachers of the law for their spiritual blindness, and so those literal and metaphorical meanings get tied together.
The theologian John Hull writes of the pain of having his every day experience of blindness equated with sin and darkness, and of his struggle to imagine blind disciples of Jesus, as the rhetoric around sight is so strong in the gospels that their blindness would have seemed an affront to his power. And Nancy Eiesland, a theologian born with a congenital bone defect, argued that language equating physical wholeness with spiritual wholeness is not merely exclusionary, but suggests that broken bodies impede a person’s spiritual insight and understanding. I don't think that is to say that Jesus would have intentionally excluded someone on grounds of disability, and it is certainly not to say that God would reject anybody because of their physical condition, but to recognise that there are difficulties in these stories and the way they are told and interpreted.
Jesus healed the man’s sight but he must have already had the capacity to understand and the willingness to believe even when he was blind - it is a key part of the passage that his physical blindness did not render him ignorant anymore than the Pharisees’ literal sight made them enlightened. This passage and others like it do not mean that blindness is a sign of sin or lack of faith or understanding, and it is also worth remembering other stories and images which break the connection between physical and spiritual wholeness, not least the wounded body of Christ in his post resurrection appearances, and his declaration that it would have been better if Thomas had believed without seeing.
Jesus is dealing in metaphors when he speaks to the Pharisees, and in many ways this is an effective one, but we have to face the discomfort such passages cause, especially when they are used unthinkingly. The language we use can foster unintended ideas and have unintended consequences, and we all have emotional as well as rational reactions - I can know that something does not mean to offend and still be stung by it, and part of our duty to one another is to reduce those stings. We need to recognise and take seriously entirely different experiences of the world - it might be helpful for us to equate sight with understanding if we can see and our understanding therefore comes by sight, but how much better if we could find new language that is meaningful for all? And how much richer might our faith be if we learnt from others and expanded our range of metaphors and practices?
For example, we may soon find in our current health crisis that we have much to learn from those have explored online and dispersed forms of church, because gathering is made difficult by their disabilities. And I suspect we will also find that we shouldn't have waited until a crisis to learn those lessons.