Lent IV – “Of things invisible to mortal sight”

John 9:1-41

So much the rather thou, celestial Light,                                                                                   Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers                                                         Irradiate, there plant eyes, all mist from thence                                                                      Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell                                                                                     Of things invisible to mortal sight.                                                                                                                                                               John Milton

In chapter 8 Jesus revealed himself as light. “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” 8:12. John is again using Gnostic ideas, light and darkness, death and life, to present Jesus as the one who was sent as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The world, which is a part of “all things,” belongs to him. “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life; the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” 1:3-5. He has come to save what he created in the beginning. The essential ideas of John’s theological anthropology were laid out in the Prologue. In everything that follows throughout the Gospel, the human being is disclosed as to its nature, which is darkness, unbelief, and how this was the occasion for the descent of the Son into flesh. He must enter the dominion of unbelief, the existence of the human in its myriad manifestations, to redeem it. The divine must become other than itself to accomplish all things “for us and for our salvation.” The human being is the Otherness of the divine. The blind man who lives in darkness is a metaphor for “world,” the antagonist of light. In chapter 9 John shows how the Logos continues to create “the life which is the light of all people.”

The miracle of restoring sight to the man who was born blind recalls another such story in the gospel of Mark. There are significant parallels also to the miracle of healing in John 5. In John 9, the miracle initiates a series of dialogues that John uses to reveal the Logos as it continues to vanquish darkness, which is sin and death, and to bring life where life was not. This miracle is an essential part of John’s theological anthropology. The Evangelist Matthew says, “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness.” Mt. 6:22-23. This is an example of how the Synoptic gospels understand anthropology. Blindness, which is the same as darkness, is the content of unbelief or sin. In John, the question as to whose sin caused the man’s blindness points to a more ancient anthropology. “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents.” Ex. 20:5. Illness and disease were not merely somatic disturbances; they were punishment for sin. Jesus rejects this ancient anthropology. The man’s blindness is not the result of sin. For John, sin is unbelief. 8:24; 16: 8-11. It is the rejection of the light, antagonism towards life, for “people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.”

Jesus does not speak of the origin of this man’s blindness, but of its purpose, “he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” 9:3. What John means by “God’s works” is seen at the Marriage at Cana where Jesus “revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” The same idea occurs again in the illness of Lazarus. “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” 11:4. God’s works are events and signs that reveal the glory of God. John is even more precise than this. “The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.” 14:10. The work of God is identical to the word of Jesus. In the preaching of Jesus the work of God is accomplished. Miracles as signs are also to be seen as the word of Jesus, for through the signs Jesus declares that the Father has sent him with this message. Simon Peter’s answer to Jesus is significant. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” 6:68-69.

An exegesis of verses 4-5 is almost impossible. These verses do not make any sense in this context, and may have been added by a later redactor. They interrupt the flow between 3 and 6. The “we” very early presented much difficulty and many early manuscripts have “I”. It is also difficult to understand who belongs to the “we.” It certainly cannot mean the Father and Jesus, inspite of 5:17. It cannot mean the disciples, for Jesus alone is doing “the work of him who sent me.”  The “we” is not consistent with the “me.”  The original reading certainly would have been “I.” Furthermore, the verse describes the work of Jesus as temporary, “while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.” A further constraint is seen in “As long as I am in the world.” Day and night may symbolize light and darkness. This would be incongruent with “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” 1:5. Does the Son of God who descended as the light, cease to be the light of the world when he ascends again? These are difficult issues that need to be sorted out with a more rigorous exegesis than I can offer.

Verses 6-7 present the healing of the blind man and verses 8-13 the consequences. This is not unlike the miracle reported in Mark 8:23. The miracle consists of action (anointing the eyes with mud) and word, “Go and wash in the pool of Siloam.” I am reminded of the healing of the ten lepers in Luke. Jesus said, “Go and show yourselves to the priest, and as they went they were healed.” Luke 17:14. See also the healing of Naaman the Syrian in II Kings 5. There appears to be a play on the word “sent.” Jesus has been “sent” by the Father; the meaning of Siloam is “sent.”  I have pointed out in the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman that the sending of the disciples, the church, is established on the foundation of the sending of the Son. Sending is active apostleship. The blind man is sent to a pool called “sent.” Jesus is also “living water” that can give life. The blind man receives his sight when he washes in the pool of Siloam. Sight is light, and light is life. Is this a result of “water and the word?” In receiving his sight, the blind man now lives in the light, which is the definition of new life. In John’s anthropology, the Logos brings with itself the Beginning, and pours it into the Now. Creation is now the active process of redemption. Eschatology no longer hails the present from a distant future. Eschatology no longer inhabits a future horizon, the joining of heaven and earth, above and below. Eschatology is drawn into the present, and the horizon is the place where Jesus stands. In him the new has dawned as if for the first time. In Jesus, the End is the Beginning returning to itself as the New Creation.

In this gospel there are many modes of seeing. There is normal sight that perceives things in the natural world where darkness prevails in spite of sunlight. There is also the vision that pierces the darkness and perceives Jesus as the Holy One of God. 6:69. The man who is healed says “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 9:25. However, his restoration is not yet complete. He can see, but he does not yet understand.  Later, in 35-38 Jesus will reveal himself as the Son of Man, and the healed man will say, “Lord, I believe.” The Son of Man is present; the eschatological moment has arrived. The ground for faith has been prepared. This is a movement from seeing to vision. In John, this kind of sight is nothing other than faith.

This extraordinary event caused some consternation among the people who had known the blind man all his life. It was a unique event. As he said later, “Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind.” 9:32. People could not believe their own eyes. They questioned him intently, the consequence of which is first, that he had to identify himself. The healing has made him into something that he was not. Just as the Logos in assuming flesh became other than it was, so the blind man is now other than he was, and he has to define himself with this new understanding. Secondly, the blind man having received the gift of sight now testifies to Jesus. He speaks openly of Jesus, like Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman. He speaks openly not only to his neighbors, but also to the religious authorities, the Pharisees, telling them that Jesus “is a prophet.” 9:17.

It is not clear who the “they” is who brought him to the Pharisees in 9:13-17.  It is likely the neighbors. The action in this section shifts to Jesus. Who is he? What did he do? Why did he do it on the Sabbath? The religious authorities view Jesus as a sinner because he broke the Sabbath laws. Others challenged this view and nothing was settled until the witness said, “He is a prophet.” This still does not convince the authorities. They did not believe that he was the man who was born blind. In verse 13 it is the Pharisees who carry on the interrogation of the man; in verse 18, it is the Jews who interrogate the parents. This change of terminology does not affect the internal meaning of the episode, which is that the unbelieving world cannot “see” the work of the Messiah. When the parents are interrogated in 9:18-23, they affirm ((a) that this is indeed their son who was born blind; (b) they do not know how he now sees or who caused him to see. They referred the interrogators to their son who can speak for himself because he is of age. The parents are portrayed as acting in their own interest because they did not want to be cast out of the synagogue. The identity of the man has been established, but the problem of the miracle that breaks the Sabbath laws is still unresolved.

The Pharisees may be commended for their persistence. Having failed with his parents, they now summoned their son a second time to be interrogated. They demand, “Give glory to God.” Perhaps this was a way of shaming the man into changing his testimony. In effect they are saying to him, “Tell the truth. We know that this man is a sinner.” What they “know” is refuted by what he “knows.” He says, “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”  The knowledge that the authorities possess is still knowledge in the dominion of darkness. Their eyes belong to the world of sarx, they cannot perceive the domain of pneuma. They are the world that does not receive the Son, therefore they cannot “know” the Son. They would need of knowledge is faith.

There is considerable debate in which the man holds firmly to his testimony. The Pharisees emphasize their authority and their certainty on the basis of tradition. They are disciples of Moses. They know that God spoke to Moses. Like the Samaritan woman, their tradition is the ultimate judge of the rightness of their position. The man reminded them of the “astonishing” fact of the miracle which he believes to be enough proof that God has granted Jesus the power to perform miracles. The Pharisees insist that they “do not know where he is from.” The man answers, “If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” Behind this debate John is pointing out that in the eschatological moment, in this time when the new creation is coming into being, the Son does arrive with a sword that brings division. Two perspectives, the flesh and the spirit, are struggling for vindication. Two types of humanity, those who belong to darkness and those who belong to the light, are involved in the travail that will bring to birth the new creation. In the presence of the redeemer, one must choose.

The Pharisees will not concede their position. Their anger at the man emerges. “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” All along they were denying this man who is healed could not have been the man born blind, because that man’s blindness disclosed that he was born in sin. Now, in their anger, they announce that he was born entirely in sins. They finally acknowledge that he is, indeed, the man born blind. And this immediately makes the miracle a greater problem for them. Where does Jesus get the power to heal the blind? They cannot see that this is the sign that the eschatological age has dawned in the person of the Son. In Matthew 11:4-6, Jesus sends word to John in prison. “Go and tell John what you hear and see:

The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and to poor have the good news brought to them.” All that pertains to this world where  darkness reigns, is transcended. Jesus the divine horizon is the place where healing happens. He who has come with a sword is at the same time the one who has come to heal. The Pharisees remain unconvinced. “And they drove him out.” The man suffered the fate that his parents feared for themselves. 9:22. He was exiled from their world.

The next in the series of dialogues, 9:35-38, takes place between Jesus and the man. Jesus had heard that he was thrown out and he found him. Jesus asks, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” The man wants to know who that is, so that he may believe. It is then that Jesus reveals himself to him. “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.”  This is how Jesus revealed himself to the Samaritan woman. This is another way of saying that the eschatological moment is the present moment. Only time that has been transformed, sacralized, by the presence of the Son is capable of being redeeming time. The man can now say, “Lord, I believe.” Faith is immediately followed by worship. John has shown how this man emerged from the world of darkness into the light of the world. He may be a metaphor for the transformation of the world from flesh to spirit. Jesus completes the dialogue with a kind of summary statement. “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”9:39. The theme of judgment has already appeared from the Prologue onwards. The content of the judgment is that the present status of the human being is confronted and changed. Those who are blind now see, and those who have sight become blind. The same thought is reflected in Matthew 11:4-6. Jesus does not seem to be speaking to a particular group. The message that John wants to convey is that everyone exists in a state of blindness, that is, darkness, until confronted by the person and message of the redeemer.  “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and the people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” 3:19. Once confronted, everyone must make a decision for or against the redeemer. The choice is to live in darkness or to live in the light.

His statement about judgment was overheard by the Pharisees, and this introduces the last in the series of dialogues. (:40-41. They ask him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” They think because they can see with their eyes they are not blind. They do not understand that blindness is the condition under which all unredeemed humanity exists. Jesus tells them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now you say ‘we see’ your sin remains.”  Jesus reinforces the idea that sin is not the result of blindness. The Pharisees still do not understand this. They do not realize that all who live in this world live in the sphere of sin. They remain oblivious to sin, and in that oblivion, their insistence on their own sight, their sin remains. They continue to resist and oppose the Son of Man who is the light of the world. Consequently, they continue to abide in the darkness.

Blind Milton, Blind Teiresias, Blind Oedipus, all were able to see into the heart and soul of humanity. They refuse to be confined by their dramatic roles, as poet and characters. They rise from their written lines, transcending the absurdity of human existence, to offer an ever enlarging hope, an optimism born of tragedy, to a humanity at home in its own tragic destiny. They want to see and to tell us “Of things invisible to mortal sight.”

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