The lectionary offers us stories, during Lent, of encounters that Jesus had with a range of people. We have already heard of his conversation with a Pharisee in Jerusalem and a woman beside a well in Samaria. This week, he is in Jerusalem, where one of the people he encounters is a man who was born blind (John 9:1–41).
Of course, each of these scenes is a narrative which has been shaped and formed by the author, more in the nature of a developed literary creation than a verbatim account of an historical event. It may be that each extended scene is based on a report of an encounter that took place decades before the Gospel was written, but most certainly it has been elaborated and developed over a period of time, worked into a narrative that catches attention, invites reflection, and has a life all of its own.
“John” wrote his Gospel some 50 to 80 years after the lifetime of Jesus. The account of each of these conversations—at night with Nicodemus, at noon with the woman, in Jerusalem with the authorities, and then the encounter in Bethany and the council meeting in Jerusalem—are thus far removed from each of these events. (And how could we possibly claim to know verbatim what was said in a Sanhedrin meeting in the early 30s CE? — especially since the High Priest articulates a central tenet of later Christian doctrine! ).
But removing certainty with regard to the historical accuracy of the encounter does not in any way impair the power of the story to connect with us as we read and hear it, many centuries later, in a very different context—we still have stories from the 1st century, valued and passed on and collected in scripture, that speak to our own journeys of faith development in the 21st century.
The scene—or rather, the series of scenes—that we are offers this coming Sunday occur within a context that has set up antagonism and tension in the relationship that Jesus has with the authorities in Jerusalem. In John’s narrative, he has set things off in an interesting way: violence in the courtyard of the Temple (2:13–22) is his first action in the capital city.
Then follows the secret meeting with Nicodemus, “a leader of the Jews” in which Jesus appears to accuse Nicodemus and his ilk of misunderstanding what Jesus teaches about “heavenly things” (3:11–12), and the public noontime meeting with a Samaritan woman by the well, in which he contests the northern penchant for worship “on this mountain” (4:19–24).
However, the antagonism in these encounters pales into insignificance when compared with what follows. After he has healed an official’s son in Galilee (4:46–54) and a man challenged by his poor mobility (5:2–9), Jesus enters into debate with “the Judeans”—most likely the scribal and priestly authorities in Jerusalem—which has already stirred them up, as “they were seeking all the more to kill him” (5:18).
For my views on why references to “the Jews” in this Gospel should be translated as “the Judean authorities”, see
Then a long session of exposition with his disciples by the lake in Galilee (6:22–71) sees not only Judeans stirred by his words (6:52), but his own disciples resistant (6:60) and some, indeed, leaving his company of followers (6:66). We don’t hear much, usually, about Jesus’ failures!!
After a debate about whether Jesus and his followers should go south to Jerusalem (7:1–9), Jesus went, “not publicly but as it were in secret” (7:10), engaging in yet more discussion with “the Judeans” (7:15–62), in the course of which, the accusation is shouted by the crowd, “you have a demon!” (7:20). That languages comes back in the subsequent scene, an extended section in which Jesus remains in Jerusalem (8:12–10:21).
The claim that Jesus makes, “I am the light of the world” (8:12), introduces a section where accusation and counter-accusation intensify. “You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires”, Jesus declares, continuing with the accusation that “he was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him” (8:44). In response, “the Judeans” ask, “are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” (8:48), and then “they picked up stones to throw at him” (8:59). Jesus escapes by leaving the temple.
This polemic continues in chapter 10, when many of “the Judeans” were saying, “He has a demon and is out of his mind. Why listen to him?” (10:20), whilst others were saying, “These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?” (10:21). The long scene ends with the narrator reporting, “they tried to arrest him again, but he escaped from their hands” (10:39).
The antagonism will continue, nevertheless, for after Jesus has moved to Bethany, encountered a grieving family, and raised Lazarus back to life (11:1–44), the Jewish authorities decide to make their move. Worried that, “if we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation” (11:48), Caiaphas leads with these prophetic words: “it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (11:50). And so, “from that day on they planned to put him to death” (11:53).
The extended narrative revolving around the man born blind, whom Jesus heals, and the associated controversy, is thus set at the heart of this extended sequence of conflict scenes. It is different, in character, from the earlier scenes of encounter, where the focus is on Jesus and the person with whom he is talking—Nicodemus, and the Samaritan woman in particular. This particular scene of encounter has quite a cast of characters—Jesus, his disciples, the blind man, his parents, the Pharisees, and a crowd of people in Jerusalem.
In fact, this encounter leads to a sequence that feels more like a dramatic portrayal of a court scenario, than a religious story. There are seven scenes in all. The first scene is narrated in the opening verses (9:1–7), telling of Jesus healing the man. The question from the disciples (9:2) allows Jesus to give an explanation about the purpose of “his work” (9:3–5) which culminates in a reprise of his earlier claim, “I am the light of the world” (9:5; see 8:12, as well as the initial reference at 1:5).
Jesus heals the man by forming mud with his own saliva (9:6)—something jarring to modern sensibilities, but a common practice amongst ancient miracle-workers and healers. For my reflections on the distinctive way that Jesus heals this blind man, see
The second scene involves the neighbours of the healed man debating with him about what has happened (9:8–12); “how were your eyes opened?”, they ask him (9:10), incredulous at the change that has taken place. This scene is something of “set-up”, to lead into the third scene, in which the complexities of the situation begin to be unravelled.
The third scene sees the healed man brought before the Pharisees (9:13–17); what ensues feels like it is setting up to be a cross-examination, since the healing took place on a sabbath (9:14) and thus the event comes under Torah prescriptions (cf. Mark 2:23–28; 3:1–6; Luke 13:10–17; 14:1–6; and John 7:19–24). In fact, the Pharisees accuse Jesus, “this man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath” (9:16), while the healed man, pressed hard, declares, “he is a prophet” (9:17).
A prophet: is the same affirmation made by the Samaritan woman (4:19), a crowd in Galilee after a miracle (6:14), and a crowd in Jerusalem (7:40)—and, by implication, perhaps some in the Sanhedrin, led by Nicodemus, say that also (7:52)?
Does the author want his hearers and readers to understand each of these affirmations in terms of the central one: “this is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world” (6:14), presumably along the lines of the earlier statement of Moses, “the Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet … I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command” (Deut 18:15, 18). Certainly, this is the text on the basis of which Samaritans were anticipating the return of Moses as their Taheb, their Restorer.
We resume the extended narrative of John 9 with the fourth scene, involving the parents of the man, whom the Pharisees summonses and proceed to question (9:18–23). They ask, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” (9:19). The key element in this scene is the narrative comment—reflecting the experience of the followers of Jesus many decades after the setting of this scene, in Jerusalem in the early 30s—that “the [Judean authorities] had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue” (9:22).
John’s Gospel indicates, three times, that followers of Jesus were expelled from the synagogue (9:22; 12:42; 16:1–2). That’s quite a schism! This indicates that the negative portrayals of people from years back may well have as much to do with what has transpired in those intervening years, as with the actual event—probably, I think, much more to do with those intervening years than with the conversations and encounters as reported in the book of signs.
The whole Gospel reflects a situation much developed from the time in which the story is set, when Jesus was a Galilean man preaching and teaching in Israel in the 30s CE. American scholar Raymond Brown developed a complex hypothesis about multiple stages of development of this Gospel, with the figure of the Beloved Disciple providing a focal point of leadership and identity—and perhaps also serving as the earliest source for the distinctive Johannine traditions?
Brown developed this hypothesis as he worked on a marvellous two-volume commentary on John’s Gospel (Anchor Bible, Yale Uni Press, 1966) and then published a clear analysis of this in his book The Community of the Beloved Disciple (Paulist Press, 1978).
Much had transpired in the decades between the time of Jesus and the finalisation of the Gospel—including an intensification of the antagonism between the followers of Jesus and the rabbinic leadership of Judaism. This antagonism is “written back” into the time of the story of Jesus through the verbal polemics that take place in chapters 5–12, between Jesus and the authorities in Jerusalem.
My own teacher, Wayne Meeks (in his classic article, “The Man from Heaven in Johannine Sectarianism”, JBL 91 (1972) 44–72), noted that the claims made about Jesus in the fourth Gospel function as reinforcements of the sectarian identity of the community. As this community had come into existence because of the claims that it had made about Jesus, so the reinforcement of the life of the new community took place, to a large degree, through the strengthening and refining of its initial claim concerning Jesus. The account of the interaction between Jesus, the man born blind, now healed, and the Pharisees and leadership in Jerusalem, reflects elements of that sectarian mindset.
This becomes clear in the fifth scene, in which the Pharisees recall the healed man to question him further (9:24–34). The Pharisees set the key issue: “as for this man, we do not know where he comes from” (9:29). The experience of the healed man, “you do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes”, leads him to testify, “never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing” (9:30–33). That clear affirmation of faith in Jesus, and recognition of his status, from one “on the inside”, brings the cross-examination to an abrupt close; incredulous, the Pharisees ask, “are you trying to teach us?”, and then drive him out from their gathering (9:34).
The issue at stake is the identity of Jesus and his status as prophet, teacher, “from God”. Of course, hearers and readers of the Gospel have known from the beginning that Jesus, the Word, “was with God, and … was God” (1:1), that this Word “became flesh and lived among us … full of grace and truth” (1:14), and that this Word was “the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (1:18). We have been let into the insiders’ world, with access to full knowledge. This is where the healed man is to be found; he recognises Jesus, not only as miracle worker, but as “from God” (9:33).
So the sixth scene (9:35–38) depicts Jesus interacting directly with the healed man once more—the last time he saw him was back in scene one, when he had spat onto the ground to make mud, rubbed it on the man’s eyes, and told him to “wash in the pool of Siloam” (9:6–7). Now, Jesus asks the leading question, “do you believe in the Son of Man?” (9:35), evoking the clear affirmation, “Lord, I believe” (9:38). That is the same affirmation of faith made by Simon Peter (6:69), Martha (11:27), and, by inference, Thomas (20:24–28). The identity of Jesus—Holy One of God, Messiah, Son of Man, Lord and God—is the critical issue which delineates insiders from outsiders.
For my reflections on the significance of this man’s confession of faith in the context of the book of signs as a whole, see
The seventh scene brings Jesus directly into contact with the Pharisees (9:39–41). Compared to the earlier extended debate of 8:31–59 and the less extensive debate which follows at 10:22–39, this is brief, succinct, and focussed on the theological issues of blindness and seeing, and sin. This links back to the opening question of the disciples about blindness and sin (9:2) and the consequent statement of Jesus, “as long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (9:5). This statement, of course, repeats the earlier declaration of Jesus (8:12) which has introduced the whole narrative context in which this encounter sits (8:12–10:21).
So the whole scene (like the whole Gospel) is about the situation of a group of followers of Jesus towards the end of the first century CE, inheriting the richness of the Jewish faith, convinced that they have found The Teacher of the way that God requires, in Jesus of Nazareth. As a result, they have encountered opposition, argumentation, and expulsion from their familiar faith community, and through this they have engaged in verbal warfare with those who have pushed them out.
Retelling the story of that man in a way that validates their perspective as what God intends and desires, is what has led an unknown member of their community to construct this narrative, in which he reinforces the views that have been developed by the members of his community, even as he hopes that others might “come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing [they] may have life in his name” (20:31).