A Man Born Blind: What the Light of the World Reveals
Lent 4 2023 John 9: 1-41
This very long reading (next week’s is even longer) has a simple center but an elaborate narrative arc that seems to resemble a dramatic production. The subject of the play: Jesus as the light of the world of course, but the light he sheds here is specific.
[Scene 1] The man born blind is introduced, and then the disciples ask Jesus about the cause of his blindness. We may trip over their assumptions as much as anything; that is, they believe that sin is the cause of the man’s situation, and hence imply that God is responsible. Jesus does not challenge this even though he rejects their specific options: “he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” This makes the question of God’s justice all the more acute, although it isn’t the point here for John, at least the way the disciples pose it. Yet the theme—or more broadly the theme of how sin is manifest, and of what actions reveal, will continue to be the focus of the story.
Jesus does offer a critique here of the tendency to draw a line from personal circumstance back to sin; there is no basis, he says, for inferring that suffering or other misfortune imply anything in particular about the actions of the person (or their parents, etc.). While we know that sin does actually have consequences, these are not always borne by the sinners; often they are placed on the shoulders of others. Judgements of the kind the disciples make are never legitimate.
The real point here however is not God’s justice in some abstract sense; the point (always, of course, in John) is Jesus. Where the disciples offer a) the man b) the parents as key to understanding what’s happening, the person to attend to is actually Jesus. “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” The punchline is given early, but the action that will follow elucidates the meaning.
The man is then healed, but the real story ensues. These episodes in John that center on an “I am” saying have a common structure (misunderstanding, elucidation, clarification) and a common answer (Jesus) but we might have to be wary of going too quickly past the particulars (bread, light, door, shepherd, vine etc.). In this case we will see it is not only an opportune teaching moment about belief in Jesus, but essential to the point raised in the disciples’ initial question, and implictly answered in the act of healing. The evangelist is not just saying how important Jesus is, but why.
The conversation shifts, and different characters appear on stage in turn. First [Scene 2] the neighbors are shown, asking each other what is going on, and the man himself—who remains at center stage—says starkly (despite the apparent climax of the miracle being past) that he is actually still in the dark; who is this man who healed him? “I do not know.”
Things move forward when the man is taken to the Pharisees [Scene 3], who condemn Jesus’s act in healing (and mixing mud) on the Sabbath. They reiterate however the theme of the disciples’ question, adjusted somewhat: actions (whether or not circumstances) do reveal the truth. All the characters agree, but reach different conclusions about both the actions and the truth. The healed man’s understanding however seems to have developed as he now contests the Pharisees’ conclusions, and says of Jesus (because of his actions) “He is a prophet.”
Now the parents appear [Scene 4]. This and the following scene recapitulate, implicitly, the opening question about the roles of the parents and the man himself in all this, but they are deliberate dead ends. The parents reveal little because they pass the issue back to their son, but we are of course reminded of the disciples’ question; what did they do (or what did the man do)? But the parents’ don’t-ask-don’t-tell approach merely heightens the tension, as the Pharisees are then forced to return to the healed man himself.
They resume the interrogation with heightened drama [Scene 5]: “Give glory to God!” Their pious exclamation is undermined (for us) with the claim that Jesus must be a sinner (note again the connection with the disciples’ question: who is the sinner?). The man steps up further now, doubling down on the theme of evidence and its meaning regarding actions and truth: “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?” There is something like an ancient mic drop here.
The next speech is perhaps the dramatic center of the story: “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 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.”
This shifts the attention to Jesus definitively. The closing (almost) [Scene 6] is Jesus and the formerly blind man together, when the real eye-opening takes place: ‘“You have seen [get it?] him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.’ Then Jesus turns to camera (as it were) with the real meaning of the episode: Jesus 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.”
But there is an epilogue, which forms a book-end with the disciples’ first question. The Pharisees sputter that they are surely not blind, but insist on the ability to assess Jesus without actually paying attention (“seeing”). Jesus gives an answer less about blindness than about sin with, yet again, the recurrent theme of actions and truth at the center.
Of course belief in Jesus is the center of this—we are not dealing with mere good examples here—but the meaning of faith in him includes the capacity to see and do the truth, rather than to find false meaning in the circumstances of others, which amounts to holding onto obscurity. Suffering—and social location and whatever else may seem to characterize people in the world’s eyes—does not reveal the truth; actions do. The image of light is linked to the man’s blindness, but its real meaning is about sin and human life, and invites a shift from linking sin and circumstance to linking sin and actions instead. The action in our play thus opposes the judgmental and the liberative, and calls the reader or hearer from interpreting suffering as evidence to considering practice as evidence.
Why does evil occur, why are social circumstances varied, why is the world this way? We may splutter at the notion that they are so in order that God may be glorified, but there is something to ponder here. Our story tells us that the right question is not how suffering reveals truth but how deeds reveal truth, and that faith in Jesus offers—or threatens—the sobering possibility of seeing the world as it really is, and acting accordingly.