As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ 3Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’ 6When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7saying to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.
Translation: And passing by, he saw a person blind out of birth. And his disciples asked him, saying, "Rabbi, who sinner? This one, or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus answered, "Neither this one sinned, nor his parents, but so that the works of God might be made manifest in him. It is necessary for us to work the works of the one who sent me as long as it is day; night is coming when no one is able to work. When I am in the world, I am light of the world." Having said these things, he spat on the ground, and he made mud out of spittle and placed the clay upon the eyes. And he said to him, "Go to wash in the pool of Siloam"--(which is translated, "one who has been sent"). Then he went an washed and came back seeing.
Background and situation: Like the encounters with Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman, the reading for this week features a lengthy story, typical for the fourth gospel, involving dialog between Jesus and the other primary character. This reading, like those, is lengthy, but unlike them this one has many characters--the man born blind, Jesus, parents, disciples, pharisees, and Judeans!
The story is the sixth of seven "signs" in the fourth gospel, the first being turning water into wine at the wedding of Cana (2:1-11), the seventh being the raising of Lazarus (11:1-45).
Blindness, sin, night: Many translations have "man blind from birth." The word usually translated "man" is anthropon, which does not specify a specific gender. One should, if possible, translate the word without being gender specific, i.e. human being, or person. Further, the word does not carry a definite article. It refers to no specific person, in other words. According to some interpretations, the blind one represents every person. All humanity is "blind out of birth."
A friend of mine says that life is about joining a conversation. The conversation was going before you got here, and it's going to be going on after you're gone. While you're here, you have the great privilege of sharing in it.
Just so, the conversation about who is responsible for sin has been going on at least since Moses. Some people believed that the sins of the parents were visited upon the children (Ex 20), while others believed that this was not so (Ez 18:20). It was an argument then, and one today as well.
The disciples participate in that conversation by chiming in from a position of morality. They want to know: "Whose fault is all this?" They want to moralize on the subject. They want to assign blame. Never one to be much interested in blaming the victim, Jesus ignores the moral question, and goes to the question of purpose. The person was born blind so that "God's works might be made manifest--phanerothe--in him."
Then Jesus says, "It is necessary for us to work the works of the one who sent me as long as it is day; night is coming when no one is able to work." Two points stand out: (1) the use of the word dei--"it is necessary," and (2) Jesus rare use of the first person plural.
What is necessary? "For us to work the works of the one who sent (Jesus)." Those "works" are about the alleviation of suffering, not assigning blame for it. In a rebuke to the disciples, Jesus says to forget the moralizing, and get to work doing God's work.
Moreover, night is coming, a time when no one will be able to work. For the first time in the fourth gospel, Jesus intimates that his own night is coming as well--"as long as I am in the world," he says, indicating that there will come a time when he is not in the world.
Water, spirit, spit: Jesus spat on the ground and mixed some mud. Wes Howard-Brook draws a connection between saliva and spirit. He cites 7: 38-39 where Jesus says, "Out of the believers' heart shall flow rivers of living water. Now he said this about the Spirit." The saliva of Jesus is both "water and spirit," the very ingredients of being "born from above" (3:5).
In addition, the mixture of spirit and earth recalls the Lord God's creation of the primal beings in Genesis 2. This is yet another of the fourth gospel's many allusions to the book of Genesis. Some have said, in fact, that the fourth gospel is a reinterpretation of Genesis in light of the Christ event. In the early church, according to Father Ray Brown, this story of the person once-blind was interpreted as an act of re-creation.
Jesus tells the blind man, "Go and wash in the pool of Siloam." ("Siloam"--apestalmenos--is a perfect passive participle--literally, "the one who has been sent.") Jesus' instruction is reminiscent of the healing of Naaman the Syrian (2 Kings 5:10) who was told, by the prophet Elisha, to wash in the Jordan River. In the case of Naaman, the disease was leprosy.
The blind person, his eyes packed with spittle/mud, does as Jesus said to do--"he went and washed"--and comes back able to see. Through water and spirit, the once-blind person--unlike Nicodemus in chapter three--is "born from above."
The man called Jesus:
8The neighbours and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, ‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?’ 9Some were saying, ‘It is he.’ Others were saying, ‘No, but it is someone like him.’ He kept saying, ‘I am the man.’ 10But they kept asking him, ‘Then how were your eyes opened?’ 11He answered, ‘The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, “Go to Siloam and wash.” Then I went and washed and received my sight.’ 12They said to him, ‘Where is he?’ He said, ‘I do not know.’
Translation: Then the neighbors and the ones seeing him before, that he was a beggar, were saying, "Is this not the one sitting and begging?" Some were saying, "It is this one." Others were saying, "No, but he is like him." That one was saying, "I am." Then, they were saying to him, "Then how were your eyes opened?" That one answered, "The person named Jesus made clay and put it on my eyes and said to me, 'Go into the Siloam and wash.' Then I went and washed (and) I saw." And they said to him, "Where is that one?" He said, "I do not know."
A new cast of characters enters the story--"neighbors and those who had seen him before as a begger." "Neighbors" probably refers to the people who knew the blind man when he lived with his parents. The neighbors knew him primarily through his disability--a man blind from birth. The others knew him primarily as a begger. Both groups are uncertain as to his identity. This is, of course, not the least uncommon. The blind, disabled, and poor often lack an individual identity.
The man kept saying, "I am he." The actual phrase is ego eimi--literally, "I am." Ego eimi is the Greek version of the divine name YHWH in Exodus 3, "I am who I am." Jesus says ego eimi quite frequently in the fourth gospel. This is the only instance where someone other than Jesus says, "I am." Point to ponder: If the person has been born of water and spirit in an act of re-creation, does he or she also share in the divine identity?
How were the person's eyes opened? The once-blind one identifies "the person named Jesus." Whereas, in the beginning of the story, the blind person was identified as simply anthropon (person) Jesus is identified here as ho anthropos--the person. The blind person represents blindness as a universal human condition. The cure for blindness, however, is quite specific: "the person named Jesus."
Wary of the pharisees:
13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. 14Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, ‘He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.’ 16Some of the Pharisees said, ‘This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.’ But others said, ‘How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?’ And they were divided. 17So they said again to the blind man, ‘What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.’ He said, ‘He is a prophet.’
Translation: They brought to the pharisees the man who had been blind. And it was a sabbath in which day Jesus made the clay and opened his eyes. Then, again, the pharisees were asking him how he received sight. He said to them, "He placed clay upon my eyes, and I washed, and I see." Then, some out of the pharisees were saying, "This person is not from God, for he is not keeping the sabbath." But others said, "How (is) a sinner-person able to do such signs?" And a division was in them. Then they say to the blind one again, "What do you say about him? That he opened your eyes?" But he said, "He is a prophet."
The person is taken to the pharisees. This spells trouble. When the narrator notes that "it was a sabbath," that trouble is ratched up at least a couple more notches. Mixing mud on the sabbath was a violation of the Torah. (So was spitting. Saliva was considered "unclean"--interesting, since the fourth gospel also seems to use saliva as a symbol for spirit.)
The person seems wary of being questioned. Perhaps the once-blind one senses that a charge of sabbath violation is being considered, which, of course, is no small charge. In response, the once-blind one minimizes his earlier story. He no longer says, as he had earlier, that Jesus had "anointed" his eyes. ("Anointing" was forbidden on the sabbath.) Now, in re-telling the story, he says that Jesus merely "put" mud on his eyes. He does not mention Jesus' name, and says nothing about being sent to Siloam. The once-blind man's story is a much truncated version of his earlier description of the incident, and is removed of specific references which might constitute a sabbath violation.
The pharisees' opinion is split. Some say that whoever healed the once-blind person must be a sinner, while others ask how a sinner could do such signs. "A division was in them." There was a schisma, a schism within this group of pharisees. The facts in dispute, the questioners ask for the once-blind one's opinion. What do you say? The once-blind replies, "He is prophet."
Judeans enter the fray:
18 The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19and asked them, ‘Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?’ 20His parents answered, ‘We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.' 22His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23Therefore his parents said, ‘He is of age; ask him.’
Translation: The Judeans did not trust concerning him, that he was blind and saw, until they called the parents of the one who had received sight and asked them, and they asked them, saying, "Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?" Then his parents answered and said, "We know that this is our son and that he was born blind. But how he now sees we do not know, or who opened his eyes, we do not know. Ask him. He has maturity. He will speak concerning himself." His parents said this because they were afraid of the Judeans, for already the Judeans had agreed that if anyone might confess him as Christ, they would be put out of the synagogue. Because of this, his parents said, "He has maturity. Ask him."
The pharisees were bad enough, but now the Judeans enter the story. That is, those most closely associated with Temple corruption now "call" for the man's parents. The parents are asked two questions: This your kid, who, you say, was born blind? How is he able to see?
The parents, at least, recognize their son, and confirm that he was, indeed, born blind. They do not speculate on who might be responsible for his being able to see, perhaps because they really don't know, and perhaps because they sense that this is the real object of the inquiry and want to plead ignorance.
The narrator supplies the reason for their reticence: They were afraid of being kicked out of the synagogue. Such ostracism from the synagogue did not occur during the lifetime of Jesus. The fear of banishment from the synagogue was more applicable to the situation of the Johannine church, c. AD 90.
At the time of the writing of the fourth gospel, most, if not all, of the Christians in the Johannine community were also Jews. In the immediate years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, Jewish Christians were considered something of a sect within Judaism. They considered themselves Jews, and continued to participate in Jewish community life.
After the fall of the Temple in AD 70, however, Christian Jews and orthodox Jews began to split apart. In the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple, each side tended to blame the other for this catastrophic loss. At the time of the writing of the fourth gospel, the split between Judeans and the Johannine Christians had grown severe. Acknowledge Jesus as "Messiah" in AD 90 and you could, indeed, be kicked out of the synagogue.
24 So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, ‘Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.’ 25He answered, ‘I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.’ 26They said to him, ‘What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?’ 27He answered them, ‘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?’ 28Then they reviled him, saying, ‘You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses.29We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.’
Translation: Then they again called the person who was blind and said to him, "Give glory to God. We know that this person is a sinner." Then, that one answered, "If he is a sinner, I do not know. One thing I know: Being blind, now I see." Then they said to him, "What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?" He answered them, "I have told you already and you do not hear. Why do you want to hear (it) again? Do you also want to become his disciples?" And they reviled him and said, "You are this one's disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but this one, we do not know where he is from."
The once-blind one gets dragged in for another inquisition. The questioners can no longer dispute that the person is as identified. Nor can they dispute that this once-blind person now can see. Those questions have already been dealt with. The remaining question is: Who did it? Somebody has performed an illegal healing, and the powers-that-be want to get to the bottom of it.
They make a declaration--"we know that this man is a sinner"--but the once-blind one correctly perceives that this is really a question addressed to him. Be careful how you answer: Is the person who allegedly healed you a sinner? The man dodges the question of sin and replies with the one thing he knows for sure: "...though I was blind, now I see."
The interrogators appear flustered. They serve up more questions. The once-blind person begins to perceive that perhaps these spiritual-know-it-alls don't know as much as they think. The once-blind grows bold. "I have told you already and you do not hear," he says, "Why do you want to hear again?" His next remark--"Do you also want to become his disciples?"--not only tweaks the Judean nose, but implies that the once-blind person now considers himself a follower of Jesus.
This really torques the Judeans. They openly accuse the person of being a disciple of Jesus. They proclaim themselves disciples of Moses, who spoke with God, but whoever healed this once-blind person comes from somewhere they do not know--"We do not know where he is from." (The people, however, do know where he is from--"Then Jesus cried out as he was teaching in the temple, ‘You know me, and you know where I am from..'" 7:28)
30The man answered, ‘Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will.32Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.’ 34They answered him, ‘You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?’ And they drove him out.
Translation: The person answered and said to them, "For in this is an amazing thing: You do not know where he is from, and he has opened my eyes. We know that God does not hear sinners, but if anyone might be a worshipper of God, and might do his will, he hears him. Out of the eternal, it has not been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this person were not from God, he is not being able to do nothing. They answered and said to him, "You were born entirely in sins, and you teach us?" And they threw him outside.
The once-blind person seems to gain confidence as the dialog progresses. At first, he was anxious and closed. The authority of his interrogators has him on the defensive. It starts to dawn on him that they--these religious authorities--are more confused than he is.
The once-blind person proclaims, "We know." This, of course, is reminiscent of Nicodemus in chapter three, who had approached Jesus saying, "We know." Nicodemus didn't, as it turned out, but, in this case, the once-blind person really does know.
When the once-blind man says "we," who does he mean? Most likely, the Johannine community. This is a way of saying that truth resides in the Johannine community. They are those who once were blind, but now see the new reality ushered into the world in the Christ event.
The once-blind once goes further. "You are right, my dear inquisitors. God does not listen to sinners. Yet, something has happened which is unheard of. Therefore, God must have listened to the person who did it. Therefore, the man must not be a sinner."
Using their own definitions and categories against them, the once-blind one eviscerates the argument of the religious authorities. Exposed, the Judeans authorities resort to moralistic denunciation--"you were born entirely in sins." The ad hominum attack is characteristic of established elites. If you can't deal with your opponent's arguments, then besmirch their character.
If that isn't enough, use force. "They threw--exabalon--him out."
Seeing and trust:
35 Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man? 36He answered, ‘And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.’ 37Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.’ 38He said, ‘Lord, I believe.’ And he worshipped him.
Translation: Jesus heard that they had threw him outside, and finding him, he said, "Do you trust into the son of humanity?" That one answered and said, "Who is, Lord, so that I might trust into him?" And Jesus said to him, "You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is that one." And he was saying, "I trust, Lord." And he worshipped him.
As the story draws to a close, Jesus re-enters the story. He has heard, somehow, that the once-blind person had been "thrown outside"--exabalon exo--and he goes in search of him. This is typical for Jesus--he is with the one cast out.
When he finds the man, he asks him if he "faiths" in the "Son of humanity." "Son of humanity" seems to be the self-identification preferred by Jesus in the fourth gospel, one that recollects the prophet Daniel's vision of "one like a son of humanity" (Dn 7:14), and one also that subtly contradicts the labels placed on him by others.
The story as a whole equates "seeing" with faith, a characteristic position of the fourth gospel. The word is pisteuein, which means "faith," although in Greek the word is a verb. "Faith" as a verb doesn't work that well in English and pisteuein almost always gets translated as "believe," which is similar to faith, but not quite the same thing. "Believe" implies a cognitive, intellect-level assent. "Faith" is "radical trust," an orientation of one's entire being. In my opinion, "trust" captures the meaning of the word better than "believe."
In a text devoted to the importance of "seeing," it's striking that there is a whole lot of "hearing" going on as well. Throughout the dialog of interrogation, there are no spatial markers. All the action is in the verbal exchange. Twice, there is a "call" for witnesses. In the ensuing questioning, the heart of the matter relates to who really "hears" God, and who God really listens to.
When Jesus says to the once-blind person, "You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he," both sensory apperceptions--hearing and seeing--are affirmed. This elicits the once-blind person's response, "Lord, I trust."
Blindness and irony:
39Jesus said, ‘I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’ 40Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ 41Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.
Translation: And Jesus said, "Into judgment, I came into this world, so that the ones not seeing might see, and the ones seeing might become blind." Out of the pharisees, the ones being with him, heard these things and said to him, "We are not blind, are we?" Jesus said to them, "If you were being blind, you would have no sin. But now you say, 'We see,' the sin of you remains."
The "judgement" is that "those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind." This is another variation on the common New Testament theme of the Great Reversal, i.e. the first become last, the mighty hauled down, the poor lifted up.
Apparently, some pharisees are with Jesus. The NRSV has "near him," but oi met' autou ontes should really be translated "the ones being with him." It would not be surprising for some pharisees to be "with" Jesus. The fourth gospel has already indicated at least some pro-Jesus sentiment in the high-ranking pharisee official, Nicodemus.
The pharisees actually had several things in common with Jesus. Both Jesus and pharisees wanted the renewal of Israel. They both had appeal within the same demographic--namely, poor people, especially those outside of Judea.
The pharisees "with" Jesus express surprise and incredulity that they might really be blind. "Surely, we are not blind, are we?" Jesus reply is cryptic. Being blind is not a sin. Saying "we see" is.
This is reminiscent of "Lutheran irony," i.e. that it is precisely when we are most spiritually confident that we are in greatest spiritual danger, that it is precisely when we feel strong in faith, precisely when we are feeling the most committed, precisely when we are the most "religious," that sin lies closest at hand.
Incidentally, this is why, as my seminary advisor used to say, “piety can be the deepest form of idolatry.” Piety says that what's most important is my religious feeling or my acts of religious devotion. Piety always needs a good, strong dose of Lutheran irony to keep it from falling into self-righteousness. It needs a reminder that everything about us, even (and especially) our piety, can be twisted and distorted. This is why Martin Luther said that we always need to remind ourselves that we are really "weak in faith, cold in love, faint in hope."
But that, too, is another twist of Lutheran irony. Fortunately for us, Jesus died and rose for the weak, the cold, and the faint. Fortunately, it's not our "religiousness" that matters, but rather Jesus, the "light of the world," who came that all might see.
Similarly, those who claim to see--those who claim to possess the truth--are, in fact, spiritually blind, a condition which mistakes ignorance for certainty and error for truth. When we admit we are blind and do not see, the way is opened for the healing of that blindness.
The fourth gospel continually urges those "on the fence" to join up with the Johannine community, and to do so forthrightly and publicly. A pharisee "with Jesus" yet who remains a pharisee is trying to have it both ways. They are not yet willing to make a break with the pharisees. They are intrigued by Jesus perhaps, floating around on the fringes of the movement, but they are not yet willing to risk being thrown out of the synagogue.
Image: Healing of the man born blind, Duccio