The Man Born Blind

The readings for March 26, 2017, Fourth Sunday of Lent, Cycle A, are
1 Samuel 16:1b, 6-7, 10-13a; Ephesians 5:8-14; and John 9:1-41.

The second of the three great Lenten gospel readings for the preparation of catechumens is John’s story of the man born blind. The other Gospels have stories of Jesus restoring sight to the blind. This story in John is different. Jesus creates sight where there never was sight. The story is filled with symbolism, mystery, history, and theology. Jesus and his disciples encountered “a man blind from birth.” The disciples voice a common opinion, that physical handicaps are due to the sin of the parents.

Jesus instructs his disciples, “It is not that this man has sinned, or his parents, but that the works  of God may be made visible through this man.” An important principle from these words of Jesus: God does not cause evil but permits evil to happen for a greater good. Then Jesus spat on the ground and combined the ground with his saliva to make a paste of clay. He smeared the clay on the man’s sightless eyes. Then a command, “Go! Wash in the Pool of Siloam.” The man obeyed Jesus. He went, he washed, he saw.  Now the discussions begin in that Semitic manner of repetition over and over. First the now sighted man, who followed the usual practice of the handicapped, – begging, – was noticed by his neighbors. They knew he had always been sightless.  They argued whether or not he was the one and the same man. He settled the argument, “I am he!” Then he repeats Jesus’ procedure and the formula, “I went. I washed. I see.”

Next some people led him to the Pharisees, the scribes, the learned Pharisees, scholars of the Torah, also called lawyers. Their lawbook was the Torah, the laws attributed to Moses in the Pentateuch. Why take this man to the lawyers? Because the one who gave sight to the man born blind had broken an important law, as John writes, “Now Jesus had made clay and opened the man’s eyes on the Sabbath,” the day of rest. The formerly blind man boldly tells the lawyers what Jesus did. The scribes are horrified , “This man is not from God because he does not keep Sabbath.” But the unlearned man is wiser than the learned. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 1:27, “God chose what is foolish to the world to put to shame the learned.” And that is precisely what this good man did, as he professes faith in Jesus, “He is a prophet!”

The scholars are not through with the man. They summon his parents to establish that this man is their son and that he was born blind.  Ignoring the formerly blind man’s testimony, they ask the parents how their son now sees. These humble folks are afraid of the powerful lawyers. They say, “Ask him. He is of age. Let him tell you.” The parents knew that the power-structure had already decided that if anyone claimed that Jesus was the Christ (Messiah), he would be expelled from the synagogue (a form of excommunication). In this way John weaves into the story what was happening to Christians in the nineties when he composed his Gospel. Christians were being excommunicated from the synagogue. Eventually, as the story continues, this is what they do to the man born blind. It is their retaliation for the fact that in his simple wisdom he knew more than the scholars and made fools of them as they deserved. The blindness of religious fanatics was at work. What provoked them most was his saucy, satirical confrontation with them when they once again asked him to repeat his testimony. His reply, “I already told you. Why do you want to hear it again? You didn’t listen.” Then the now sighted man’s coup de grace, “Do you want to become his disciples too?” That hurt! The unkindest cut of all!

They ridiculed the man, “You are his disciple. We are disciples of Moses. God spoke to Moses but we don’t know where this one (Jesus) came from.” The entertaining humor of the story continues as the formerly blind man informs them of their own blindness in a long statement by which John, writing  many decades after the event, uses the story to slam the great Torah scholars of his time for not even recognizing Jesus as a man of God, let alone as Messiah.  Their final answer is a haughty attempt to discredit the man confronting them, “You were born entirely in sin, and you are trying to teach us?” In their way of thinking the man’s blindness was caused by his parent’s sin. Such a sinner has no business teaching these great scholars of the Torah. John adds, “They expelled him!”

Thus John consoles Christian Jews expelled from synagogues in his own time.