Jesus, the Blind Man, and Spiritual Vision: Reflections on John 9:1-41
John's Gospel features seven signs (semeia) that point us toward Jesus' identity. They are not ends in themselves, but "visible indications of something else" (Koester, 74). They are:
- turning the water into wine (chp. 2)
- healing the Galilean official's son (chp. 4)
- healing the invalid at Bethzatha (chp. 5)
- feeding the 5,000 (chp. 6)
- walking on the sea (chp. 6)
- healing the blind beggar (chp. 9)
- raising Lazarus (chp. 11)
Our text, John 9:1-41, is Jesus' sixth sign in the Gospel of John. It shows us what the Prologue has already told us: that he is the One sent from God to be the light of the world.
The catalyst for the story is a question Jesus' disciples ask him about the cause of a beggar's blindness (9:2). The plot gains momentum through a series of seven questions. As questions and answers follow close on each other's heels, two things increase: the Pharisees' fear and the formerly blind man's faith.
This story in my NRSV Bible is given the serene title: "A man born blind receives his sight." There are at least seven scenes within this story, each one bristling with conflict:
- Jesus walks along and his disciples ask him about the origins of blindness.
- Jesus makes mud and restores the man's sight.
- The man washes in the pool as Jesus told him to. People doubt his identity.
- The Pharisees call him in for questioning. They doubt Jesus' identity.
- The Pharisees call his parents in for questioning. His parents pass the buck back to their son.
- The Pharisees call the formerly blind man in for questioning a second time. He questions their questions. They insult him and drive him out of the synagogue.
- Jesus seeks him out and he worships Jesus, as some Pharisees listen in on the fringes and sound a plaintive note of self doubt.
Have you ever heard one side of a conversation and made a game of trying to figure out the other? Let's try it with a completely made-up half of a conversation. Suppose you're listening to someone on their cell phone.
No, I didn't do what you asked.
I think we both know why.
There's nothing wrong with my reasoning ability. I just couldn't do what you asked.
No, but I guess I'll find out soon enough.
Those were the answers. Let's see if we can infer the questions.
What is wrong with you, you idiot?
Do you know how much trouble you're going to be in because of this?
Here are the answers to the questions that bristle throughout this text.
Jesus answers his disciples: "Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him" (9:3).
Jesus shifts the discussion from the cause of blindness to what God can do with it. He hints at the symbolic significance of this healing (Brown, 371, Koester, 100).
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.