Gospel for the Fourth Sunday in Lent (22 March 2020)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.
His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this,
he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.”
But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He 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.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”
They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then 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.” Some 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. So 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.”
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 and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but 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.” His 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. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”
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.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 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 would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man answered, “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.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.
Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man? He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. 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.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains” (John 9:1-41 – NRSV).
The entire forty verses may be read in the Sunday Liturgy. Alternatively, a shorter version – 9:1, 6-9, 13-17 & 34-41 – may be read. See the text in italics.
“This passage – 9:1-38 – is widely recognized as one of the masterpieces of Johannine storytelling. Its literary beauty has been captured in the early oratorio (1896) of Sir Edward Elgar, The Light of Life (Opus 29). The passage is marked by a unity of time, space, and theme. It is taken for granted that the celebration of Tabernacles continues. .... Somewhere outside the Temple a blind man comes to sight and faith in the Son of Man, while Jewish leaders move toward blindness (9:1–38). (Francis J Moloney, The Gospel of John, The Liturgical Press, 1998, 290.)
Thematically, this chapter is tied to the Feast of Tabernacles (ch. 8) through the explicit reference to Jesus as the light of the world (9:5; cf. 8:12). This chapter portrays what happens when the light shines: some are made to see, like this man born blind, while others, who think they see, turn away, blinded, as it were, by the light (9:39–41). At the same time, this chapter prepares the way for ch. 10, where a sharp contrast is drawn between the good shepherd, who gives his life for his sheep, and other religious leaders, like those in ch. 9, who are nothing but thieves and hirelings. The shepherd/sheep theme runs beyond the first part (10:1–21) to the second part of the chapter (10:22ff.), which is unambiguously tied to the feast of Dedication (10:22), about three months later than the Feast of Tabernacles. This has the effect of making it unclear just when the miracle of ch. 9 took place, though apparently at some point between the two Feasts” (D A Carson, The Gospel according to John, Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans, 1991, 359).
John’s interest is not the miracle – described in two verses – but the interrogations and responses. Note the progression in the blind man’s responses: “In the interrogation by the neighbors all that the man knows is that his benefactor was the ‘man they call Jesus’ (11). Under the pressure of the more searching preliminary interrogation by the Pharisees the man is brought to confess that Jesus is a prophet (17). In the final interrogation by the Pharisees he becomes an ardent defender of Jesus’ cause: what Jesus has done shows that he is from God (33). And then in climactic response to Jesus’ own interrogation, the man comes to see Jesus as the Son of Man (37)” (Raymond E Brown, The Gospel according to John (I–XII): Introduction, translation, and notes, (Vol. 29), New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008, 377).
blind from birth: “Granted the symbolism of the chapter, it is likely that this detail, in addition to heightening the effect of the miracle, signals that human beings are spiritually blind from birth” (D A Carson, op cit, 361).
he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva: This was a traditional practice. “Not a few church Fathers saw an allusion to Genesis 2:7: since God made human beings out of the dust of the ground, Jesus, in an act of creation, used a little dust to make eyes that were otherwise lacking” (D A Carson, op cit, 363-364).
he went and washed and came back seeing: Recall 2 Kings 5:10–13, where Elisha does not heal Naaman on the spot but sends him to wash in the Jordan. John’s statement here is full of energy, trust and a definite outcome! A similar expression is used a little later in the account, when the man is asked how he got his sight back: “He put mud on my eyes, and I washed, and I see.” Not a word wasted!
The blind man has accepted the word of Jesus without question and things happen. But the physical healing is not the focus here. The miracle is a sign. The man is healed because of Jesus who is sent by God. The name of the pool where the man washes is Siloam, which means “Sent One”. “It is not the contact with the waters of Siloam that effects the cure, but contact with the Sent One.” (Francis J Moloney, op cit, 292.)
There is also clearly a play on seeing and not seeing, light and darkness going on here. The blindness is in some of the neighbours but most particularly it is in the religious authorities. An old English proverb comes to mind: “There are none so blind as those who will not see.” And the Prophet Jeremiah berates the people: “Hear this, O foolish and senseless people, who have eyes, but do not see, who have ears, but do not hear” (5:21).
“I am the man”: This is the same response we find Jesus giving when he is arrested – egō eimi (John 18:5 & 8).
it was a Sabbath day: By making clay for the man’s eyes, Jesus broke the Sabbath law. Some of the religious authorities take hold of this fact: “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.” Yet some of the religious authorities have their doubts: “‘How can a man who is a sinner do such signs?’ And there was a division among them.” A similar situation occurs with the first disciples. When they are brought before the Sanhedrin there is division – see Gamliel’s intervention in Acts 5:34-42.
“The parents were afraid of ‘the Jews’ because they had decided that anyone who confessed that Jesus was the Christ was to be put out of the synagogue (v. 22: aposynagōgos genētai). For this reason they avoid christological debate with ‘the Jews’ and send them back to their son (v. 23). As far as the story is concerned there is a threat to both the parents and the son, and the parents are not prepared to face such a threat. It remains to be seen how the son will behave. The first readers of the story, the Johannine Christians, also discovered their experience in the story. They had forged their christology within a context of hostility and conflict. ‘The Jews’ rejected Jesus’ claims and thus rejected all those who accepted them (cf. 12:42; 16:2). It was probably not only the parents of the man born blind who decided that they did not wish to be involved in a debate about the christological status of Jesus of Nazareth. Subsequent generations have experienced a similar faintness of heart.” (Franics J Moloney, op cit, 294.)
When John’s Gospel refers to ‘the Jews’ he is clearly not speaking of the Jews as such – Jewish race or people. He is speaking specifically of the religious authorities. After all, every other player in this drama is a Jew – Jesus included.
having found him: This is a most sensitive touch in the story. Jesus goes in search of the man. Having found him, he enables him to see with the eyes of faith. “‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ He answered, ‘And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and it is he who is speaking to you’. He said, ‘Lord, I believe’, and he worshiped him.”
Towards the end of 1989, Woody Allen’s movie, Crimes and Misdemeanors, was released. Some would say it is his finest. The movie is both a comedy and a drama. But more importantly it is a moral exploration. At the heart of the film is an ophthalmologist. His eyes are good. But his heart is not. He is morally blind – so blind in fact that he is capable of murder in order to protect his reputation. He has a patient, a rabbi. The rabbi’s eyes are not so good. In fact, he is going blind. Yet he is deeply sensitive to what matters. He sees what the ophthalmologist is unable – unwilling? – to see. The rabbi is a good human being.
Today’s Gospel – John 9:1-41 – puts before us a similar drama. The fact that the actual miracle gets only two of the forty one verses seems significant. The physical healing is a sign of something else. That “something else” is what John wants us to reflect on.
Most of the text is given over to dialogues which are driven by interrogations and responses – between Jesus and his disciples, Jesus and the man, the neighbours and the man, the Pharisees and the man, the Pharisees and the man’s parents, a second dialogue between the Pharisees and the man and a final dialogue between Jesus and the man. The effect – so beautifully there in the final dialogue – is to draw the listener into the reality of Jesus. Jesus hears that they have driven him out. He goes in search of the man. When he finds him, he says, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” The man answers, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him”. Jesus says to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he”. The man declares his belief, “Lord, I believe”.
The man is disowned by his family, threatened by the Pharisees, shunned by his neighbours. Imagine how he feels. However, when he encounters Jesus the second time, he sees now what he had not seen before – not even when he had been cured of his blindness.
We are told at the beginning of this account that “he was born blind”. Some scholars interpret this to mean that a certain blindness is part of the human condition – it comes with birth. A central task in life therefore is to discover one’s ability to see – to see what really matters. The 14th century English hermit and mystic, Richard Rolle (1300-1349), speaks of “the eye of his heart”. Much as the 6th century monk, St Benedict, speaks of “the ear of the heart”. The awakening of our spiritual senses is key to our wellbeing.
What difference might it make if my spiritual senses are wide awake? How might my life be different if I could see and hear what is more than superficial about myself, other people, events and things?