John 9:1-41, The Gift of Vision and Expulsion

[March 30, 2013] We move ahead this Sunday to the story of the man born blind whom Jesus grants the gift of sight and who is, consequently, cast out of his fold that he might become part of the Messiah’s flock. As is typical of everything in this gospel, the story has so many facets that we can only skim the surface, especially since we have the entire chapter before us.

The Gospel according to John is arranged in a cruciform, the stories not having only a chiastic parallel but arranged in sets of fours. John 9 is parallel to John 5:1-30 “horizontally”; these moreover correspond to the “vertical” pair, John 3:1-21 and John 13—17. This diamond or “circle” corresponds to the fourth day of creation, when God made the sun to give light to the day and the moon and stars to give light to the night. In the prologue (John 1:1-18), it corresponds to “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it” in verse 5, “the world came into being through him, yet the world did not know him” in verse 10, “we beheld his glory” in verse 14, and “of his fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace” in verse 16. This ring of the cruciform all allude to darkness and the gift of light.

“As he went along, he saw a man who had been blind from birth” (John 9:1).

The chapter divisions, of course, are arbitrary. This particular story follows from chapters 7—8 (which themselves are one piece) and continues into chapter 10 which, in fact, is a commentary on it. Chapter 7 began an exposition of the Jewish Feast or Festival of Sukkōt (or Booths or Tabernacles), which falls on October 8-16 this year (2014) . Chapters 8—10 continue this exposition until it merges with Hanukkah (or the Feast of Lights or Festival of Dedication), which falls on December 16-24 this year. The man born blind in John 9:1 becomes a parable of Israel in chapter 8, and by extension (because Israel has become as blind as the Gentiles), of all of us. The theme of wilderness wandering continues, as does the theme of light (which came up in chapter 8 in connection to the celebrations of Sukkōt): “I am the light of the world; anyone who follows me will not be walking in darkness but will have the light of life” (8:12; see 9:5), which, of course, continues into the Festival of Lights (10:22). The idea is of the Shekinah (the presence of God) being with Israel in its wanderings until it reached the Promised Land. Jesus presents himself—and his continuing presence as (or in) the Holy Spirit (7:39)—as both the Shekinah Presence in the wilderness and the Promised Land itself.

“His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he should have been born blind?’ ‘Neither he nor his parents sinned,’ Jesus answered. ‘He was born blind so that the works of God might be revealed in him’” (9:2-3).

We are in darkness, but our darkness is not because of a lack of light; it is because of our blindness to light. Our blindness is the result of sin, not our personal sin but the sin of the world into which we are born. Of course this is unfair; but what else in life is fair? It is, however, the result of our collective decision as a species. We are not simply the individuals that we identify ourselves as: we are each of us a manifestation of humanity itself, and we each carry the burden of this.

“As long as day lasts we must carry out the work of the One who sent me; the night will soon be here when no one can work. As long as I am in the world I am the light of the world” (9:4-5).

While Jesus was in the world, he was the light (the masculine sun) of the world, and the world for a moment was in daylight. When his manifest presence departed from us into the unseen and hidden realm of heaven (which is the “other side” of the visible realm), the night of the world continued. Its only light is the (feminine) moon and stars, the Spirit of God now become the Holy Spirit through the Gospel. The light that we have in the darkness of this world—and in our wilderness wandering—is the continuing light of Jesus’ incarnation that we now have only through the Holy Spirit bringing the Gospel to light (the Gospel, the good “spell,” being the story of Jesus and the significance of it).

“Having said this, he spat on the ground, made a paste with the spittle, put this over the eyes of the blind man, and said to him, ‘Go and wash in the Pool of Siloam’ (the name means ‘one who has been sent’). So he went off and washed and came back able to see” (9:6-7).

As Jesus stooped to the ground and wrote in it in 8:6, so here he spits on the ground and made a healing paste. The saliva is a substantial representation of his word. It is also “water”—the water of the word: it is living word. The water, of course, represents the Holy Spirit, the Spirit that sanctifies and divinizes. The dirt is that of which we are made. God breathed into the adama, which God had molded into a form and it came alive and conscious (as Hebrew consonants on a page are forms that are breathed into—aspirated with vowels—when read aloud and take on meaning); here the spit transforms the dirt into something healing. God’s word does not remain pure word but becomes dirt, or flesh, God thus becomes incarnate.

And God plasters this on our blind eyes. Jesus plasters the man’s eyes with the paste and in effect creates a new set of eyes for him. With new eyes he is born again (chapter 3); he becomes a new creation. But not yet. The plastering of his eyes represents Jesus giving, and the man receiving, the Gospel. Something else is required of him before he can see. He must go to the Pool of Siloam and wash in it. Siloam (“One Who Is Sent”) obviously alludes to Jesus himself. Jesus had just referred to himself as the sent one in verse 4. The water of the Pool reminds us of the water of baptism in 1:26 and 3:23, which is probably the significance of being born of water and spirit in 3:5. Washing in the Pool of Siloam, then, seems to be an allusion to baptism. We are also reminded of the stone water jars for cleansing in 2:6 into which water was poured that Jesus subsequently turned into the wine of joy; and we remember the living water that Jesus offered the woman of Samaria: both water that is drunk. We also should remember, in particular, that the water that was poured on the altar on the eighth day of the Festival of Succōt was water taken from the Pool of Siloam. When this water was poured out, Jesus exclaimed, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me! Let anyone who believes into me come and drink! As scripture says, ‘From his innermost being shall flow streams of living water.’” John (the author of the gospel) tells us, “He was speaking of the Spirit which those who believed into him were about to receive; for there was no Spirit as yet because Jesus had not yet been glorified” (7:37-39). The water of the Pool of Siloam is a visual representation of the Holy Spirit. The man with his eyes plastered over with a paste made from Jesus’ saliva mixed with the dirt of the earth was to wash in this pool. When he does, he can suddenly see.

Clearly it is the Holy Spirit that grants him sight, and with his sight, faith—through the Gospel. The washing of baptism does not do this but rather signifies this. Without the new birth in which faith takes place, the ritual of baptism has no meaning. Nevertheless, baptism is alluded to in this story.

“His neighbors and the people who used to see him before (for he was a beggar) said, ‘Isn’t this the man who used to sit and beg?’ Some said, ‘Yes, it is the same one.’ Others said, ‘No, but he looks just like him.’ The man himself said, ‘Yes, I am (e eimi)’” (9:8-9).

This is more interesting than might at first appear. The man can suddenly see and the first words out of his mouth (as far as the story is concerned) are “I am.” It is translated into English as “I am the one” but in John’s Greek it simply says, “I am.” This would not ordinarily be important, for we see in the other gospels how the two words in Greek often mean, “I am the one.” Ordinarily a person can say, “I am,” with simply the word eimi. Adding the nominative pronoun makes it emphatic, “I myself am.” However, in John the words egō eimi (“I am”) only occur elsewhere on the lips of Jesus and with a very special significance. Seven times it occurs in the absolute sense (without a predicate) in which Jesus identifies himself with the unique God (apart from whom there is no other, and no second), and seven times it occurs in a predicated sense: for example, “I am the light of the world.” This is the only exception. Was this intentional?

The man born blind was a beggar. He was known so little—he was so “faceless” to people—that they can hardly recognize him. They think he is the same man; others are not so sure.

When Jesus asserts “I am” to us, he becomes to us the face of God. God is omnipresent, of course. When God becomes incarnate in Jesus, obviously Jesus’ body is not the location of God in the universe, for God is everywhere, and indeed, the universe exists in God. However, when God speaks to us, God becomes personal: that is, God is a person who addresses us as persons. God is an “I” and we become “you.” Likewise when we address God, God becomes “you” and in the act of addressing God, we become an “I.” When God reveals the divine presence, God says, “I am.” The word that reveals God because it comes to us addressing us, reveals God as a person, and reveals us as persons. We are face-to-face with God. God has a face (the revelation of God) and by it we acquire our own face.

(Do not confuse this sense of “person” with personality. That is completely different.)

We can look at it in terms of people. By myself I am aware of my individuality but not of my personhood. I am a person in relation to others. I have a face when I am seen. When I address another, I do not talk into their feet but look at their face, and (hopefully) they look at mine. We become persons as we “face” each other. For in that “look” I recognize the subjectivity of the other and they mine. The other is a “you” because I recognize that they are their own “I am.” They thus become present to me and I to them.

In the same way, God is not simply an abstraction or an impersonal “energy.” God has God’s own subjectivity. God is conscious, even though we cannot possibly conceive of what that means except by analogy to our own consciousness. Yet there is univocity. For we are conscious only because God is conscious. Our consciousness is derivative of God’s own. God breathed into our physical substance and we became a living being; we became conscious. And face to face with God, or with another creature, we become a person; we acquire a “face.”

The man who was blind now sees; he can now say “I am” to others. In his blindness he was dead to others; now he is alive. Spiritually, in his shared unbelief with others, he was dead; now that he can see, he is alive to God, alive to others, alive to life.

He is, in a way, resurrected. Now that he can see, his expression is so different that people do not even recognize him. In the same way, Jesus also was transformed by his resurrection and people do not at once recognize him. He is the same, yet he is not the same. Part of people’s inability to recognize the new person is their expectations. People see what they expect to see; it is very difficult for people to even notice what is completely new when they are looking for something else. This is the double-take: when it occurs to someone that what they have just seen is not what they thought they just saw.

“So they said to him, ‘Then how is it that your eyes were opened?’ He answered, ‘The man called Jesus made a paste, daubed my eyes with it and said to me, ‘Go off and wash at Siloam’; so I went, and when I washed I gained my sight.’ They asked, ‘Where is he?’ He answered, ‘I don’t know’” (9:10-12).

At once the man testifies about Jesus. He does not know where Jesus is; he has, indeed, never seen him. All he knows is Jesus’ name and what he himself experienced. “I was blind and now I see.” This is our Christian witness or testimony. Not every Christian is in a position to explain the faith, and the world would be better off if less Christians tried. The world has the silliest ideas about Christianity because so many Christians (including preachers) have said the stupidest things. Nevertheless, every believer can speak honestly with their neighbor: “This is what happened to me; the rest, ‘I don’t know.’”

On the other hand, when others attempt to explain what happened to you, this is not always helpful either. Depending on one’s perspective there are different explanations: cultural, sociological, psychological, biological, even biochemical. They can all be accurate in their own sphere. The spiritual explanation can also be accurate, and in terms of comprehensiveness, is the most complete (since it can include the others, whereas the others cannot necessarily take the spiritual into account: for example, a chemical understanding of human behavior cannot take into account psychology, but psychology can take into chemistry). Consequently, when it comes to an understanding that tries to take into account the role of the Holy Spirit, we need to take a spiritual approach.

When the woman of Samaria testified about what happened in her experience, the whole town came to Jesus and saw for themselves and believed. In the case of this man, where the setting is neither Galilee nor Samaria but Judea (Jesus’ “own”), and indeed, Jerusalem, he is met with disbelief and resistance at every turn.

“They brought to the Pharisees the man who had been blind. It had been a Sabbath day when Jesus made the paste and opened the man’s eyes, so when the Pharisees asked him how he had gained his sight, he said, ‘He put a paste on my eyes, and I washed, and I can see.’ Then some of the Pharisees said, ‘That man cannot be from God: he does not keep the Sabbath.’ Others said, ‘How can a sinner produce signs like this?’ And there was a division among them. So they spoke to the blind man again, ‘What have you to say about him yourself, now that he has opened your eyes?’ The man answered, ‘He is a prophet’” (9:13-17).

The man was brought to the Pharisees (teaching authorities) and he testifies to them as well. The Pharisees are divided in their reaction. Those who belong to the intolerant school of Shammai think that God’s behavior has to conform to their ideas about God or else the works of God must have another explanation. If it is not God it must be a malevolent spirit. They are not prepared to reexamine their own interpretations of the Scriptures, even though their well-meaning colleagues do not see things the same way.

In the same way, when Christians make up their mind that God hates homosexuals and transgendered people and sex workers, then when God is at work in these outcast lives their critics are completely blind to God’s work and immediately come up with other explanations (these people must be deluded, they say). Even though their well-meaning fellow Christians understand the Scriptures differently, they are unwilling to reexamine their own interpretations. They cause considerable harm.

The point comes when people demand to know, “What do you say about him?” We have testified and borne witness to what we have seen and to what has happened to us. But where do we stand with respect to him? Are we on his side? Where is our allegiance? The man confesses, “He is a prophet.” This may not be adequate as a “statement of faith” but it expresses the man’s allegiance to Jesus. This context is different than Matthew 16:15. The question here is: are you for him or against him. The man chooses not to be ambivalent and weasel out of a conflict by saying, “I don’t know.” He takes a position on the basis of the best of his understanding. “He is a prophet.”

This is technically how confession differs from witness (though witness usually involves confession). To con-fess is to take sides; it is the opposite of being ashamed. Jesus says that we must confess him before others and not be ashamed of him. This does not mean that we should seek conflict, but rather that we should not be afraid of it. The world (as represented by “some” of the Pharisees) does not like Jesus and we have to not be afraid of them; we need to be able to stand up to them even if we are not in a position to argue with them (arguing is hardly ever useful in any case). They are bullies and will resort to violence if they are too insecure and become afraid (or if they are just used to using coercion to have their way). This is where our witness becomes confession and martyrdom.

“However, the Jews would not believe that the man had been blind without first sending for the parents of the man who had gained his sight and asking them, ‘Is this man really the son of yours who you say was born blind? If so, how is it that he is now able to see?’ His parents answered, ‘We know he is our son and we know he was born blind, but how he can see, we don’t know, nor who opened his eyes. Ask him. He is old enough: let him speak for himself.” His parents spoke like this out of fear of the Jews, who had already agreed to ban from the synagogue anyone who should acknowledge Jesus as the Christ. This was why his parents said, ‘He is old enough; ask him’” (9:18-23)

On the one hand, the zealous Pharisees—of the school of Shammai (the school of Hillel understood the Sabbatical laws in a more gracious sense)—wanted to blame the parents for how badly their son turned out. This is typical of society. We are the result of our upbringing, they say. Our parents are to blame. Every time a crime is committed by a young person, the parents are immediately blamed (sometimes for good reason, but often unfairly).

On the other hand, the parents are afraid of these Pharisees. They make no attempt to protect their son or commit to his welfare in any way. They own him as their son, but they take are still willing to hand him to the wolves. They are certainly afraid for themselves; but they may also be affected by the assumptions that the disciples exposed in 9:2. People may have blamed them for their son’s blindness; and so they have been quite happy to distance themselves from him. (After all, why is their son a beggar?) Now that people are blaming their son for something else, they want to reinforce that distance.  They may also feel that their son is blind because of his own sin, though why he would have been born blind is hard to explain on this basis, unless it was for a sin he committed before he was born. Bad karma from a previous life perhaps (ideas of reincarnation were not entirely foreign to the Hellenistic Jews). In either case, they do not want to be implicated in their son’s affliction or behavior, before or now.

In this section it is not the Pharisees who sent for the parents of the man but “the Jews.” By this we have to understand not the ethnic or religious Jew (as we normally understand the word) but either the Judeans (what the word literally is) as a general term for the people of Jerusalem or the zealous among them who were kowtowing to the Pharisees of the school of Shammai (in the Acts of the Apostles these zealots became the Judaizers). They in effect represent the Pharisees, and we see in verse 40 that they are never far away.

Since this takes place in association with the Feast of Sukkōt, perhaps we are also meant to see something else. The fearful parents, afraid to even entertain the question of who Jesus might be, are like the older generation in the wilderness who, on account of their fear of entering the Promised Land, were condemned to wander in the desert until their deaths. Only their children entered the Land.

As often in this gospel, we are also seeing a particular idea in stages, a progression is taking place: things are building up to something. What they are building up to is the man’s expulsion from the synagogue in verse 34. The people of Jerusalem question him (verses 10-12); they bring him to the Pharisees and they question him (verses 15-17); and then they question his parents and his parents refuse to stand by him (verses 19-23). At each step his isolation from the community becomes more conspicuous.

“So the Jews sent for the man again and said to him, ‘Give glory to God! We are satisfied that this man is a sinner.’ The man answered, ‘Whether he is a sinner I don’t know; all I know is that I was blind and now I can see.’ They said to him, ‘What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?’ He replied, ‘I have told you once and you wouldn’t listen. Why do you want to hear it all again? Do you want to become his disciples yourselves?’ At this they hurled abuse at him: ‘It is you who are his disciple, we are disciples of Moses: we know that God spoke to Moses, but as for this man, we don’t know where he comes from.’ The man replied, ‘That is just what is so amazing! You don’t know where he comes from and he has opened my eyes! We know that God doesn’t listen to sinners, but God does listen to people who are devout and do his will. Ever since the world began it is unheard of for anyone to open the eyes of someone born blind; if this man were not from God, he wouldn’t have been able to do anything.’ They retorted, ‘Are you trying to teach us, and you a sinner through and through ever since you were born!’ And they ejected him” (9:24-34).

The humor of all this not withstanding, the point of this passage is that they finally threw him out of the synagogue; they ejected, expelled or excommunicated him. He continued his witness and his confession, and with boldness, sarcasm and a sense of humor. But it got him expelled. Why?

Notice that he reasons with them. We are reminded of the sad crisis of the Protestant Reformation. One side resorted to reason, the other to authority. This is not to say that the man’s reasoning was perfect or flawless or that there was no point that could have been made to undermine it. However, they did not argue with him on the basis of reason. They argued on the basis of authority. We trust Moses (meaning, they trusted their teachers’ interpretation of Moses), they said. We do not know where this man Jesus comes from—that is, he is not recognized by our authorities (our teachers). In other words, they were content to let their teachers do their reasoning for them.

When the man persisted, their attack did not counter his argument, it became ad hominem; they attacked his person, which was completely beside the point that he was making.

Obviously arguing did not help. He did not change their minds; he only aggravated them.

However, the point I believe is not the futility of arguing nor the worthiness of reasoning in itself. The point seems rather that the man was taking responsibility for himself and not handing that responsibility over to a teacher or a teaching authority. He recognized that his faith (where he was going to place his spiritual allegiance) was too important to let someone else decide for him. We are each on our own when we stand before God. Krishnamurti had some very important things to say on this point.

This reliance on authority is the mark of organized religion. When Christians insist on the authority of Rome, the teaching authority of the “church,” the authority of the Bishops, the authority of their particular denominational body, or even the authority of the Bible (meaning their interpretation of it), and certainly when they insist on the authority of God (whose mind they can authoritatively represent), they undermine real faith. Faith is not based on anyone’s authority, and cannot be. As soon as it is, it is not faith but subservience.

Faith is based on the authority of God, but not as represented by another. That authority can only be known inwardly by the voice of the Holy Spirit. The word of Scripture only bears the authority of God when it is brought to life by the Holy Spirit. And indeed, the word of Scripture needs to come to life for us in this way.

I do not mean to oversimplify the issue of authority. It is actually more complicated than what I am representing here. For the Bible does have a certain authority, and so does the Tradition of the church, and so does the church (depending on how we understand it), but in each case this has to be properly understood. There are various forms of institutional authority and there is even such a thing as spiritual authority. However, when it comes to believing, that is, to saving faith—to our commitment and allegiance to Christ—there can be no secondhand Christians, those who believe merely on the authority of another. Each person must take firsthand responsibility for herself or himself.

Superficially we may be using our reason, our gut feeling, or our intuition, but what we are looking for is to make an answer to Christ from our heart.

Religious institutions by nature are insecure as is evident by their use of coercion. The more coercion they use, the more insecurity and fear there is. They ultimately want to control people and therefore people who conform easily are the easiest to work with. When people think for themselves they are admired as long as their conclusions are agreeable. However, if their conclusions differ, they are no longer welcome. If they do not leave on their own, they are rendered invisible or otherwise ostracized. The man in our story was “thrown out.”

“Jesus heard they had ejected him, and when he found him he said to him, ‘Do you believe in the Son of man [or Son of God]?’ ‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘tell me who he is so that I may believe in him.’ Jesus said, ‘You have seen him; he is speaking to you.’ The man said, ‘Lord, I believe,’ and worshiped him” (9:35-38).

Here the story reaches a sort of conclusion. The man was isolated on account of his experience, and became increasingly more isolated until he was actually cast out of the fold that enclosed the other sheep. The fold (or sheep pen) was the teaching, or rather the teachers, that held them bound. He probably felt very alone at that point, for he had never even seen the person who had given him sight, the person that he had been sticking up for, and for his having done so had gotten him in this predicament. Now what?

Jesus found him, the gospel tells us. The man was one of Jesus’ sheep, whom he had called by name, and whom he had cast out of the fold. This is what Jesus says in 10:4—“When he has cast out all those that are his …” This word, “cast out” (ek-bal) is the same word used in 9:34—“And they cast him out.” In chapter 9 we see the earthly point of view: they cast him out. In chapter 10 we see the heavenly point of view: the shepherd cast him out. He was cast out that he might find a home in Jesus, a place to abide. “When [the shepherd] has cast out all those that are his, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow because they know his voice. They will never follow a stranger, but will run away from him because they do not recognize the voice of strangers.” This is Jesus’ commentary on chapter 9.

So, Jesus finds this sheep who got cast out of the fold (because he somehow, in his own way, was hearing Jesus calling him), and “tests” him to see if this sheep recognizes the shepherd’s voice: “Do you believe in the Son of man?” The Byzantine text has “Son of God” but this difference should not trouble us. The Son of man is a messianic title (see Daniel 7:13) that Jesus frequently applied to himself and that the man would have understood. Again, the test was not about the man’s theological astuteness but about his personal allegiance to Jesus himself. The supremacy of the title in either case pointed to Jesus’ identity with the person—the face—of God. As soon as Jesus said, “He is speaking to you,” the man said, “I believe, Lord,” and prostrated himself. He used the word “Kyrie” (Lord) both in verse 36 and in verse 38, but its significance obviously changed. In the first case it was a polite, “Sir,” but when he says, “I believe,” the word is one of obeisance to lordship.

“Jesus said: ‘It is for judgment that I have come into this world, so that those without sight may see and those with sight may become blind’” (9:39).

Jesus said earlier that God did not send him to judge the world but that the world might be saved through him (3:17). Yet he also says that the Father does not judge anyone but has given all judgment to the Son (5:22). The Son’s very presence in the world brings judgment to the world. Coming to Christ is like coming to a fork in a road. One must decide, and on this decision one’s judgment depends. It is not that Jesus was judging anyone, though that day may come, but that his person forced a judgment on people.

When those who cannot see receive sight by their encounter with Jesus, this is one side of the fork. When those who “see” are proven to actually be blind, this is the other side of the fork. In reality no one can see. When we insist that we can see, we reinforce our blindness. When we acknowledge our blindness, we become receptive to sight. (Wise people are those know they are fools; fools all think they are wise.) The statement is a paradox, playing on the assumption of spiritual sight and the reality of it.

“Hearing this, some Pharisees who were present said to him, ‘So we are blind, are we?’ Jesus replied: ‘If you were blind, you would not be guilty, but since you say, ‘We can see,’ your guilt remains’” (9:40-41).

The Pharisees understood what Jesus said. They understood that he was accusing them of blindness. His response plays on the paradox to reinforce its meaning. When he says, “If only you were blind,” he means, if only you realized that you are blind. But because you say, “We can see,” you obviously do not. To be blind is to see only the realm of matter and the realm of the soul. Matter can only see matter. Soul can see matter and soul, but not spirit. Spirit can see matter, soul and spirit. Our spirit needs to awaken so that it can see the reality of creation (it is so much more than matter) and things divine.

This is why Jesus came into the world—that we our eyes may open and we may see.

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