Sin and blindness

Next Sunday is the 4th Sunday in Lent, Year A. You can read a complete commentary on the Sunday Gospel here.

1 As he passed by he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3 Jesus answered, “Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him. 4 We have to do the works of the one who sent me while it is day. Night is coming when no one can work. 5 While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6 When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made clay with the saliva, and smeared the clay on his eyes, 7 and said to him, “Go wash in the Pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). So he went and washed, and came back able to see.

8 His neighbors and those who had seen him earlier as a beggar said, “Isn‘t this the one who used to sit and beg?” 9 Some said, “It is,” but others said, “No, he just looks like him.” He said, “I am.” 10 So they said to him, ”(So) how were your eyes opened?” 11 He replied, “The man called Jesus made clay and anointed my eyes and told me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ So I went there and washed and was able to see.” 12 And they said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I don‘t know.” 13 They brought the one who was once blind to the Pharisees. 14 Now Jesus had made clay and opened his eyes on a sabbath. 15 So then the Pharisees also asked him how he was able to see. He said to them, “He put clay on my eyes, and I washed, and now I can see.” 16 So some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, because he does not keep the sabbath.” (But) others said, “How can a sinful man do such signs?” And there was a division among them. 17 So they said to the blind man again, “What do you have to say about him, since he opened your eyes?” He said, “He is a prophet.” 18 Now the Jews did not believe that he had been blind and gained his sight until they summoned the parents of the one who had gained his sight. 19 They asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How does he now see?” 20 His parents answered and said, “We know that this is our son and that he was born blind. 21 We do not know how he sees now, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him, he is of age; he can speak for himself.” 22 His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews, for the Jews had already agreed that if anyone acknowledged him as the Messiah, he would be expelled from the synagogue. 23 For this reason his parents said, “He is of age; question him.” 24 So a second time they called the man who had been blind and said to him, “Give God the praise! We know that this man is a sinner.” 25 He replied, “If he is a sinner, I do not know. One thing I do know is that I was blind and now I see.” 26 So they said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27 He answered them, “I told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples, too?” 28 They ridiculed him and said, “You are that man’s disciple; we are disciples of Moses! 29 We know that God spoke to Moses, but we do not know where this one is from.” 30 The man answered and said to them, “This is what is so amazing, that you do not know where he is from, yet he opened my eyes. 31 We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if one is devout and does his will, he listens to him. 32 It is unheard of that anyone ever opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33 If this man were not from God, he would not be able to do anything.” 34 They answered and said to him, “You were born totally in sin, and are you trying to teach us?” Then they threw him out. 35 When Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, he found him and said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36 He answered and said, “Who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?” 37 Jesus said to him, “You have seen him and the one speaking with you is he.” 38 He said, “I do believe, Lord,” and he worshiped him. 39 Then Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment, so that those who do not see might see, and those who do see might become blind.” 40 Some of the Pharisees who were with him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not also blind, are we?” 41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you are saying, ‘We see,’ so your sin remains.”  (John 9:1-41)

Our narrative begins with the simple phrase “As he passed by…” It lacks the general markers (time, geography, etc.) that indicate a break in continuity, sug­gesting that John intends the story of the blind man to be read in continuity with the preceding chapters. So, what was in the preceding chapter? The primary narrative in Chapter 8 is the “woman caught in adultery,” Jesus’ self-identification as the “light of the world,” and a long discussion between Jesus and the “Jews” about the very nature of what it means to be of the covenant people – a dialogue that occurs in the context of the Feast of Tabernacles.

Jesus’ claim to be the light of the world (8:12) is repeated in 9:5, and the healing miracle in John 9 stands as a demonstration of this claim. In addition, the Mishnah identifies Siloam, the water in which the blind man bathes (v.7), as the source of the water for the water libations of the Tabernacles feast, strengthening the connection. Finally, John 9-10 build on Jesus’ denunciation of the “Jews” in John 8. The intense conflict between the healed man and the Pharisees (esp. 9:24-34) dramatizes the theological arguments of the earlier debate. Clearly, there is continuity – and we will encounter more of these “echoes” as we study the gospel narrative. There are also key Johannine ideas that must be kept in mind as we move forward. Key among them are: miracles and sin.

Miracles. The standard NT word for miracle is thauma (wonder), dunamis (mighty work), and terata (portent). John does not use any of these words – he simply says sēmeia (sign) a word that is unique and distinctive to Christianity.

The seven miracle accounts in the Fourth Gospel are all found in chapters 1–12 (from AYBD):

  • water into wine (2:1–11) – unique to John
  • healing of an official’s son (4:46–54) – see also Matt 8:5–13 and Luke 7:1–10
  • healing of a paralytic at Bethesda (5:1–15) *
  • feeding of a multitude (6:1–14) – see also Mark 6:32–44, Matt 14:13–21 and Luke 9:10–17
  • walking on water (6:16–21) – see also Mark 6:45–52 and Matt 14:22–33
  • healing of a blind man (9:1–41) *
  • resurrection of Lazarus (11:1–44) *

*  similar in type to miracles reported in the other gospels

Though the number of miracles in John is fewer than in any of the Synoptic Gospels, their importance has long been recognized by scholars, even while their meaning, function, and source have been much discussed and disputed, beginning with the distinctively Johannine terminology for miracle. Aside from one instance, miracles are called either sēmeion, “sign” (2:18; 4:54; 6:14, 30; 10:41; 12:18), in the plural sēmeia, “signs” (2:11, 23; 3:2; 6:2, 26; 7:31; 9:16; 11:47; 12:37; 20:30) or, ergon/a, “work,” a word consistently used by Jesus.  Ergon/a is a broader term that can embrace Jesus’ words (14:10), his whole mission (17:4) as well as his miracles (e.g., 7:21; 10:32, 7:3; 9:3–4; 10:25, 32, 37–38; 14:10–12; 15:24).

In the gospel of John, the semeia themselves are extraordinary and point beyond themselves to the divine – not just the divine as a vague power, but to a person. They identify Jesus as the light (8:12; 9:5; 12:46) and life (11:25; 14:6) of the world, the bread of life from heaven (6:35, 41, 48, 50, 51), and the Logos who, through the semeia/signs, reveals his own glory (1:14; 2:11; 11:4), which is also the glory of God his Father (11:4; 11:40), since he and the Father are one (10:30, 38; 14:3, 10, 11, 20; 16:15, 32; 17:21) and since he does the Father’s will (4:34; 5:30; 6:38) and works (erga: 4:34; 5:36; 9:4; 10:25, 32, 37; 14:10; 17:4).

And those semeia, not surprisingly, evoke a variety of responses has we have seen in earlier chapters of the Fourth Gospel and as we will see here in John 9. The responses can be generalized as follows:

  • For some, Jesus’ wonderworking endorses him as prophet sent by God (2:11, 23; 3:2; 4:39, 45–47, 49, 53; 6:2, 14; 7:31; 11:45–48; 12:11, 18). Jesus is critical of this type of response. When you consider what is being revealed, “prophet” is a cautious response at best. Jesus characterizes the response as untrustworthy (2:24) and wrongly motivated (6:26); ultimately, it fails (12:37). Those who give this tepid response are described as “the Jews.” A term which has a very mixed use in this gospel.
  • There are many places in the gospel where “the Jews” is a negative term designating those Jews who are skeptical toward or reject the sēmeia and/or the claims Jesus makes in connection with them (2:18, 20; 5:10, 16; 6:41, 52; 9:18; 10:24–25, 31–33; 12:11). Sometimes the those who reject the sēmeia are specified further as “the Pharisees” (7:31–32, 47–48; 9:13, 15–16, 40–41; 11:46–47; 12:18–19) or “the rulers” (7:48), though the latter term more often designates persons in the first category (3:1; 7:26, 50; 12:42). The hostility between Jesus and Jewish authorities in his day is reflected in these passages; but equally, if not more, important, they reflect antagonism between the evangelist’s community and the Jews of his day.
  • But there are those who see Jesus’ miracles for what they are, signs identifying him as the life and light of the world, the bread from heaven, the one sent by the Father (2:11; 6:69; 9:38; 11:41–42) to do his works (5:36; 10:25). Jesus can therefore invite belief in his works as a way to perceiving that he and the Father are one (10:38; 14:11). This last group reflects the clearest division in the body of the faithful:
    1. Those who believe, and
    2. Those who do not believe and the quite understandably charge Jesus with blasphemy (10:33; cf. 5:18; 8:58–59; 19:7).
    3. Even his disciples fail to comprehend his relation to the Father (14:8), eliciting an astonished reaction from Jesus (14:9) and, later, the prediction that the faith they profess (16:30) will not stand the test (16:32)—not surprisingly, for to believe such claims requires a deeper and true understanding.

Sin in the Gospel according to John. John seems to understand sin in a way that accents a singular aspect in a way that deserves mention. Words for “sin” occur often in our text: hamartano = “to sin” (9:2, 3; elsewhere in John: 5:14 & 8:11); hamartia = “sin” (9:34, 41); hamartolos = “sinner” (9:16, 24, 25, 31 — all the occurrences in John). The question is does John’s discussion match the discussion of hamartia in the other gospels?

In our passage, the concept of sin will be quickly introduced via the disciples’ question in v.2 : “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  This reflects tradi­tional Jewish speculation on the relationship of illness and sin (cf. 5:14). In 1st century Palestine, people commonly assumed that disease and disorders on both the personal and national level were due to sin, as summarized in the rabbinic saying from around 300 CE that “there is no death without sin and there is no suffering without iniquity” (b. shabbat 55a).

Consider the biblical text underlying 1st century thought: (a) Based on Ex 20:5 and Dt 5:9 where God promises to punish “children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation,” e.g., a birth defect must have been the result of parent’s (or grandparent’s) sin. (b) Based on Ezekiel 18:20: “A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent, nor a parent suffer for the iniquity of a child; the righteousness of the righteous shall be his own, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be his own” – a birth defect must have been the result of sins committed in the womb by the child. The rabbis debated whether fetuses could sin, some arguing they could (for example, Genesis Rabbah 63:6) and others that they could not (Genesis Rabbah 34:10) – a line of reasoning because of the enmity between Jacob and Esau in the womb.  These seem to have been two views present in Jesus’ day.

But Jesus’ words in vv.3-5 turn the conversation away from the disciples’ conventional theodicy concerns. In the Fourth Gospel, “sin” is not a moral category about behavior, but is a theological category about one’s response to the revelation of God in Jesus (8:21, 24; cf. 9:39-41; 16:9) – which for John is the heart of the semeia. The man’s blindness is not an occasion for reflection on sin and causality, but is an occasion with revelatory significance. The “need” that evokes the miracle, then, is not the man’s blindness, but the need for God’s works to be made manifest. It is interesting to compare Jesus’ words in v. 3 with the framing of the Cana miracle story in 2:1-11. In that story, the revelatory dimension of the miracle is brought out explicitly at the end (2:11), but here the reader is told what to look for before the miracle occurs.

In a number of ways, Jesus challenges the common perception of sin:

  • First of all, Jesus challenges the thinking that suffering was the direct result of sin. He says that it is neither (v.3; although 5:14 seems to suggest that sin and suffering are connected). Neither can it be assumed that because the Pharisees are healthy and have normal vision, that they are sinless.
  • Secondly, he challenges the thinking that sinfulness is directly related to obeying the sabbath laws. Jesus does what is expressly forbidden – kneading; yet we know he is not a sinner. Neither can it be assumed that because the Pharisees perfectly obey the sabbath laws that they are sinless.
  • Thirdly, he challenges the thinking that neither God nor the righteous (Pharisees) should listen to sinners (v.34). Certainly God listened to the supposedly sinner Jesus and the Pharisees should have listened to the formerly blind man. Neither can we assume that because the Pharisees (or clergy!) appear to be righteous, that God listens to them more than to sinners or that they speak for God any more than sinners can speak for God.

Healing the Blind.  On a final note, before we begin, Brian Stoffregen wrote the following and it is worth repeating here: “It has been suggested that the origins of denominations occurred when the healed blind men met each other. At first they were all excited about the miracle of sight that Jesus had given them, but as they talked about how Jesus had healed them, they began to discover some significant differences. For some, the healing came with simply a touch from Jesus (Mt 9:29 ; 20:34 ). Another proudly boasted that he had enough faith so that Jesus didn’t have to touch him to perform the miracle (Mk 10:52 ). Another meekly exclaimed that Jesus not only touched him twice, but also “spit on his eyes” in order for him to see clearly (Mk 8:23 ). The final one really felt embarrassed to admit that even though a touch wasn’t part of his healing, Jesus’ “spit” wasn’t enough. Jesus had mixed his saliva with dirt and put the mud on his eyes and then told him to go and wash in some pool of water (Jn 9:6-7 ). Since each one thought his healing was normal and better than the others, they divided into spittites and non-spittites; muddites and non-muddites; touchites and non-touchites. Denominationalism was born.”

David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1996) Harold Remus, Miracle (NT), 4:856-70

Brian Stoffergan, Exegetical Notes on John 9:1-41 at


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