This weekend we celebrate the 4th Sunday in Lent, the encounter of Jesus and the man born blind. In yesterday’s post we began to consider the details of the text, discussing the settings of the encounter and the healing itself. Today, we move into the repercussions of the healings: a series of interrogations. It is the longest section of the read and will be covered over the course of today and tomorrow.
If there is a “typical” pattern to any miracle account it is: (a) the situation of need, (b) the miracle, and (c) the attestation/witness to the miracle. It is here that John’s telling of the story has unique features – already discussed in earlier posts considering the nature of “miracles” and “sin” in John’s writing. As we work through the various interrogations, be attentive to the way people respond: the true witness, an equivocating witness, an unbelievers, the one who dodges the question, or similar responses that reveal whether the person has seen the light and is willing to live/act based upon that belief.
Questioning by neighbors and acquaintances (9:8-12). Jesus’ healing of the man born blind produced an immediate visible transformation: he no longer sat and begged. Confronted with this evidence, his neighbors and those who knew him as a blind beggar asked whether this is actually the man who used to sit and beg? The man’s healed presence is a source of division. The answers were various: some claimed that it indeed was the man they knew to be a blind beggar. Others said, “No, he just looks like him.” They thought it was impossible for a man born blind to be healed, and so distrusted their eyes—the man before them must be someone else. No one bothered to ask the man about his identity whether he was the one who used to sit and beg, but the man (born blind) himself insisted that he indeed was that man.
Once they have established that he is indeed the blind beggar they had known, they ask the obvious question of how he came to have his sight (v. 10), and he recounts what happened (v. 11) – and in so doing becomes a witness to the Light. This question will be asked four times in this story, stressing that something highly unusual has taken place, something that cannot be explained in the categories of this world. Unlike the man by the pool of Bethesda, this man realizes from the beginning that Jesus is the one who has healed him (v. 11; cf. 5:12-13), but he does not know where Jesus is (v. 12). This ignorance will be resolved soon enough. The deeper ignorance of the opponents, who do not know where Jesus is from (v. 30), does not improve as a result of this act of mercy and glory on Jesus’ part. The man’s admission of ignorance is an attribute of a true disciple, revealing him to be honest and humble. He stands in marked contrast to the Jewish opponents in this story, for they claim to know what in fact they realize they do not really know (v. 24; cf. v. 16). It is precisely this lack of integrity and self-awareness that Jesus criticizes in his conclusion to this story (vv. 39-41).
Preliminary interrogation by Pharisees (9:13-17). What follows is puzzling: the neighbors brought to the Pharisees the man who had been blind. This action might have arisen from a desire on their part to bring to the Pharisees’ attention evidence of the great miracle Jesus had performed. However, the next words foreshadow difficulties their action would create: Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud and opened the man’s eyes was a Sabbath. Mixing saliva and dirt was regarded as kneading, and applying an unusual salve was regarded as healing. Both these actions were prohibited on the sabbath according to Pharisaic tradition. As in 5:1-18, the concern with sabbath violation reflects an issue current in Jesus’ time. To violate the sabbath law was to challenge the laws that bound the Jewish covenant community together and the Pharisees’ authority as interpreters of those laws. Whether intended or not, the neighbors’ action provided the Pharisees with evidence against Jesus, and brought the man born blind under Pharisaic scrutiny.
Hearing the miracle was performed on the Sabbath “the Pharisees also asked him how he was able to see.” They were not interested in the miracle that had occurred, nor the benefits it procured for the man. They wanted only to know ‘how’ it was done, because they wanted evidence to use against Jesus. The man responded more cautiously to the Pharisees than he had to his neighbors. His narrative does not mention “kneading” or that Jesus sent him to the Pool of Siloam; only that he washed, with the result ‘now I see’.
Jesus’ violation of a sabbath prohibition is thus seen by some of the Pharisees as evidence of Jesus’ distance from God (v. 16a). This conclusion resounds with irony (as the blind man will point out in v. 33), because the correct interpretation of the healing is as the revelation of God’s works (v. 3). Some of the Pharisees, however, link this healing with other miraculous acts Jesus has performed (note the use of the plural “signs” (semeia), v. 16b). This schism among the Pharisees (v. 16c) echoes the divided response of the blind man’s neighbors (vv. 8-9; cf. 7:12, 25-27, 31, 40-43).
Like the preceding scene with the neighbors (vv. 8-12), the Pharisees’ interrogation of the man provides an opportunity for the blind man to bear witness to his healing (v.15). There is a progression in the man’s witness: earlier, he identified his healer simply as “the man called Jesus,” but in this scene he identifies Jesus as a prophet (v. 17; cf. 4:19). The man’s growing awareness of the truth of Jesus’ identity (cf. vv.30-33, 36, 38) underscores one of the story’s central theological themes: blindness is not determined simply by seeing or not seeing, but by recognizing the revelation of the works of God in Jesus (cf. vv.3,41).
Image credit: Healing of the Man Born Blind, El Greco, 1567, Public Domain