Interrogations – Part 2

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 first wave of post-miracle interrogations. Today, we continue to explore the unfolding interrogations – note: it is a long one!

The man’s parents questioned by the Jews (9:18-23). The religious authorities are divided about Jesus and the meaning of his miracles/signs. The point of division is Jesus’ disregard for their sabbath regulations and the idea that God would work though such “lawlessness.”  One possible way to resolve their impasse and division is to challenge the testimony of the man about his former condition – was he really blind from birth? “Now the Jews did not believe that he had been blind and gained his sight….” And so they summon the man’s parents and ask three questions: (a) Is this your son? (b) Was he born blind? And (c) How is he now able to see? The parents respond that he is indeed their son who was born blind, but they refuse to speculate on how he gained sight.

This is now the third time the question of “how” has been asked. But here the parents understand the question to be asking for more than what mechanism enabled him to receive his sight – and they answer cautiously:  “Ask him, he is of age; he can speak for himself.” A Jewish boy comes of age at 13 years (m. Niddah 5:6) and one day and is then able to give legally viable testimony. The parents pointed out that since their son was of age he could answer for himself.

The evangelist explains why they were so cautious: “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.” This is the first of three occasions in the Fourth Gospel where belief in Jesus as the Christ is linked with the threat of expulsion from the synagogue (v.22; 12:42; 16:2).

A second interrogation of the man by the Jews (9:24-34). In the third and final interrogation scene, the authorities are identified only with the pronoun “they.” They are clearly the same group identified as the Pharisees who interrogated the man in vv. 13-17, but the motivation for the second interrogation is also clearly linked to the parents’ testimony and their rebuttal: “…he is of age.”  The man is recalled before the elders.

Twice in this interrogation scene the authorities hold their knowledge up to the man and expect him to accept their positions (vv24, 29). Each time, however, the man counters with his own experience (vv.25, 30-33).  The authorities offer: “We know that this man is a sinner. We know that God spoke to Moses, but we do not know where this one is from.”  The man-born-blind replies: ““If he is a sinner, I do not know. One thing I do know is that I was blind and now I see. This is what is so amazing, that you do not know where he is from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if one is devout and does his will, he listens to him. It is unheard of that anyone ever opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he would not be able to do anything.”The fact that the man holds his ground in the face of the Jewish authorities gives this interrogation scene a markedly different cast from the preceding two (vv. 13-17, 18-23). The authorities try to intimidate the man with their status and knowledge, but he will not be intimidated.

The Jewish authorities’ renewed interrogation could be seen as a fulfillment of their responsibility to gather as much evidence as possible in order to decide a case (cf. Nicodemus’s request that Jesus be granted a full hearing in accordance with the law, 7:51), but their opening words make clear that their minds are made up: “Give God the praise!” (v. 24).

This expression is a traditional oath formula, through which a person is enjoined to tell the truth (e.g., Josh 7:19) or confess one’s sin (e.g., 1 Sam 6:5; Jer 13:16) as evidence of one’s worship of God.  The man-born-blind is not intimidated by their opening “salvo.” Ironically, the man will acknowledge God’s glory in the healing work of Jesus (vv. 30-33; cf. 1:14; 2:11; 11:4), while the authorities will turn their backs on this manifestation of God’s glory.

The man does not engage the Jewish authorities in the category of their expertise (what constitutes sin according to the law; v. 25a), but instead contrasts their claim with the reality of his experience and hence his understanding (v. 25b). His refusal to bend to their knowledge is in itself a challenge to their authority, as is the content of his words. The man’s insistence on what he knows confronts the Jewish authorities with a contradiction inherent in their definition of sin; their focus on the violation of the law precludes a focus on the healing (cf. 5:10-15; 7:21-24).

Verse 27 reveals that the man has not been fooled into believing that the authorities’ repeated questions have anything to do with a judicious search for information. The mock earnestness of the man’s response is a skillful example of Johannine ironic understatement, as he cleverly turns the authorities’ inquiries against them. For the first time in this series of interrogations, the Jewish authorities become the one under examination, rather than the examiners (v.27 b-c). The man’s final comment: “Do you want to become his disciples, too?” is calculated to taunt the authorities. One can imagine the pleasure with which the audacity of the man’s question would be read by a community who saw its own story being played out in these verses.

The dialogue of John 8 is clearly echoed here as the authorities respond to the taunt that they are “disciples of Moses.” In Jewish literature, “disciple of Moses” occasionally appears as a designation for the rabbis. By using this designation of themselves here, the Jewish authorities stress their faithfulness to the Mosaic law. The disdain with which the authorities contrast the man’s status as a disciple of Jesus (v. 28, lit., “you are a disciple of that one”) with their own status makes clear that to them, one can be either a disciple of Moses or a disciple of Jesus, but not both. From the perspective of the Fourth Gospel, however, in order to be fully faithful to Moses and the promises of God to Moses, one must be a disciple of Jesus. Discipleship of Jesus as the true enactment of Mosaic discipleship was suggested in 5:45-47, where Moses was shown to be a witness to the revelation of God in Jesus. For the Fourth Gospel, faithfulness to the grace and truth available in Jesus, not faithfulness to the law, is the decisive mark of true discipleship.

The authorities continue their rebuke of the man by pointing to the superiority of Moses’ relationship to God (v. 29). That God spoke to Moses is a mainstay of the Pentateuch narrative. This assertion by the authorities becomes an ironic claim for the reader of the Gospel, however, because while God may indeed have spoken to Moses, Jesus is the Word of God made flesh (1:14). The authorities’ self-professed ignorance of Jesus’ origins continues a theme that was prominent in John 7-8 (e.g., 7:28, 41-42; 8:23). They assume Jesus’ origin is simply a matter of geography and do not perceive the theological dimension of Jesus’ origins, that he comes from God (cf. 8:14). Through their assertion of their knowledge in v. 29 (cf. v. 24), the authorities in reality reveal more about their ignorance than they intend. Interestingly, one of the most vivid depictions of Jesus’ origins occurs in the reworking of the Mosaic traditions in John 6, in which Jesus is identified as the true bread from heaven (6:32-35, 49.51, 58).

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. The Jewish authorities correctly characterize the man’s words to them as teaching; he has indeed taken over their role as teacher of the faith. The authorities reject his teaching on the same grounds that they attempted to dismiss Jesus’ healing: The man is a sinner. In the case of the man, however, the case for his sin is not built around sabbath violation, but around the traditional linkage of sin and illness (cf. 9:2). Jesus had dismissed this linkage as the appropriate category through which to interpret the man’s blindness (9:3-5), and the authorities’ continued adherence to this category is further proof of their distance from the revelation of God in Jesus. The expediency that drives the authorities is also exposed in this charge, because while earlier they rejected his blindness as a way of dismissing the miracle (vv. 18.19), now they accept his blindness as a way of dismissing the man as a sinner.

Image credit: Healing of the Man Born Blind, El Greco, 1567, Public Domain

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