Lent 4 30th March 2014 Year A
As I have said John’s Gospel is far different from those other three we call the synoptics. While for Matthew, Mark and Luke miracles as ‘powers’ and ‘wonders’ are evidence in themselves as to whom Jesus is, in John’s gospel miracles of themselves do not tell us much but rather act as ‘signs’ (the word John uses) in order to point to something deeper. Thus it is in this story that the actual miracle is dealt with in just two verses, while its significance is surveyed in the other 39 verses.
Our story commences with theological orthodoxy. The disciples on seeing a blind man ask of Jesus as to who sinned this man or his parents given that he was born blind. Physical illness in the Israel of Jesus’ time, as in much of the ancient world was held to have spiritual roots in that either one or one’s forebears had done wrong. Illness in the time of Jesus not only had a physical dimension to it but also a societal and theological dimension. It could cause one to be cast both out of the society and relationship with God as one was regarded as being unclean. This type of understanding is a very comfortable one to hold while one is in good physical health allowing you to push off sin onto the one who is ill while simultaneously affirming one’s own virtue. . Jesus rejects this sort of speculative orthodoxy as to the cause of the man’s blindness and announces the positive action he will undertake to restore the man’s sight in order that God might be glorified. Jesus, rather than being involved in idle speculation as to cause moves to bring healing and wholeness. Then he affects this strange cure. The manner of the cure makes Jesus to look like a magician, common in the ancient world. It is of a different order to his usual cures affected either by prayer or just through his own powers. Here he appears to use a magical means.
Whatever the means, the formerly blind man now sees and comes to see ever more profoundly while those claiming sight fall ever more deeply into darkness. The neighbours and friends are initially those portrayed as blind in their doubting as to whether this was the man they formerly knew, but it will be the religious leaders, the Pharisees who will be shown primarily as those descending into darkness. Let us first turn however to the healed man. John uses subtle nuances in the text to indicate the man’s growing vision of just who Jesus is. At first asked as to where Jesus is he replies, ‘I do not know’ (verse 12). Later on asked his opinion on Jesus he states ‘he is a prophet’ (verse 17). Later on being questioned further he comments ‘that having done such a thing this man must be from God’ (verse 33). By the end of our reading in his conversation with Jesus, the man declares, ‘Lord, I believe.’ In this final part of our reading, the conversation with Jesus, there is also a play on the word ‘kyrie’ which from the Greek may be translated ‘sir’ or ‘lord.’ Initially the man is using it in the former sense but by the end of the conversation he is using it in the latter deeper sense.
The opponents in this episode, the Pharisees, however, plunge into the growing blindness of incomprehension. Their attitude becomes progressively more rigid and close-minded toward Jesus. Initially they claim that this man, because he does not keep the Sabbath Law, cannot be from God (verse 16). Next they refuse to believe that the man had indeed been born blind (verse 18), before simply dismissing this man as ‘a sinner’ (verse 24). Later they simply revile him (verse 28-29). Here there is a subtle dig at Jesus parentage, ‘we do not know where this man comes from?’ This reflects the charge being made at the time of John’s writing in the face of Christian claims regarding the miraculous nature of Jesus’ birth, that in reality it was dubious. Finally they begin to heap malice upon him charging him with being one ‘born in utter sin’ (verse 34). John concludes his account by the assertion that their attitude has caused them to sink into deep blindness (verse 41). Three times in our reading they are made to say how well they claim to be able to see but in reality as we have seen, they are falling into blindness.
In constructing this dialogue John contrasts the arrogant confidence of the Pharisees with their assertions as to how they know exactly who Jesus is; one ‘not from God’ (verse 16), that Jesus ‘is a sinner’ (verse 24), that his birth is questionable (verse 29), whereas the blind man is presented as humbly being open to a growing understanding about Jesus.
As I said John has a very particular use of miracles. They are not an end in themselves but as signs point to something deeper which we are called to understand. To what deeper things does this miracle point? What lessons are we meant to learn from it?
First we need to understand how in God a great reversal takes place. It is so easy for those claiming sight from perhaps holding the right tradition or orthodox understanding of God, and confidently dismissing those others who differ from them as sinners, it may be that they are falling into blindness in their religious arrogance while it is those so confidently dismissed as ‘sinners’ who are actually those with growing sight. There is a cautionary tale for us in such. God has a different way of doing things. Is that not the lesson we learn from our 1 Samuel reading where we learn of the choice of David? God is not captive to our ways and when we attempt to so make God we are falling into darkness.
God, and God’s actions, cannot be contained within our own categories of certainty. When we so try to capture God it may be that we who claim to be the ‘seeing’ smugly judging the ‘blind’, are falling into blindness, while those we accuse of ‘blindness’ are those who exhibit growing (in)sight. This is the danger which Jesus makes clear to us where he speaks of the blind seeing and the seeing becoming blind (verse 39). The story calls us to rejoice in the blind seeing while also issuing us, who may all too easily claim to see, a salutatory caution. We come to share in the feast at this table. Let us always remember the radically open nature of the table.