The Sunday gospel lectionary reading for Lent 4 in this Year A continues with the third of our four encounters between Jesus and individuals in the Fourth Gospel:
- Lent 2: Jesus and Nicodemus (John 3.1–17)
- Lent 3: The woman of Samaria (John 4.5–42)
- Lent 4: The man born blind (John 9.1-41)
- Lent 5: The raising of Lazarus (John 11.1-45)
As we noted, this sequence of passages offered the pattern of study in the early catechumenate, providing a framework for discipleship for those preparing to be baptised at Easter. We find various themes revisited, and the expressions of faith in the person of Jesus develop throughout the sequence.
These four encounters do not particularly stand out as a sequence in the Fourth Gospel (for instance, in connection with the seven signs or the ‘I am’ sayings) but they are highly characteristic of the gospel’s narrative style. Whilst the gospel contains more detail of the names of both places and people than the Synoptics, it also features these close-up one-on-one encounters between Jesus and individuals, in which all the details of place and other people fade into the background, as if we are in a cinematic close-up.
This particular encounter appears to be distinct from the previous chapter, in that the characters involved and nature of the dispute is quite different. In chapter 8, Jesus is debating with ‘Jews who had believed in him’, that is, those who have fallen away on account of his challenging teaching in John 6.66. (Mark Stibbe identifies these as one of four groups antagonistic to Jesus within the overall narrative.) And it includes the suggestion of knowledge of Jesus’ unusual birth, in the accusatory phrase ‘We were not born of sexual immorality…’ (John 8.41).
By and large, in this gospel, Jesus is depicted as something of a lonely hero; in this passages the disciples (that is, the Twelve) make one of their few appearance as a group—and they appear to be more of a hindrance than a help to Jesus’ ministry here. The description of the man as being ‘blind from birth’ heightens the nature of his predicament, and so will also serve to heighten the wonder of the healing miracle. It is striking that the disciples want to look back, and explain the cause of the man’s predicament, whereas Jesus wants to look forward and see the potential for God to be at work bringing both actual healing and spiritual insight. Perhaps this is a helpful pattern to note for us as well.
Although a distinct unit of narrative, this episode is also connected with themes throughout the gospel. Jesus’ repeats one of his seven ‘I am…’ sayings, which he first claimed in the previous dispute at John 8.12. But this goes right back to the opening Prologue, where the Word is life which brings true light into the darkness of the world (John 1.9). Although this is a positive image, it is also connected with the complex themes of judgement throughout the gospel which we met in the Nicodemus encounter:
This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil (John 3.19).
The contrast between the ‘daytime’ of Jesus’ earthly ministry, and the coming ‘night’ when he is gone (presumably the context in which the gospel author is writing and his first readers are reading) is picked up again in John 11.9, in the episode with Lazarus that comes in next week’s lectionary reading. But in the final revisiting of these idea, in John 12.46, Jesus is clear that all those who believe in him continue to walk in the light, even if surrounded by darkness in the world around.
At a large scale, the whole episode has quite a careful narrative structure, in which each scene in the first half has a matching scene in the second half (a structure known as ‘chiasm‘ after the Greek letter chi X):
Scene A (1–7): Jesus, the disciples and the blind man
Scene B (8–12): the man and his neighbours
Scene C (13–17): the man and the Pharisees
Scene D (18–23): the ‘Jews’ and the man’s parents
Scene C’ (24–34): the man and the Pharisees
Scene B’ (35–38): Jesus and the man
Scene A’ (39–41): Jesus and the Pharisees
There is no need to see this narrative structure as suggesting the episode is a work of fiction; there are many ways to recount a story, and we all know good storytellers who being real events to life in the retelling. And there is overwhelming evidence of historical detail in the gospel. But this does make it an engaging story to read and reflect on—so much so that you can actually use the passage as script for a drama with no editing at all! The overall shape does make the story unusual, in that the central section is the longest narrative that does not focus on the person of Jesus in all the gospels, outside of the birth narratives in Luke and Matthew.
But the structure also has another effect. Candida Moss is quite wrong when she comments (in relation to the Bible and disability):
When Jesus meets people with disabilities, he fixes them and that’s a sign that he is powerful. That relegates people with disabilities to just being there to show the power of God. They’re not really real characters or real people who have feelings and needs and personalities. That pushes them to the margins of the story.
Nothing could be further from the truth here. The story begins and ends with a striking contrast between Jesus and his interlocutors. At the start this is with the disciples, and they are the ones who want to treat this man as an exercise in theological reflection. And, similarly, at the end, Jesus’ approach contrasts with the religious ‘puritanism’ of the Pharisees. In the middle of the narrative there are two encounters between Jesus and the man himself, in classic Johannine one-to-one conversation. The first time, Jesus heals him, and the second time he invites him into relationship as a disciple. The man is a real and rounded character, who shows courage, wisdom and wit, and who is certainly not at the margins of this story.
At the smaller scale, the level of detail, this narrative makes extensive use of stichomythia, a dramatic technique originating in Greek drama—but in continued use in plays and films today—in which different characters recite alternate lines, often in tension or contradiction with one another.
Stichomythia is particularly well suited to sections of dramatic dialogue where two characters are in violent dispute. The rhythmic intensity of the alternating lines combined with quick, biting ripostes in the dialogue can create a powerful effect.
This helps to heighten the contrast and tension between Jesus and his opponents, and challenges the reader to consider which side of the debate they themselves sit on.
Jesus’ action in response to the man’s condition—spitting on the ground, and applying the mud thus made to his eyes—is unexplained, and might appear to be rather random, given that on other occasions Jesus has healed with a word. But it is characteristic of this gospel’s concern with the material world, the kind of interest which might explain why the account of the woman caught in adultery, in John 8 in most Bibles, has been included in this gospel, with its mention of Jesus rather randomly ‘writing in the dust’ (John 8.6).
Sending man to a pool call ‘sent’ is again characteristic of this gospel, and the whole narrative, where real sight corresponds to spiritual (in)sight—but there is no particular reason to attribute this to the creation of the writer rather than the action of Jesus himself. Sending someone to wash in order to be healed offers an echo of Elisha sending Naaman to wash in the Jordan in 2 Kings 5, which perhaps encourages the man later to describe Jesus as ‘a prophet’ (John 9.17).
The initial debate between the man and his neighbours puts the whole question of witness/testimony centre stage. In Jewish law, a blind man cannot be accepted as a reliable witness. But in response to questioning by his neighbours, the man offers a full account of what Jesus has done, which matches the earlier description—thus showing us that he is, in fact, a reliable witness. The man describes Jesus’ action as ‘anointing’ his eyes with mud. Anointing would usually be done with something special like oil, and often by an appointed person like a priest; but in Jesus’ hands the ordinary becomes something special.
The gospel author has held back from us, as is his style, some information vital to the tension in the narrative: that Jesus has healed on the Sabbath. The criticism of Jesus by the Pharisees, and the nature of their attack, is completely in line with the tension between Jesus and his opponents that we find in the Synoptic gospels. You would usually make make mud to form things, so this could be interpreted as an act of work. But note that here, as in the Synoptics, there is no suggestion that Jesus disregards or views lightly the keeping of the Sabbath; rather, he is challenging the Pharisees’ interpretation of Sabbath regulations, and is concerned with the intention and purpose of these laws, rather than the minutiae of later regulations that have arisen. It is striking that the narrator notes that the Pharisees were ‘divided amongst themselves’ (John 9.16); opposition to Jesus was by no means uniform, and we later see that the Pharisee Nicodemus appears to have become a follower of Jesus (John 19.39).
In response to their interrogation, the man once again repeats his testimony: ‘He put mud on my eyes, and I washed, and I see.’
In verse 18, we come to the central section of the narrative. We are told that ‘The Jews who did not believe’ that the man had been healed summoned his parents, which illustrates the complexities in interpreting the term ‘the Jews’ in this gospel. The gospel itself is, in many way, thoroughly Jewish, focussing on Jesus’ activity at the Jewish feasts, noting Jewish practice, and claiming emphatically that ‘salvation is from the Jews’ (John 4.22). But ‘the Jews’ are often depicted as Jesus’ opponents; here, this must mean ‘the Jewish leaders’, since they appear in this episode to be identical to the Pharisees who oppose Jesus and criticise the man.
We learn from the comments of his parents that the man is ‘of age’, and so not in any way a legal dependent. But in a culture where family ties are understood to be more binding than they are in much of Western culture, it would not have been unnatural to talk to the parents about the situation.
And this is the turning point of the narrative. The man’s parents knew that he was born blind; they know that he can now see. They also know the intention of Jesus’ opponents, and the power that they have. So the question is: will they acknowledge the truth, and stand with their son in his testimony? Or will peer pressure and fear determine their response? Implicitly the narrator is asking us the same question: in a world divided for and against Jesus, where will we stand?
The man’s second encounter with the Pharisees/Jews offer a stark contrast to the ambivalent and evasive response of his parents. Under the increasing pressure of the interrogation, the man simply repeats his testimony: ‘One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.’ Despite increasing aggression, it is the man who seems to be on the front foot, first teasing them that perhaps they wish to become disciples of Jesus, and then taunting them with sarcasm ‘How bizarre! You don’t know where he is from, yet he opened my eyes!’ In response to the logic of his argument (‘If he were not from God, he could not do such things’) they are reduced to ad hominem personal attack.
The term for ejection from the synagogue, ἀποσυνάγωγος, aposunagogos, occurs only in this gospel in all of ancient literature (at John 9.22, 12.42 and 16.2). It was therefore considered to be a technical term, akin to excommunication from the Catholic Church, which might be understood to have salvific significance. In fact, the first century Jewish synagogue was more of a community than a religious institution, and the main significance is that the man has been excluded from the community, from its relationships and support, and is thereby publicly shamed.
In response to his ejection by the Pharisees/Jews, he is embraced by Jesus. Jesus hears of the man’s fate and seeks him out; having invited him to receive healing in their first encounter, he now invites him into the discipleship of faith. Jesus’ final sayings, at first apparently directed to the man, but then sliding into a final dialogue with Pharisees, combines Johannine language of judgement between light and darkness that we saw earlier, this time expressed in the parallel terms of sight and blindness, with the language Jesus uses in quoting Isaiah 6.9–10 in relation to his teaching in parables (Mark 4.17). Though he has come to save the world (John 3.16) his presence and the sharing of the good news about him will always be divisive, since it demands a response—and so the world is divided between those who respond positively, and those who respond negatively.
For a lively discussion of the issues here, join Ian and James as they talk together about this passage.