Eyes Opened to the Light of God—Lectionary Reflection for Lent 4A (John 9)

John 9:1-41 New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition

                9 As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am he.” 10 But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 11 He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” 12 They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

                        13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. 14 Now it was a Sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15 Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” 16 Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the Sabbath.” Others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. 17 So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.”

                        18 The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19 and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” 20 His parents answered, “We know that this is our son and that he was born blind, 21 but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” 22 His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews, for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23 Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”

                        24 So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” 25 He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 26 They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27 He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” 28 Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29 We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” 30 The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes. 31 We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32 Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34 They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

                        35 Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36 He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so 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, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. 39 Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment, so that those who do not see may see and those who do see may become blind.” 40 Some of the Pharisees who were with him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” 41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.


                The story of the healing of the man born blind will be familiar to many. As is often true in the Gospel of John, this is not only a healing story. It is also the foundation for a teaching moment. In John’s Gospel miracles serve as signs of God’s work in the world. While the Synoptics envision the coming of God’s realm to be out in the future, for John the kingdom of God is present now. In his miracles, Jesus reveals the presence of the eschaton in the here and now. In this reading, the central message involves Jesus’ declaration that he is the “Light of the World” and the inability of religious leaders to see the light due to their being in darkness. The central character in this conversation is a man who was born blind, but whose sight is restored on the Sabbath. The question posed to us has to do with whether we can see the light or if we live in spiritual darkness.

                I titled an earlier reflection on this passage “Spiritual Blindness.” What that is in essence the core issue, I’ve been chastened of late concerning the use of disability in negative ways. Thus, I’ve been seeking to be more self-aware as to how I might fall into patterns of turning to stereotypical depictions of disability. That is easy to do here as one of the central questions has to do with the relationship of the man’s disability to some form of sin. The assumption of the day was that disability was a sign of a divine curse. Surely, we don’t believe that today, and yet it’s easy to simply spiritualize disability and maintain the stereotype. So, with that in mind, I will enter the conversation with this passage.

                The story begins with Jesus walking through the city of Jerusalem near the Pool of Siloam. He encounters a man who, according to John, was born blind. The disciples ask Jesus what caused this man’s blindness. Was it his sin or that of his parents? The assumption here is that disability is rooted in sin. It is an act of judgment. Jesus offers a different interpretation. This man’s blindness has nothing to do with anyone’s sin. Instead, his blindness (whatever its cause) serves as an opportunity for God’s power to be revealed (a sign of God’s realm). By revealing God’s power, Jesus gets a teaching moment about spiritual blindness. The message is that there is more than one kind of blindness. It can be physical (as in this case) or spiritual.

                As you can tell, this is a challenging text. Amy Kenny, in her book My Body Is Not a Prayer Request suggests that the disciples acted in a way similar to many folks when it comes to disability. They’re uncomfortable with it. They want to know the cause, but they remain disconnected from the man, who doesn’t even have a name. In their eyes, his identity is subsumed in his disability. On the other hand, Kenny suggests that Jesus engages with the man (though he still doesn’t get a name—she rectifies this by giving him the name Zach). However, “Jesus inverts their idea of blindness by showing the disciples that disability becomes a place of encounter with the glory of God.” She goes on to say that the man’s “disability helps reveal the Light of the Word to people who think of themselves as holier than disabled people. Disability is no longer a symbol of sin but one of being open to revelation. Disability unveils God’s work to the community, if only people are willing to receive it” [Kenny, My Body Is nota Prayer Request, pp. 6-7]. 

            This is a lengthy passage that continues into John 10. It’s easy to get lost in the weeds, but the point isn’t the healing but the presence of God’s glory and our ability to perceive it. This is where the idea of spiritual blindness comes into play. Sometimes we get so focused on rules that we miss the light of God. In this case, the religious authorities are so focused on being sticklers about sabbath rules that they fail to see what God is doing in their midst. To be clear, Jesus is not rejecting the Sabbath, he’s just prioritizing human need above rules designed to benefit the people.  So, while the light of God is present in our midst, can we see it? Now, it needs to be pointed out that the man born blind does not seek healing, so in the minds of the authorities, there is no hurry. They’re not opposed to the man being healed. They just don’t believe this is the day for it. So, why break the rules?

                The man born blind, who is never named, is both the protagonist and how Jesus reveals something about God. As John tells the story, Jesus sees in his disciples' question an opportunity to reveal something about his identity, a sign of God’s presence in his life and ministry. Note that Jesus declares here that “as long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (Jn 9: 5). After this, he spits on some dirt, turns it into mud, and applies it to the man’s eyes, telling him to go and wash his eyes (now covered with mud) in the Pool of Siloam. He does as he is told, and returns to where he had encountered Jesus, being able to see. What is intriguing here, and is something I think I’ve missed before, is that Jesus doesn’t ask the man if he wants to be healed of his blindness. He just applies mud and tells him to wash out his eyes. This seems a bit presumptuous, but it works. As for the man’s neighbors and other observers, they are amazed that this man who had spent his life begging could now see. They weren’t sure he was the same man, but he insisted that he was the man. As for how this happened, all he knew was that there was this man named Jesus who took mud, applied it to his eyes, and told him to wash off the mud. Now he could see. As for where Jesus was, he couldn’t say.

                It’s at this point that the religious leaders step in to conduct an inquiry. They speak to both the man who had been blind before Jesus healed him and his parents. First of all, they want to know who healed him. Secondly, did he think the man who healed him was a prophet? The man being questioned responds that he doesn’t know the identity of the man who healed him. In other words, Jesus didn’t identify himself to the man. As for whether the man is a prophet—in other words, whether he acts on behalf of God—the man assumes that this act of healing came from God. It’s a blessing, so surely it is an act of God. When that answer doesn’t fit what they hoped to hear, they question the man’s disability. Perhaps he's only pretending to be blind. That theory falls apart when the parents are brought in. They confirm that he had always been blind, but they didn’t know who had healed him. Besides, the man was an adult so let him speak for himself. John suggests that they were leery of answering because they understood that if they confessed Jesus as Messiah they would be kicked out of the synagogue (this rationale reflects a later concern when the synagogues were being divided over Jesus).

                Unable to get the answer they wanted from the parents, the religious leaders turn back to the man. They try to get him to declare that Jesus is a sinner, something he wouldn’t agree to. His inquisitors try to coerce testimony from him, but he’s too quick for them. They insist Jesus is a sinner, but the formerly blind man tells them that whether or not Jesus is a sinner, he can’t say. All he knows is that “though I was blind, now I see.” 

                Keeping in mind the challenge posed by Amy Kenny that we not use disability in stereotypical ways, how might we read this passage spiritually? The underlying issue is living in spiritual darkness—not being able to see what God is up to in the world. In this story a previously blind man has his sight restored. Where once he could not see, now he can see. The larger story has to do with those who have spiritual authority in the community and fail to see what God is doing in their midst. They miss the sign. In their mind, Jesus is a sinner. That determination is based on their belief that God couldn’t be listening to Jesus because he’s not playing by their rules. How often is that true for us?

                In the story, the man who had previously been blind, when questioned about how his sight had been restored, assumes that this must be from God. How could Jesus do something so wonderful if what he was doing didn’t come from God? The question then concerns Jesus’ earlier claim to be the light of the world and the relationship of that claim to this sign. The issue concerns who can discern God’s presence (God’s glory) in the world. The religious leaders have deemed Jesus a sinner, as one cursed by God, so how can he be the one who reveals God’s presence? As for the man who stood before them, in his responses, affirming that Jesus must be acting on behalf of God, he must be silenced. After all, his blindness must be a sign that he had been cursed by God, so how could he teach theology to those who perceived themselves as the arbiters of righteousness? Thus, he would have to be evicted from the synagogue. That is, they deemed him to be a heretic. Regarding the way in which John casts the Pharisees, we need to be careful that we don't cast aspersions on them. Too often they become villains in the story, and that picture gets placed on Jews as well.  

                Our reading concludes with Jesus revealing himself to the man, whom the religious authorities had excommunicated.  Jesus asks this man who now stands outside the established religious realm if he believes in the Son of Man. The man, who had not seen Jesus with his own eyes to that point, asks Jesus who this Son of Man is so he could believe in him. When Jesus points to himself, the man believes and “worshiped him.” Thus, in confessing his belief that Jesus is the Son of Man, he is declaring that he, unlike the religious leaders, has seen the light. In the realm of eschatological and apocalyptic thinking, the Son of Man is the one who comes in judgment, thus in this case the formerly blind man faces this judge and is welcomed by him. Having had his eyes opened he recognizes that he stands in the presence of God (revealed in the person of Jesus), and thus finds it necessary to express his wonder in worship. That is, he gives glory to God by recognizing that in Jesus God’s light shines into the world.

                The passage poses the question to us: do we see the light of God present in Jesus or do we remain in darkness? What might be the blind spots in our own lives where we fail to see God at work and perhaps even hinder that work? While the man in this story didn’t ask Jesus to heal him, he seems grateful for that healing. As for us, is there a need for healing in our lives? Is there a need, that is, for God to open our eyes to the things of God?

                So, we sing:

Open our eyes, Lord,
we want to see Jesus,
to reach out and touch him,
and say that we love him.
Open our ears, Lord,
and help us to listen.
Open our eyes, Lord,
we want to see Jesus.

(Bob Cull)


Image Attribution: Duccio, di Buoninsegna, -1319?. Healing of the Man Born Blind, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56662 [retrieved March 12, 2023]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Duccio_di_Buoninsegna_037.jpg.