This is the second of three Sundays on which we encounter a reading from the Gospel of John that the church has long associated with Lent and, in particular, that the church has long associated with the catechumenate: with that period of preparation for baptism or, if you are already baptised, with that period of deepening our encounter with God and with neighbour. This trio of readings began last week with Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well, they continue this week with Jesus healing the man born blind, and they wrap up next week with the raising of Lazarus.
The Johannine scholar, Sandra Schneiders, whose work has profoundly shaped my understanding of the Gospel of John and, in particular, whose work has profoundly shaped what I am going to share with you this morning, describes these three readings as Archetypal New Testament stories, each of which could be synopsised with a single word. As Jesus comes to the well, we discover Water. As Jesus heals the blind man, we discover Light. As Jesus raises Lazarus, we encounter Life.
Water, Life, and Light.
These three, Water, Life, and Light are the central images of baptism – Schneiders suggests that we could also express them as Washing, Illumination, and finally Initiation into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Today we sit with the middle of these three stories: Light or Illumination or, if you prefer, just plain old Seeing. This is an unusual story within the Gospel of John insofar as it has parallels in the Synoptic Gospels, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Most of the time, the individual or the community that wrote the Gospel of John drew from its own tradition of stories about Jesus and, outside of the Passion narrative, that tradition doesn’t overlap a whole lot with the other three Gospels. Today’s story is among the exceptions to that rule. All four Gospels tell us about the healing of a blind person. John and Mark even share the extraordinarily earthy detail that Jesus heals the blind man by using his saliva, by pressing his spit into the man’s eyes.
Because of the shared nature of the story, we have the opportunity to do something that we don’t get to do all that often, and that is to contrast the themes that John underlines with the themes highlighted by Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
Let’s begin with a question: what is the general structure of a healing miracle in the Synoptic Gospels? In broad terms (and there a lots of exceptions to this rule), we could say that these miracles tend to have four or five acts. First, someone in need of healing seeks out Jesus: the women with the hemorrhage grasps his garment; the man on the stretcher, with his friends’ help, gets lowered through the roof; the blind man – or, in some cases, the blind men – call out to Jesus, Have mercy on me! Second, Jesus heals the person or people, usually through physical touch, through his hands. (That part is the same as what happens in our story today.) Third, there is some kind of dialogue between Jesus and the healed person. Fourth, the gathered crowd is amazed. And fifth, Jesus will often tell the crowd or the healed person or the disciples to tell no one about what has happened.
Now consider today’s story.
Notice that the man whom Jesus heals does not call out to Jesus or seek Jesus. When the blind man or men call out to Jesus in the other stories, they inform those of us hearing the story that they know that Jesus heals, that they know who Jesus is. John’s blind man, by contrast, is almost passive in this interaction. Jesus is walking along the road. Jesus sees the blind man. And then Jesus initiates the healing. Both the seeing and the seeking, in other words, are reversed. The blind man – and this is one the many places in scripture where the boundary between the literal and the metaphorical vanishes – doesn’t see Jesus. That is a literal, physical reality: the man’s eyes don’t work, they haven’t since he was born. And nor does he see or understand Jesus spiritually. He begins the story blind in every sense.
Notice as well – and this is where I am going to spend some more time – the forensic or courtroom nature of John’s telling of this miracle. This reading is full of argument, some of it aggressive, most of it heavy with irony and double meaning. As soon as this passage begins, Jesus’ disciples present him with a theological question that borders on being a legal question: Whose fault is it that this man was born blind, the man or his parents? Jesus says that it neither he nor his parents are at fault. Then Jesus heals him. And the real argument begins.
The players in these arguments include the formerly blind man himself, the man’s neighbours, the man’s parents, the religious authorities, and finally Jesus himself. Even though everyone but Jesus and the healed man are part of a larger group, from a dramatic perspective there are never more than two characters on stage at any given time. That’s because the neighbours and the parents and the religious authorities all function in more or less the same way as Greek chorus: these groups speak together, there are no individuals whom we encounter. Each of them see – or not – in their own way.
The neighbours simply can’t believe what they have witnessed. At one level they see just fine: there is no question that the blind man is healed. But at another level, they don’t see at all. In a lot of ways, these folks are like many of us today: scepticism runs deep in our culture – we often speak of it as though it were a kind of intellectual virtue – and the upshot is that when we encounter something mysterious or miraculous we reflexively dismiss it. That just can’t be true. Even though the healed man is the same person whom the neighbours have know for years – his healing doesn’t change his appearance, after all – the neighbours say, “It can’t be him. It must be someone like him.”
The man’s parents cannot make a similar mistake or engage in a similar rationalisation – if you are a parent, there is no being unsure of whether or not someone is your child. The parents see that the miracle has happened but, because of their fear of the religious authorities (a fear that may be pretty darn reasonable – I want to be careful that we don’t get smug in our piety and judge these folks), they won’t name what they have seen out loud. When the religious authorities come to them, they say, “Go ask our son.”
And then there are the religious authorities and the healed man. These two characters (again, I’m conceptualising the authorities Greek chorus-style, so as effectively a single entity) have kind of mirror image one another over the course of the story. The man understands and articulates more and more about who Jesus is as the passage wears on: he initially refers to him as “the man called Jesus”; in his next conversation, he identifies Jesus as prophet; in his third conversation with the authorities he identifies Jesus as being from God; and in his final conversation – this one with Jesus himself – he sees. He confesses that Jesus is Lord and he worships him.
The religious authorities, by contrast, begin in a place wherein we might give them the benefit of the doubt, wherein we might assume that they are genuinely searching out the truth. But as the truth mounts, as the truth becomes increasingly incompatible with their world perspective, they become more and more hostile. When the man born blind proves to be an unsatisfactory witness – when he doesn’t give them the testimony that they want, the testimony that says Jesus is a charlatan or a phony – they declare the man to be a criminal himself, to be hopelessly lost in sin, and they drive him out.
Both the man and the religious authorities get a final conversation with Jesus. Jesus says to the one whom he has healed: you have seen. You have seen the Son of Man. By the story’s end, all of his blindness, real and metaphorical, is gone. He is healed in every way.
The religious authorities, by contrast, end in almost the opposite place. They had a glimpse of the truth, of the light. But they made a heroic effort to close their eyes. But John leaves a glimmer of hope at the story’s end. Because the authorities, at the very end, have this little burst of humility, this fleeting instant of holy doubt in which they say to Jesus:
We’re not blind –
And the story ends with the possibility that they, too, will be healed. They too will see.
Jesus sometimes tells parables. And in encounters such as this one, he lives parables. This is a parable about how God sees us and seeks us. It declares the good news that, even when we can’t or won’t take a step towards God, even when we are resisting or rejecting God, God is still looking for us and loving us.
And this is a parable about seeing that, in a funny way, is also a parable about the necessity of becoming blind first. The religious authorities can’t see because they have convinced themselves that they have seen already. There is a cautionary tale here for all of us who spend a lot of time reading about Jesus and thinking about Jesus: we are always at risk of making Jesus into an object of study rather than someone with whom we have a lived encounter.
Somehow, in order to have the openness to meet Jesus, to be transformed by Jesus, to be healed by Jesus, we need to begin by acknowledging our blindness. We need to begin by acknowledging that we don’t see. Amazingly, it is in our blindness that Jesus seeks us, that Jesus touches us, that Jesus heals us. That Jesus leaves us blinking with surprise and wonder as, for the first time, we see the light of the Son.