By Derek Elkins
March 2, 2008
John 9: 1-41
(mp3, 6.7Mb) ]
Gospel reading for today
is the whole of Chapter 9 from the Gospel of John, and we’re going to dramatize
As [Jesus] 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 the man.’ But they kept asking him, ‘Then how
were your eyes opened?’ 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.’ They said to him, ‘Where is he?’ He said, ‘I do not
They brought to the
Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when
Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 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.’ Some of the Pharisees said, ‘This man is not
from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.’ But others said, ‘How can a man
who is a sinner perform such signs?’ And they were divided. 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.’
The Pharisees 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 and asked them, ‘Is this
your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?’ His parents
answered, ‘We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 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.’ His parents said this because
they were afraid of the Pharisees; for they had already agreed that anyone who
confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore
his parents said, ‘He is of age; ask him.’
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.’ He answered, ‘I do not know
whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I
see.’ They said to him, ‘What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?’
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?’ Then
they reviled him, saying, ‘You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses.
We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know
where he comes from.’ The man answered, ‘Here is an astonishing thing! You
do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God
does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and
obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone
opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he
could do nothing.’ T hey answered him, ‘You were born entirely in sins, and
are you trying to teach us?’ And they drove him out.
Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and
when he found him, he said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’* He
answered, ‘And who is he, sir?* Tell me, so that I may believe in him.’ Jesus
said to him, ‘You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.’ He
said, ‘Lord,* I believe.’ And he worshipped him. Jesus said, ‘I came into
this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do
see may become blind.’ Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to
him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were
blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin
A Throbbing Story
ever think that 1440 might be among the worst years in history? I’m not saying that the advent of the printing
press definitely was the worst event
in history (certainly not with the many atrocities we can all list off the tops
of our heads in which many people were killed); I’m just saying that maybe it was one of them. I’m really
thinking about one repercussion of the printing press in particular that has so
changed the course of history that we will never
recover what those fortunate souls had before Gutenberg got inspired. I’m
thinking of the Bible.
professor at Drew University reminded me this week that before the contents of
the Bible were fixed onto pages that got bound up with leather, string and
glue, these words formed stories, poems, love songs and letters that expressed
the experiences of people relating to God and each other. Before they were
marbleized and eternalized as the Word of
God, they were stories people told their kids, and songs people sang at
parties, and poems wives recited to their husbands in the bedroom. And when
these stories were told, people spoke back—sometimes questioning; sometimes
affirming; always in dialogue. I’m so glad we have the Bible; its stories and
traditions connect us to a heritage that is much greater than ourselves. I
believe firmly that it is the work of inspired artists, kings and common folk.
But, if we don’t connect this heritage (holding up Bible) with our lived experiences, than Gutenberg
and King James and Zondervan have not done us any favors by selling us
John 9 is a
perfect example of a story that throbs on the page, if we listen to it closely.
We have evidence of this story being used in baptismal rites dating back to the
fourth century, which means it was formed and circulated long before that.
Many scholars think this story was first used as a sermon within the community
from which we get the gospel of John.
The story was told to a community of people undergoing an intense time of fracture—people
were questioning their own allegiances and the loyalty of their friends, family
members and trusted authorities. Some in the community had discovered a new
revelation of God in Jesus Christ, while others found hope and promise in the
Hebrew faith that had been handed down through the ages.
They say that no one fights as fiercely as siblings, and what we find in John
chapter 9 is a family feeling torn asunder. Listen.
like everyone in this text is divided. Jesus and the disciples disagree over
the reason for the man’s blindness. The neighbors cannot come to consensus when
the blind man is healed. “Is it him? It can’t be him?” (vv.8-12) Even the
Pharisees are having a theological debate, asking, “Does God do good works through
the hands of sinners?” (v.16) Finally, the fracture that bothers me the most is
between the parents and their son. Called to testify, the parents recognize
their son, but refuse to associate themselves with the healing for fear of
indictment. They say to the Pharisees, “Ask him; he is of age.” (v.21) They
leave him standing there alone to fend for himself.
reels us into its turmoil. It wants us to experience the bewilderment of the
disciples, the confusion of the neighbors, the anger of the Pharisees, the fear
of the parents, the confidence of the blind man. The original audience was
meant to “overhear” their own experience in this story. The story is complete,
so the audience doesn’t expect a hidden agenda, but it leaves clues to its hearers,
whispering, “Pssst. This is your story. No matter who you identify with, this
is your story.” When a story is
overheard in this way, it has power to affirm and accuse, even within the same
person. Only the blind man is presented in a guilt-free light, and he is left
muddy and deserted by Jesus, his neighbors, his parents and his pastors.
There’s no one in this story unaffected by the turmoil within the community. Listen.
terms, a “catastrophe” is an action that initiates the denouement,
or plot resolution.
Something awful has to happen to produce enough of a response in the characters
to bring about the resolution. A catastrophe need not be awful in the negative
sense; it could be awful in a sense that is “solemnly impressive” or
A catastrophe could be so wonderfully magnificent that everything else pales in
comparison. In that way, the blind man’s healing is wonderfully catastrophic. “Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone
opened the eyes of a person born blind.” (v.32)
distant and divisive as this story may first appear, it ought to also sound
familiar. This story follows a formula that has become popular in Hollywood: a
wandering wise man blows into town and creates a scene by forming a
relationship with a person who becomes his student. The relationship is deemed
inappropriate by the authorities, and we are left feeling like the authorities
got it wrong, even though they were probably just doing their job. Think of the
movies “Dead Poets Society,” “Finding Forrester,” and “With Honors.” All these
movies raise the question of authority. Whose authority do we heed: Our own?
Our tradition’s? Our teacher’s?
In many ways, this is our story. We live in a
time wrought with questions of authority. Many of us have come to believe that
we only have authority to speak about our own experience. That’s the testimony
of the blind man when he says, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know
where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes.” (v.30)
youth group recently, we were writing brief statements of our beliefs and one
youth asked, “Why do we need to use the Bible to support our beliefs? Why do we
need anything beside ourselves to support our beliefs?” That’s a question many
of us are asking. I told this youth that the Bible is a history of God’s
revelation to the world and a collection of people’s experiences with God. When
we connect our lives to the stories and experiences described in the Bible, we
anchor our lives with something deep and lasting—something bigger than
response to this youth is like the Pharisees who say, “We know that God has
spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.”
(v.29) It’s good and it’s true, but it doesn’t take into account the person who
used to be blind standing in front of us now. The Pharisees and I were
attempting to connect our people to something deep and lasting because we know
that autonomy quickly becomes isolation.
this story, honoring the Sabbath represents one’s connection to tradition and
heritage. The story says that Jesus kneaded soil and spit into mud with
which he healed the man on a Sabbath, which he should have known is forbidden.
There are 39 categories of activity restricted on the Sabbath, such as weeding
a garden; kneading or baking; washing or weaving wool; trapping an animal or
cutting it up; writing letters and erasing; building and destroying;
extinguishing and igniting; striking with a hammer; carrying from one place to
the Sabbath isn’t a big issue for many of us. “Sabbath” isn’t really a category
with which we organize our lives—it doesn’t have a lot of authority. But for
Jesus, the blind man and their community, Sabbath is a piece of the law that
governs and orders the cosmos. Sabbath keeps you obedient and pure in the sight
of your Creator. One day each week from sunset to sunset, you remember who you
are and who you are not. You are human. You are not God. You are a member of
your community. You are not alone or autonomous. You are Chosen. You are not
like the rest. Breaking the Sabbath was a deep violation of who you were and
what your community understood itself to be. Sabbath helped people see
themselves and their places in the world clearly. Sabbath has authority, and it
was broken. Listen.
audience, we feel ourselves shift back and forth in our seats, identifying with
the blind man and the Pharisees.
Individual experience does matter,
but so does tradition and heritage. Right about the time that we think this
story is going to get us nowhere, we
realize that it’s not a story about having the right answers at all, but a
story about a journey—a process. We hear our own experience in the blind man’s
testimony. At first, the blind man identifies his healer as “the man called
Jesus.” Later, he tells the Pharisees, “He is a prophet.” Finally, in the
closing scene, Jesus reappears to the man he healed, and rather than jump up
and exclaim, “Where have you been?” the
blind man says, “Lord, I believe” and worships him. The blind man is growing in
his realization of who Jesus is, and no matter who we identify with in the
story, he is the one we’re meant to emulate because no one else is journeying. Listen.
Begin the Journey
is helpful to remember that the story of the blind man was a baptismal story.
It was a sign of rebirth—of starting over. It is a story that gives sight to
anyone who has been blind and covers the eyes of those who believe they can
see. In a good story, we shouldn’t find ourselves relating to just one
character; we stand affirmed and accused in the very same moment. We have been
outcast and afraid, and the story tells us to walk tall. We have been exclusive
and narrow, and the story calls us to follow God more closely.
the printing press was a wonderful catastrophe: both a blessing and a curse,
but neither one more than the other. The printing press, the Internet,
capitalism, medical miracles, your kids, the Word of God: these are the
wonderful catastrophes that invade our lives and demand interpretation. They
demand our engagement; they require our energy; they pursue us until we stop
and listen to their stories and engage them with our own. The Blind Man went on
living in his community years after his encounter with Jesus, and he was probably
the topic of discussion, and the source of too many stories beginning “Do you
remember when…” to even be counted. His presence was a throbbing reminder that
God had come close, and that throbbing can still be heard when we listen.
Gail R. O’Day, “John” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, volume IX
(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995) 652-665.
David Rensberger, Johannine Faith and Liberating Community
(Philadelphia, The Westminster Press, 1988) 41-49.
Lawrence H. Schiffman
ed., Texts and
Traditions: A Source Reader for the Study of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism (Jersey City, NJ, Ktav Publishing House, 1997) 699-700.
Schneiders, Written That You May Believe:
Encountering Jesus In the Fourth Gospel (New York: The Crossroad Publishing
Company, 2003) 149-170.
 The New Interpreter’s Bible, 665.
 NIB, 662.
 NIB, 660.
 NIB, 661-665.
 Lawrence H. Schiffman ed., Texts and Traditions:
A Source Reader for the Study of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism (Jersey City, NJ, Ktav Publishing House, 1997) 699-700.
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