Studies in John’s Gospel— Lesson 22
by Reta Halteman Finger
Once upon a time, a man born blind received his sight. But as we see throughout this Gospel, an act of healing is never simply a miracle where the recipient goes off to live happily ever after. It becomes a sign pointing to a deeper truth.
In this case, the sign weaves through such a thicket of ironies and misunderstandings that it rivals some of Shakespeare’s comedies. The antagonists work hard to prove that white is black and black is white, making this chapter the most hilarious in the whole New Testament! As you read it, ponder these questions: Who is blind and who can see? Who is a sinner and who is righteous? Who is an insider and who is an outsider? Who knows where Jesus “comes from,” and who knows nothing? (If you are studying this with a group, perform this chapter as a readers’ theater.)
Scene One—9:1-7. Sukkot, the festival of water and light has now ended, but Jesus remains in Jerusalem. One Sabbath, as he and his disciples walk down the street, they encounter a common sight: a disabled beggar, whom we will call Alfie. The text does not say how they knew Alfie had been born blind, but the disciples ask a question typical for their culture: “Who sinned—this man or his parents?” Refusing to link sin and disability, Jesus says neither, but they have encountered Alfie so that “God’s works might be revealed in him” (3). Repeating “I am the Light of the World” from 8:12, Jesus falls to his knees in the dirt, spits on it to make mud, and plasters it on the man’s eyes. “Go, wash this off in the Pool of Siloam” (7), he commands. With nothing to lose, Alfie complies. The scales on his eyes wash off with the mud, and now he can see! It’s a huge adjustment, but for the next 27 verses, Jesus is absent, and Alfie is on his own.
Scene Two—9:8-12. Is this Alfie or isn’t it? On a street where everybody knows everybody else’s business, the neighbors can’t agree. “Yes, it’s me,” insists Alfie, “and now I can see because some man came along, put mud on my eyes, and told me to wash it off in the pool.”
“Who was this man?”
“How should I know? I never saw the guy!”
Scene Three—9:13-17. The neighbors bring Alfie to their religious leaders to figure this out. But when Alfie tells how he was healed, the Pharisees argue over whether or not the healer is a sinner. Alfie is unequivocal: “He is a prophet.”
Scene Four—9:18-23. As in previous Johannine episodes, this is a court trial. The charge is working on the Sabbath, the judges are the Pharisees, the accused is the absent healer, and the witnesses are Alfie and the neighbors. First, the judges haul in Alfie’s parents, who clearly are afraid to get involved. Yes, he is their son, but they won’t comment further. They clearly are hiding what they know.
Scene Five—9:24-34. But these timid parents have a son who, though previously a lowly beggar, is now transformed into a cocky, self-possessed debater. He mocks his “superiors” for their ignorance and defends the unknown healer as one who without any doubt has come from God. As you read, chuckle over this outrageous David-and-Goliath dialogue!
Alas, the Pharisees have the last word; they throw him out of the synagogue—isolating him from the center of social and religious life in his community. As a blind beggar, he was probably already marginal, but now his big mouth has robbed him of any chance of becoming a respectable member of his larger kin-group in the local synagogue.
Scene Six—9:35-41: encounter, conversion—and more ironic riddles. At last Jesus arrives on the scene and finds the shunned Alfie. He asks an odd question: “Do you believe in the Human One?”
“Who is he, sir? Tell me so I may believe in him.”
“You have seen him, and the one speaking to you is he” (cf. Jn 4:26). And Alfie kneels down and worships Jesus. From a position of knowing nothing, Alfie has come to an unswerving belief that this healer is from God. Standing his ground on the truth of his experience has paid off.
Jesus’ welcoming response to Alfie (9:35) shows that roles in the original court, introduced in verse 13, have shifted. Now Jesus is the judge. “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” But he said this loudly enough so some nearby Pharisees ask him, “Surely, we are not blind, are we?”
“No,” says Jesus in a further ironic twist. “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘we see,’ your sin remains.”
Questions for Discussion and Reflection:
1. Explain how the plot of this story is ironic. What lines did you find humorous? Answer the questions from the second paragraph above.
2. How do themes of light and water from the Feast of Booths (chs 7-8) persist throughout this story?
3. How does Alfie’s increasing spiritual awareness compare with the Samaritan woman’s experience throughout John 4 (Lesson 9)? How does he contrast with the lame man who was healed in John 5:1-16 (Lesson 11)?
4. Do any characters in this story represent people in your own community, place of work, or church?
Note: in the next lesson, we will look at how the blind man is acting out the history of the Johannine community.