With the arrival of the Fourth Sunday in Lent, we encounter a Johannine sign for the first time in our forty day journey. Therefore, it may be best to first consider the nature and purpose of a “sign”(semeia) in the Fourth Gospel. A sign is a miracle, of course, but much more is at stake than simply evidence that a miracle-worker is in our midst in Jesus of Nazareth. Each of the signs is at the same time a disclosure of the true identity of Jesus and an opportunity for those present to the sign either to see and believe or refuse to see and thereby disbelieve. The miraculous event that discloses the glory of Jesus as Israel’s Messiah and the Son of God does not transpire in a way that compels faith. In fact, there is a narrative modesty to the signs that provides this open ground on which observers and participants in the sign may make a decision for or against the light. (In the Cana narrative, the steward tasted the water that now “had become wine”(2:9) while in our present text, the man born blind washed at the Pool of Siloam “and came back able to see.”(9:7) Regarding responses to the signs, Raymond Brown has identified four stages, two of which tend toward the positive while the other two are decidedly negative.
The stages include:
The reaction of those who refuse to see the signs with any faith.
The reaction of those who see the signs as wonders and believe in Jesus as a miracle worker sent by God.
The reaction of those who see the true significance of the signs, and thus come to believe in Jesus and to know who he is and his relation to the Father.
The reaction of those who believe in Jesus even without seeing signs. 1
Given this span of possible reactions, it is fully consistent with the Fourth Evangelist that the notion of “judgment” is frequently found in relation to the narration of the sign.
The literary structure of a sign also distinguishes it from other miracle stories in
the Synoptics and even from other narratives with the Fourth Gospel. All of the signs hold in common several structure elements. In each, the story opens with a presented need or lack. (“They have no wine,”[2:3], “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?”[6:5], etc.) Following the establishment of this need or lack, a pronouncement is typically made by Jesus that at first seems a non sequitur; the comment seems not to follow. However, these dominical statements tend to share several commonalities:
they locate the sign in relation to Jesus’ “hour” when he will be lifted up;
they locate the anticipated sign in relation to the broader “works” of the Son,
they resonate with the imagery of the Prologue (“light,” glory,” etc.).
Following the dominical statement (absent entirely only in the Miraculous Feeding), the sign proceeds by way of narrative drama toward an ending at which we will see who sees and who believes.
The story of the Man Born Blind opens with a surprising calm following the stormy confrontation between Jesus and his detractors at the Festival of Booths. Remarkably, Jesus is walking along with his disciples in tow (they had been AWOL since the close of the Bread of Life discourse in chapter six) while just before this, he had been in hiding from those who were ready to stone him! They come upon a man blind from birth. The newly present disciples call attention to themselves in a non-display of pastoral sensitivity: “Rabbi,” they ask, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”(9:2) So here is both a need and a lack. The man lacks sight, has lacked it from birth, and the disciples need an answer to this old question about sin and suffering. Jesus’ response is dominical non sequitur right on schedule. The man’s blindness is “so that God’s works might be revealed in him”(v. 3b). Recalling the Prologue, Jesus proclaims, “I am the light of the world”(v. 5b). The reader remembers that this light shines in darkness and such an anamnesis prepares us for signs of darkness as the story unfolds. Now, the light of the world spits on the ground, creates mud with the saliva, and puts it on the man’s eyes. “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam,” Jesus commands(v. 7). The Fourth Evangelist helpfully informs us that the name of the pool means “Sent” (apēstalmenos, from apostelos).( 2) The man does as directed and comes back seeing.
Faithful to the rule of twos, (3 )Jesus now disappears from center stage and the newly seeing man encounters both neighbors and people who knew him as a beggar. Although there is little opposition present in this new scene, the people who see the man born blind are of two minds on his identity. On one hand, some are convinced that this seeing individual is indeed the one born blind who used to sit and beg; others differ, saying, “No, but it is someone like him”(v. 9). They speak directly to the man—an issue regarding direct or indirect address will surface later—and ask him regarding his identity.
His response is startling and unique: “Ego eimi,” he announces. Only here in the Fourth Gospel does anyone other than Jesus use the emphatic expression that echoes God’s self-disclosure to Moses at the burning bush. Howard Brook believes that this usage reveals “the acceptance by this now-seeing person of the very authority of Jesus to speak the truth.” (4) In response to the crowd’s questions concerning this feat, the truth-telling of the man is carefully stated. First, regarding the how of the healing, the man replies in a way that names Jesus as “the person” responsible for first making mud and then “anointing” his eyes. The shift here from the term “put” to “anoint” (or “smear,” RCL) is telling. Thus anointed by Jesus, the man “becomes one chosen, (5) although we will soon see how far he has to go to become aware of that election. The spiritual distance is revealed in his answer to the second question regarding his healer’s whereabouts. “I do not know,” responds the formerly blind beggar(v. 12).
The allegiances of the crowd are now more fully disclosed, for they lead the man to the Pharisees as the narrator provides a piece of dramatic new information. It was a Sabbath when Jesus did this “work of God”(cf. v. 4). The formerly blind man is again questioned regarding the “how” of his sight, and responds to the Pharisees, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see”(v. 15b). This version of his healing considerably lessens the scandal of the Sabbath healing. It also has the man reverting to the narrator’s more neutral “put” rather than “anoint” in reference to Jesus’ action. However, even this much more modest description of Jesus’ work creates a more serious opposition within the narrative. Some of the Pharisees argue than Jesus has in fact violated Sabbath law and cannot be from God. Others of that party respond, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs (sēmeia)?”(v. 16) The Fourth Evangelist notes that there was a division (skisma) among them (v. 17b). The formerly blind man replied
to their questioning: “He is a prophet”(v. 17). (6)
There is a consensus among Johannine scholars that the meeting of the Pharisees with the parents of the man born blind lies at the heart of the chiastic organization of the entire narrative. The questions that permeate this encounter are numerous, but the two that dominate the discussion are, first, that of the sin of the parents (recalling the disciples’ question at the opening of the story,…“who sinned…?”). The second question is related and deals with this opportunity for the parents to join with their son—and the community of the Beloved Disciple—in bearing witness to the truth. “As the child is given a chance to recover from his blindness, so are the parents provided an opportunity to be redeemed by speaking the truth when questioned.” (7) The Pharisees present the parents with a two-fold question similar at first to those posed earlier by friends and neighbors: the issue of identity--“Is this your son…?”--and of the particulars of the healing--“How then does he now see?”(v. 19) In response, the parents acknowledge that the man is their son and that he was born blind. Here, they speak the truth openly. However, in response to the second question, they insist on a lack of knowledge and turn the issue back to their son, who is of age and should answer for himself. Our puzzlement as to this vague turn by the parents lasts only a moment. The Evangelist hastens to explain that they answered in this
manner out of fear, for “anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue”(v. 22). (8) Clearly, these two parents, just as did humanity’s first parents, failed the test. The parents of the man born blind have opted for life in the darkness rather than risk a new community with the children of light. That core issue is now settled. The son is on his own in his journey toward full sight.
The next scene has the Pharisees returning to the formerly blind man and they bring with them the same accusatory rage displayed by Jesus’ opponents during the Tabernacles Feast confrontation. Whatever calm was felt at the narratives’ opening is now totally blown away. We are back to the anger and the threats and the irony. The Pharisees begin, “Give glory to God!” (suggested to be a legal oath) and they state flatly, “We know this man is a sinner”(v. 24). The man born blind now shows more courage in his response. Replying that he is not sure whether Jesus is a sinner, however, he does know one thing: “that though I was blind, now I see”(v. 25) Again, in response, the “how” question is posed, a question whose truthful answer will convict Jesus of violating Sabbath law. Moreover, to fully answer this interrogation, the man will need to proclaim the identity of the One who has performed this sign. Rather than qualify his answer even further, the man takes the offensive in the argument. He has already told these people
about this and they do not listen. In cutting satire, he then asks, “Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?”(v. 27) With such an answer, the formerly blind man is now risking a future with the One who healed him along with expulsion from the synagogue. In fact, the next words from the Pharisees do speak the truth, but the truth rapidly gets mixed up in falsehood. They begin, “You are his disciple…,” a reality becoming more and more the case, ironically propelled by such opposition. Now comes a piece of Johannine irony as they add, “but we are disciples of Moses”(v. 28). Jesus has already explained to the crowd in the Bread of Life discoursethat the life-giving bread was not from Moses “but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.”(6:32) Therefore, true “disciples of Moses” would recognize the One who is the “true bread from heaven.” But the Pharisees add another layer of irony; they state regarding Jesus, “we do not know where he comes from (pothen)”(v. 29) They thereby confirm Jesus’ indictment during the Tabernacles controversy: “You do not know where I come from (pothen) or where I am going.”(8:15)
Now the man born blind finally bears witness to the truth: 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(vs. 30-33).
What is striking in this testimony is not its accuracy—commentators hasten to list psalms in which sinners petition God—but its newly communal perspective. “We know,” comments the formerly blind man. The context is now between the Pharisees and the new community that witnesses to the One “from God.” (9)
The response to this confessional outburst is predictable. No one is surprised that he is first slandered (“You were born entirely in sins…”) and then excommunicated (“And they drove him out.” Now, the rule of twos is threatened. We cannot have the man simply alone in his new outcast status. However, hearing of the man’s ouster, Jesus finds in the man and begins a conversation. “Do you believe in the Son of Man?,” Jesus asks. The man replies, “And who is he, Sir?” (10) The man wishes Jesus to tell him about the Son of Man that he may believe. Now is the time for Jesus self-disclosure, but it comes in an oddly indirect way. Readers would naturally expect that of all occasions, this is one most ripe for “egō eimi” to fall upon the man’s ears. However, the reply is one of clarity, but indirection. “You have seen him, and the one speaking to you now is he”(v. 37).
Commentators note both the hearing and seeing that are embedded in this dominical pronouncement. The latter has been made possible by virtue of the healing itself; the former, the hearing, includes everything spoken by Jesus to the man born blind including the initial word that his blindness was not due to his sin. And ironically, all of those words of accusation and falsehood directed against Jesus by the Pharisees served to force him toward the truth. His response was first one of confession: “Lord, I believe.”(pisteuō, kyrie) Then, “he worshipped him.” (11) The man born blind now joins with the Samaritan woman and the other outcasts in worshipping the Messiah. At the same time, we wonder about Nicodemus and even the disciples (except for the one Jesus loves). Will they also come outside to worship Christ?
The narrative does not come to its final moments with the worship of the Lord by the man formerly blind. A postscript is added by the Fourth Evangelist, introduced by yet another Dominical saying. (This sign is distinctive in having two such pronouncements by Jesus, serving as bookends to the narrative.) We recall that the opening statement spoke of the works of God that need to be done in the light and that night was coming.
Now, near the end of the story, Jesus provides the related opposition of blindness and sight,…one we have followed throughout the development of the sign. , the significance of these alternatives is cosmic in scope. Jesus announces that “I came into the world for judgment (krima) so that those who do not see may see and those who do see may become blind”(v. 39). However, we are in for one further surprise. John reports that some of the Pharisees “near him” responded in wonder, “Surely we are not blind, are we?”(v. 40b) Jesus’ response is direct: If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains”(v. 41). Immediately, we find ourselves in a reflective mode. “Just which Pharisees,” we ask ourselves and St. John, “have remained near Jesus?” Again, alternate solutions are proposed. On one hand, Brown believes that “their presence seems a bit contrived…” (12) On the other hand, Wes Howard Brook is convinced that the Evangelist is quite intentional in this concluding scene.
Some Pharisees were really with Jesus, but at the same time, were attempting to remain within that party and participate in its practices and beliefs. Their sin? “The refusal to commit themselves openly and allow themselves also to be thrown out!” (13) The hour of judgment is drawing near and none will be able to hold both to the darkness and the light.
The challenge for the preacher on the Fourth Sunday in Lent is the expanse of the
Gospel narrative—all forty-one verses of it! While a number of distinctive thematics offer themselves to the preacher—including the blindness-sight testimony of verse twenty-five—perhaps a more wholesome approach to this narrative text is by way of a narrative sermon. Happily, this particular pericope, though quite extensive, is nicely structured with regard to our interest in proclamation. As with one of our approaches to the gospel lesson of the previous Sunday (the “Woman at the Well”), we will explore a strategy of “running the story,” a method in which we recount the biblical narrative while pausing at appropriate locations to explore “how it is for us at this time and place.”
After the opening section of John nine that deals with Jesus, the disciples, and the man born blind, there are several distinct scenes where we may put the story on hold and develop an excursus in which we search for contemporary analogies. Once we have adequately explored the contemporary issues at stake in a particular location, we are then free to close that excursus and resume the telling of the story. The pericope is structured and progresses by way of the motif of opposition and response, at least through 9:34 (when they throw the man out of the synagogue). From the moment of his healing to that excommunication, the man born blind comes to a new place of insight and empowerment in response to the growing hostility of his interrogators and detractors.
As we noted in the analysis of the lesson, a decisive shift in point of view occurs upon the man’s banishment from the community. Jesus seeks out the man born blind and by way of his self-disclosure as the Son of Man, evokes both a confession of faith and extravagant worship. Having decided upon this strategy of running the story, it is now our task to identify the locations at which we will place the story on hold and in each respective place develop an excursus.
“Where is he now?” ask the neighbors of the man born blind. He replies, “I do not know.” All the man does know is that a man named Jesus had something to do with his new life. As for the whereabouts of this Jesus, his response is familiar and frequent. The contemporizing possibilities here are abundant. We are still close enough to the old era of Christendom that we live among many persons—neighbors, workmates, or even family—who have been baptized but who if asked where Jesus is in their lives today would answer with the same poignant “I do not know.” If the parish is blessed with a class of catechumens, the preacher could invite those who are becoming “illumined” to recall that time when with the man born blind they would have given a similar response to such a question. And even for ourselves, there are times and seasons when the honest-to-God answer to that inquiry would be the same. With the man born blind, all we could muster as a response to the question is that our lives had something to do with Jesus. “Where is he now?” We blurt out the same reply during those times and seasons: “I do not know.”
The accusers now attack the man born blind. “What do you say about him?” they hiss. The answer pops to the lips of the man: “He is a prophet.” “A prophet, that’s who he is!” But this seems an odd reply, doesn’t it? Just how, we might ask, is Jesus any kind of prophet in this story? Just maybe, though, it is because Jesus did not even answer the disciples’ boorish question, “Who sinned?” Jesus would not agree to its suffering-equals-sinning logic. Here is an opportunity for the preacher to explore how the ghost of such a logic still rattles around in our communal consciousness. Just let a newborn or little child become sick and the guilt can well up with that old thinking, “It’s my fault.” Or let a congregation come to a tough and challenging place in its life. The question automatically springs up within the parish: “Whose fault is this?” We may want to analyze other aspects of this old “stinking thinking.”
The accusers of the man are now enraged by his honesty and his satire. They charge, “You do not know where he comes from!” The man previously known as the blind beggar suddenly blurts out, “He comes from God!” Finally, we can celebrate with the congregation all of the grace that has come “from God.” The gift of life, of new life in Christ, of healing and forgiveness, of covenant love and life together, and the promise of eternal life,…all of this and so much more coming “from God.” (We may well find ourselves developing a celebration at this point in the sermon.)
The sudden shift in the narrative provides for this final excursus. Even the awareness of how much comes from God has not yet given us the status of mature disciples. Now arrives this concluding, essential stage where Jesus seeks us out, proclaims his Lordship, and invites both our confession of faith and our unrestrained worship. This is the place where we discover that being an outcast for the sake of the gospel is to find ourselves welcomed into a new community of witness and worship. How shall we image this new location within the assembly’s imagination? If the liturgy concludes with the Eucharist, what better way to portray such a community of joy that is invited to share in new life in Christ?
1 Brown, Vol. 1, 530-31. See Brown, Vol. 1, 527-31, for an insightful analysis of the signs in the Fourth Gospel.
2 The post-New Testament church quickly took this narrative to be of great baptismal importance. Catechumens—those in final formation leading to their baptism at the Easter Vigil—were also named “Illuminates” (those becoming illumined). Brown adds that catacomb art frequently depicts this scene while the lesson gained prominence in the Lenten drama.(Brown, Vol. 1, 380-81)
3 In the Fourth Gospel, when more than one character is “on stage,” there will typically be two but not three or more. Groups who act as one—the disciples, the crowds, the mourners, etc.—function as one character, preserving the rule of twos.
4 Howard Brook, 219.
6 See Brown, Vol. 1, 373. Brown suggests that the miracle-workers Elijah and Elisha are the referents here.
7 Howard Brook, 222.
8 See Brown, Vol. 1, 374, for an analysis of the various degrees of exclusion and banishment from the community in force in first century Judaism.
9 Paul Minear summarizes the situation: “Disciples were forced to choose between life within the synagogue and life in Christ.” Paul S. Minear, John: The Martyr’s Gospel (New York: The Pilgrim Press, 1984), 26.
10 “Kyrie.” Most translations decide for “Sir” at this point, reserving the alternate, “Lord” for the man’s confessional statement in v. 38.
11 Wes Howard Brook notes the significance of the term, “prosekyesen,” in the Fourth Gospel. It does appear in the conversation between Jesus and the woman at the well concerning the place of true worship. Otherwise, “It does not occur elsewhere in connection with an act toward a person and was not used this
way by contemporary Judaism, but rather referred to attitudes of respect and reverence toward the Temple and Torah. In light of the replacement themes in the gospel, the act seems to fulfill the idea that Jesus himself will take the place of both Temple and Torah as the site of respect and honor.” Howard Brook, 229.
12 Brown, Vol. 1, 376.
13 Howard Brook, 230.
A word from St. John Chrysostom:
But observe the mind of the blind man, obedient in everything. He said not, "If it is really the clay or the spittle which gives me eyes, what need of Siloam? Or if there be need of Siloam, what need of the clay? Why did he anoint me? Why bid me wash?" But he entertained no such thoughts, he held himself prepared for one thing only, to obey in all things Him who gave the command, and nothing that was done offended him. If any one ask, "How then did he recover his sight, when he had removed the clay?" he will hear no other answer from us than that we know not the manner. And what wonder if we know it not, since not even the Evangelist knew, nor the very man that was healed? What had been done he knew, but the manner of doing it he could not comprehend. So when he was
asked he said, that "He put clay upon mine eyes, and I washed, and do see" but how this took place he cannot tell them, though they ask ten thousand times.
St. Chrysostom, Homily LVII