by Gaye Strathearn
This text is excerpted from Thou Art the Christ: The Son of the Living God, published by the BYU Religious Studies Center, the 47th Annual Sidney B. Sperry Symposium. Used by permission of the author.
Jesus’s dialogue with the man born blind has points of both continuity and discontinuity with those of Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman at the well. With both Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman the dialogue was with only Jesus, but in this example of the man born blind, his interactions with Jesus act as bookends for a narrative that is interrupted by an ongoing dialogue, first with the man’s neighbors and then with the Pharisees, both of whom question him extensively about how he received his sight. Even with this difference, however, there is also a continuation of themes that are important for John’s Gospel as a whole and are also found in Nicodemus’s experience.
The theme of darkness that we saw in the Nicodemus narrative returns. This man had been blind since birth, so the only thing that he had ever known was darkness. Unlike Nicodemus, however, the darkness is not a choice but something that happened “that the works of God should be made manifest in him” (John 9:3). His visual limitation was not only a physical reality but a symbol for his spiritual blindness. While receiving his physical sight from Jesus is an important miracle—one of the seven “signs” in the first half of John’s Gospel—the major focus in John’s narrative is the spiritual aspect of helping him to see and recognize the eternal nature of Jesus’s identity. His story reiterates that the process of coming to “see” Jesus is a progressive one.
Like the Samaritan woman, the blind man is also unnamed in the narrative, and his handicap means that he also exists in the marginal shadows of his religious and social community. He also functions as a representative of disciples. His story shows that even with an incomplete knowledge one can remain loyal to Jesus in his absence.
The narrative begins after Jesus had left the temple (John 8:59). When he and his disciples encountered the blind man, Jesus used the opportunity to reveal the works of God, and by so doing, he taught about his own mission. He declared to his disciples, “I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (9:4–5). At the beginning of this narrative, the dialogue is confined to Jesus and his disciples with the blind man lingering in the background, although it is probable that he could hear the interchange.
Jesus’s first direct interaction with the man was when he made clay by mixing his saliva with some of the dirt on the ground and then anointed the man’s eyes with it. The first words that he speaks do not initiate a dialogue; he simply directs him to go and wash in the pool of Siloam, which he does. One can only imagine the experience he must have had as he washed the clay from his eyes, opened them and, for the first time in his life, was able to see. The sensory overload must have been overwhelming as he was able to connect the vibrant colors with the sounds of Jerusalem with which he was accustomed.
As he then left the pool, those neighbors who knew him recognized that a miracle had taken place and questioned whether he was the same person that they knew. When he affirmed his identity, they naturally asked, “How were thine eyes opened?” (John 9:10). I’m not sure that with everything he had experienced up to that point he had given much thought to answering this question. So he almost mechanically rehearsed the events, “A man that is called Jesus made clay, and anointed mine eyes, and said unto me, Go to the pool of Siloam, and wash: and I went and washed, and I received sight” (9:12). When they asked him where this Jesus was, he simply replied, “I know not” (9:12).
Because the event took place on the Sabbath day, the Pharisees were very interested in what had transpired. They also wanted to know how the man had received his sight. His response to them was just a shortened version of what he had told his neighbors, “He put clay upon mine eyes, and I washed, and do see” (John 9:15). This answer divided the Pharisees . Some of them said, “This man is not of God, because he keepeth not the sabbath.” But others asked, “How can a man that is a sinner do such miracles?” (9:16). So they again questioned him about Jesus. But by now the repeated questioning seems to have forced the man to consider more deeply the events of the day. Who was this Jesus who had enabled him to see? Initially he had simply considered him to be some man. But was he? In all his years of blindness many “men” must have passed by without performing such a miracle. Surely this Jesus must be more than a man, and so, like the Samaritan woman, he answered, “He is a prophet” (9:17).
The Pharisees clearly did not like that answer. At this point, they were not convinced that the man they were in conversation with had ever been blind. So they questioned his parents, who confirmed the fact but who, fearing possible retribution, refused to be drawn into the debate about how the miracle had occurred. So the Pharisees tried again, refocusing their inquisition on the miracle recipient. More and more they were convinced that Jesus must have been a sinner because, in their minds, he had broken the Sabbath day. They therefore confronted the man again: “Give God the praise,” they declared, “we know that this man is a sinner.” But his response was simply, “Whether he be a sinner or no, I know not: one thing I know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see” (John 9:24–25). So they continued to push him, “What did he to thee? how opened he thine eyes?” (9:26). It seems to me as I read this account that by this point the man was getting frustrated by the barrage of questions. Let me paraphrase his response: “I have repeatedly answered your questions, but you’re not listening to me! If I give you the same answer again, is it going to make any difference? Will you then become one of Jesus’s disciples?” (9:27). Again, that was certainly not what they wanted to hear.
As annoying as all these questions must have been, they served a purpose because they apparently caused the man to move beyond the sensory overload that the miracle must have stimulated and forced him to reflect more deeply on what had happened to him. Their unrelenting questioning had, I think, triggered an unintended consequence. Not only had the man now acknowledged that Jesus was a prophet, their questioning had enabled him to recognize that Jesus could not be the sinner that the Pharisees had categorized him as. He was beginning to raise his sights and see differently from the other “earthly” people who peppered him with questions. He was now using the light that only Jesus could provide to illuminate his path, and so he said, “Why herein is a marvellous thing, that ye know not from whence he is, and yet he hath opened mine eyes. Now we know that God heareth not sinners: but if any man be a worshipper [Greek, theosebes] of God, and doeth his will, him he heareth. Since the world began was it not heard that any man opened the eyes of one that was born blind? If this man were not of God, he could do nothing “ (John 9:30–33). This increasing spiritual sight that he was gaining resulted in the Pharisees casting him out (John 9:34), but it also opened a door.
When Jesus heard that the man had been cast out, he sought him out for the second time and now engaged him in a dialogue, albeit a brief one. “Dost thou believe on the Son of God?” (John 9:35). Remember that this man had never seen Jesus, and so he asked, “Who is he, Lord, that I might believe on him?” (9:36). In Greek the word translated here as “Lord” is kyrios. It is often used to identify someone who is the master of a house or the owner of a vineyard. In this sense it is a tide of respect. “And Jesus said unto him, Thou hast both seen him, and it is he that talketh with thee” (9:37). Now the man understood with whom he was talking, and he again addressed him as Lord, but this time he used it in a different context. Kyrios is also used as a tide for deity. It is frequently used to translate YHWH, or Jehovah, in the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible. This now seems to be the sense in which he then used it when he said, “Lord, I believe” because he then worshipped Jesus (9:38). Here the Greek word for worship is proskyneo, which means that he fell down and prostrated himself before Jesus. It is a form of worship reserved for kings and gods. It is the same word used to describe what the wise men did when they found the child Jesus (Matthew 2:11) and what the disciples did when Jesus and Peter returned to the boat after Peter’s attempt to walk on the water. “Then they that were in the ship came and worshipped him, saying, Of a truth thou art the Son of God” (Matthew 14:33). The man’s act of proskyneo is evidence that he now recognized who Jesus really was: he was not of this world; he was “from above” and was God.
His ability to recognize Jesus from this christological perspective was now in stark contrast to the Pharisees. They had always had their physical sight, but they lacked the spiritual sight that this man had now gained. For them Jesus was a sinner. If they did not see him as a prophet, they certainly did not see him as God. Jesus said to them, “For judgment I am come into this world, that they which see not might see; and that they which see might be made blind.” The Pharisees recognized that this statement was a direct condemnation of them. “And some of the Pharisees which were with him heard these words, and said unto him, Are we blind also? Jesus said unto them, If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth” (John 9:39–41).
The miracle that John wants his readers to understand in this story is not limited to the man receiving his physical sight, as impressive as that miracle was. The Pharisees had always had their physical sight, yet they could not “see” who Jesus was. The real miracle was that the man received his spiritual sight, which enabled him to break free from his earthly shackles and “see” who Jesus really was: not just a man, or even a prophet, but his God.