First Thoughts on Year A Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Lent 4

William Loader

Lent 4: 26 March John 9:1-41

It is a refreshing reminder to hear again Jesus’ rejection of a necessary causal link between disability and sin. While it is clearly outrageous to think otherwise, it often appears to inform attitudes and has been given broad application. So we will hear that people for whom life does not go well are at fault, whether that is about a disability, unemployment or sickness. Its corollary usually holds such an attitude in place: people who prosper are blessed; people blessed are good people. Other people are bad people! Biblical texts can be cited to support the claim.

In the drama which John unfolds here for his congregations the rime and reason for the disability was a matter of promoting the importance of Jesus. Whether the historical Jesus would have seen the needy as opportunities for promotion is doubtful. We need not have an explanation of others’ ills in terms of God’s benefit. God more likely weeps at others’ ills than sees an opportunity for enhancing reputation. But then as now people found many ways of detracting from the dignity of others.

Coming through the narrative is the strength of its source which doubtless portrayed the deed as an act of Christ’s compassion. John’s story lifts our eyes to a wider perspective. Jesus is not just a healer, but light for the world’s darkness, which was another language for saying: God so loved the world! The response of Jesus in 9:4-5 also reminds the hearers that even Jesus would fail. That, too, would not mean he is bad!

Perhaps the old tradition John used contained the details about how the healing took place. It is not unlike techniques used by others in the ancient world (see also Mark 8:23). John cannot help lifting our attention again to the symbolic level when he translates Siloam. The scene which follows in 9:8-12 playfully repeats the story of the healing and ends with a typically Johannine ambiguity: the healed man does not know where Jesus is. It reminds us of the saying about the wind/spirit in 3:8. Finding Jesus is much more than finding his location.

There are doubtless deliberate echoes of the healing in John 5, also linked to a pool, when John 9 tells us that a deed of healing by a Jerusalem pool took place on a the sabbath and that this upset the Pharisees. The to-ing and fro-ing of the drama in 9:13-17 and 9:18-23 expose the Pharisees as obsessive about their laws. 9:22 mentions the parents’ fear that becoming off side with the Pharisees could lead to expulsion from the synagogue - probably a real experience for many in John’s congregations.

The drama heightens in 9:24-34 as the Pharisees urge that glory be given to God. It had been Jesus’ intention all along according to 9:3 to glorify God’s works (see also 11:4). The Pharisees profile themselves as righteous and Jesus as a sinner, but in the process further expose their obsession. Hearers of the gospel thus far would know that rather than remaining faithful to Moses and the Law these Pharisees betray it. Its sole function now was to point to Christ’s validity. The former blind man makes simple responses which unmask the critics. For that he is expelled. All it needs is for Jesus to find him and tell him the truth about himself as the Son of Man (9:35-38). The drama is nearly over.

Jesus’ final words are about judgement, which probably explains why he referred to himself as the Son of Man in speaking with the blind man. In a different way Matthew shows the two are closely linked: the Son of Man will be the judge. It is then scarcely subtle when the Pharisees ask: ‘We are not blind are we?’ Answer: a resounding: yes! They are the sinners! The situation has been reversed.

This carefully crafted piece would have reassured John’s hearers who had experienced the pain of being forced out of the synagogue communities. Their claims about Jesus had gone too far. They had in effect set aside the biblical Law or, better, redefined its role as now to function only as a witness to the Messiah. They now attributed to him claims once made of the Law: that he was the (in fact the only, the true) light, life, truth, word and bread.

It is not difficult to see the passage mirroring the experiences of John’s community. Here were Jews in conflict with Jews. Like many passages in John the images, loosed from their Jewish moorings, can sail off to join the armada of anti-Semitism. The Pharisees, like Nicodemus in John 3, are stereotypes. Once we see this, other doors open and we recognise conflicts of our own day - also within Christianity. Wherever rules matter most and people take second place, we have darkness, even if they are divinely warranted in scripture.

Obsession with observance is a characteristic of religion which makes it very dangerous, as many forms of fundamentalism have shown, not least the recent most violent. Such rigidity at the expense of people is not, however, limited to certain widely acknowledged types, but can flourish on both the left wing and the right, among the biblicists and among those serving other ideologies. It is also at home where people read John and the Bible as vehicles for propaganda for their Jesus and their God, to ‘win’, instead of as testimony to divine compassion which puts people first. As the blind man might have said: ‘Well I don’t understand much about all of that, but I know when I see people getting helped and I’ll run with that!’

Epistle: Lent 4:  26 March  Ephesians 5:8-14

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