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Lent 4A Gospel

John 9:1-41

Tim Hahn

The gospel lesson for this week is one of movement. From the very first scene, “as he walked along…,” to the very last, when the formerly-blind man has been “driven out” and Jesus comes to him, the text is filled with motion. The physical motion of the text is reflected in the dialogue of the characters. For as the formerly-blind man and the Pharisees/Jews talk, the text traces trajectories of movement in their responses to the man, Jesus, and what he had done in, to, and for the formerly-blind man.

It is worth noting, here, that the blind man’s healing is not a condition of his “belief” but of his obedience. Even after he receives his sight, his identification of Jesus is crowned by the words “He is a prophet.” If we were willing to do great violence to the text, perhaps Wesleyans might here find biblical warrant for “secondness” as the formerly-blind man only comes to a full confession of Jesus’s identity after a second encounter! More seriously, though, as Raymond Brown points out,[1] the successive interrogations of the formerly-blind man by the Pharisees/Jews in our text seem explicitly structured to narrate a growing awareness of who Jesus is on the part of the formerly-blind man. And a growing lack of awareness of who Jesus is on the part of the Pharisees/Jews.[2]

Commentators note that much of the story-telling in John’s Gospel operates on two levels: the level of the events of Jesus’s life, and the level of the life of a “Johannine community”—for whom the Gospel was most likely written.[3] This provides the preacher with a ready-made avenue between the words of the text and the life of the worshipping community. This double-level story-telling is on exceptional display in chapter 9, with story and theology intertwined more masterfully than almost anywhere else in the Gospel.

The story of the formerly-blind man here in chapter 9 is especially linked with a portion of Jesus’s Final Discourse in chapters 15-16. There, Jesus promises his disciples that the world will hate them because the world knows not Jesus nor the Father. In fact, Jesus promises, there will be a time when the disciples will be “put out of the synagogues” and even “when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God.” (16:2) The stark distinction of chapter 16, between the world and Jesus’s disciples, is anticipated here in chapter 9 between the blind man and the Jews/Pharisees. Each of those portions of John’s narrative are paralleled by the “second level” of the experience of the Johannine community—a community experiencing expulsion from the synagogues and who likely were already aware of the deadly potential of their refusal to confess Caesar as Lord.

Our passage closes with a chilling pronouncement of judgement. The stark line of distinction that has run throughout the passage (and will continue to run throughout the Gospel) is centered upon the Incarnate Christ. The line that runs between the formerly-blind man and the religious authorities, between the disciples and the world, between the Johannine community and the empire is the line that runs between salvation and sin.[4] The transgression of this line, in one direction or another, is not a matter of right or wrong action, or of intellectual assent or dissent. It is a matter of the response of faith in the man Jesus.[5]

This week, as pastors prepare to preach this text to their congregations, I wonder if we are as aware of this line between the followers of Jesus and the “watching world” (however blind Jesus might insist they are!) Are we sensitive to the ongoing movement that the Incarnate Christ continues to trigger? Do we as a people, find ourselves to be formerly-blind—increasingly aware of who this man Jesus is? Or are we more like the Pharisees/Jews, whose insistence upon their understandings of the Law[6] and their religious credentials[7] blinds them to the identity of the Incarnate Christ?

[1] Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John: I-XII (and) XIII-XXI, Anchor Bible, vol 29, pt. 1 (and) 2, (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1966). Brown’s two-volume commentary on the Gospel of John, though a bit dated, remains one of the best available.

[2] Perhaps, then, it can be drafted into service for the proponents of a “progressive sanctification.” This, of course, is all tongue-in-cheek.

[3] Some point to the interchangeability of “Pharisees” and “Jews” as evidence of this story being “applied” to the experience of this Johanine community.

[4] Though I would suggest that it is less like a line than it is like an asymptote in a vector field.

[5] That the response of faith in Jesus leads—inexorably—toward right action, or that such a response has significant—monumental—intellectual consequences, I do not dispute. But this response to Jesus is not constituted by those actions or agreements.

[6] It was a breaking of the Sabbath for Jesus to “make mud” (v6) as that was considered “kneading.”

[7] “…we are disciples of Moses.” (v28)

Tim Hahn

About the Contributor

Pastor, West Chester Church of the Nazarene