Opening of Eyes — John 9:1-41
The sixth century Rossano Codex and other early illuminations of John 9 depict the “opening of the eyes” of the man born blind in two moments of this intriguing story (see image opposite). Jesus’ anointing of the man’s eyes with clay sits alongside the blind man’s washing in the waters of the Pool of Siloam. The focus on clay and water, the detail that the man is blind from birth and the repetition of “to open eyes” (Jn 9:10,14,17,21,30,32 and also Jn 10:21; 11:37) are found only in John even though the three other gospels tell of five healing the blind stories.
We read that the man was blind from birth. Therefore this is not a restoration of sight story as the man never had the gift of sight (Jn 9:2). Sight is a gift of creation. This is suggested by the clay (Jn 9:6) which evokes “the dust of the ground” in Genesis 2:7 from which God creates Adam. Creation is evoked in the gospel’s very first words: “In the beginning...”. Creation motifs, such as light and darkness, continue. Jesus as Wisdom-Sophia is with God in the beginning. Through him “all things came into being” (Jn 1:3). Jesus was buried and rose in a garden. In his post-resurrection appearance to his disciples, Jesus breathes on them as the Spirit of God breathed over the primal waters. A cosmic struggle continues between light and darkness.
The physical need of the man to see and his healing take place within the material world. Jesus is revealed in the flesh which is shared with all living creatures. Clay and water are elements of Earth through which body healing and the healing power of God are shown. Jesus speaks of doing the works of God while it is still day because when night comes no one can work. Here the natural rhythm of night and day indicate times for labour and rest.
All scenes of the story take place during the Jewish Festival of Tabernacles. Jesus’ words and actions evoke its symbols of light and water. In our modern lit-up world, darkness is avoided through electric lights, enabling people inside and out to work and play sport into the night under flood lights. But then darkness at night was usual so Jesus’s claim: “I am the light of the world” (Jn 8:12), is set against the striking light of four huge candlesticks of the seven nights of the festival which were visible all over Jerusalem. But for John’s community the festival lights were only a memory as the Temple had been destroyed in 70 CE. For them, Jesus is present as light to the world (Jn 9:5).
Marginalised by Religious Prejudice
The man born blind lived among the majority of the people marginalised by their supposed ignorance of religion, as shown in Jn 7:48–49 and acted out in narrative form in John 9. When the Temple police sent to arrest Jesus return to the chief priests and Pharisees empty-handed, they are accused of being deceived: “Has any one of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in him? But this crowd, which does not know the law — they are accursed.”
These words occur where “the crowd” has been used previously in Jn 7:40, 43. They are among 20 similar uses of “the crowd” throughout John which represent the struggle of those who are open to believing but cannot quite get there. As well, the crowd represents those who are held in low esteem and marginalised by the religious leaders. In short, the leaders are saying two things to the crowd: “Look at us, we know God’s Torah” and “We do not believe in Jesus.” They think the crowd cannot be trusted in their belief in Jesus because they are ignorant of God’s revelation in the law. But they are the world God loves (Jn 3:16).
Old Testament and early Jewish writings tell of religious leaders who felt superior to the common people and looked down on them as “people of the land” (am haartz). A distinction existed between the leaders and the common people. A further distinction was made between those who knew and observed the law, and those who did not.
The remarkable story of this plucky man acted out brilliantly in seven scenes (see Tui Motu March 2012) inspired Elgar to compose The Light of Life, Opus 29. The man whom Jesus and his disciples meet in the streets of Jerusalem was a beggar “who used to sit and beg” (Jn 9:8). Maybe he was waiting near the Temple for alms from those who worshipped there. The man’s marginalisation has another layer — that of being physically incapacitated. This man’s physical weakness is that he is blind from birth. His considerable incapacitation has reduced him to begging. Along with the chronically ill man (Jn 5:1-15), he was on the margins of the centres of society and religion (Lev 21:17-23).
Eyes Opened to Jesus
The irony is that this outcast has his eyes opened to believe in Jesus. He moves from “the man called Jesus” (Jn 9:11), to “He is a prophet” (Jn 9:17), to “If this man was not from God, he could do nothing” (Jn 9:33), to “Lord, I believe” (Jn 9:38). And the learned ones regress from Jesus may be sinner or be from God (Jn 9:16), to “we know this man is a sinner” (Jn 9:24), to “we know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from” (Jn 9:29).
The two journeys go in opposite directions. Whereas supposed ignorance of the Law (Jn 7:49; 9:34) leads to Jesus, presumed knowledge of the Law blocks recognition of Jesus (Jn 7:48; 9:34; 9:40–41; 3:10). The man’s coming to understanding happens in the process of confession, rebuke and stubbornly continued confession. His character is brought out not through his interactions with Jesus but in his firm stand against the Pharisees. Like the woman of Samaria, he could be said to be Jesus’ co-worker.
The Struggle of John’s Community
Jesus’ absence for most of this story (27 of the 41 verses) probably reflects the situation of John’s community when, in the 90s, the gospel’s first readers/hearers faced three difficult choices because of their belief in Jesus. They could remain in their local synagogue as members of a religious group that had official recognition in the empire and avoid the scrutiny of its officials. They could stay with the synagogue, while at the same time also worshipping secretly as Christians, as did Nicodemus. The man’s parents, whom the illumination depicts at the pool, may be in one of these two situations. Or John’s people could worship openly as Christians and risk the consequences. In his physical absence, Jesus is present in the experience and witness of this poor, marginalised man who has grown in faith, become a disciple of Jesus openly and has been “put out of the synagogue” (Jn 9:22; also Jn 12:42; 16:2).
Published in Tui Motu magazine. Issue 213, March 2017: 24-25.