Curing a blind man… on Sabbath.

by K.W. Leslie, 15 July

John 9.1-14.

Previously I wrote about some blind guy Jesus cured with spit. Today I figured I’d jump to the other story of Jesus curing a blind guy with spit. That one is only found in Mark; this one comes from John. And this story is probably better-known because it created a huge controversy… ’cause Jesus cured the guy on Sabbath, ’cause he’s the Sabbath’s master.

The story begins with a lesson, ’cause Jesus’s students see the blind guy and make the typical human assumption: He’s blind because of karma. Either he did something, or his parents did something, and now he’s suffering the wrath of God for it. It’s a poisonous attitude too, ’cause people use it to justify not doing anything for the needy: Hey, they’re needy because they deserve it, and who are we to undo God’s righteous judgment? (Or the judgment of the universe, or the marketplace; whatever god you’re into.)

John 9.1-3 KWL
1 Passing by, Jesus saw a person, blind from birth.
2 His students questioned him, saying, “Rabbi, between this man or his parents,
who sinned so he’d be born blind?
3 Jesus answered, “Neither this man sinned, nor his parents.
He was born blind so God’s works could be revealed through him.”

Determinists make the mistake of presuming Jesus’s answer applies to every situation. This, they say, proves every disability, every birth defect, every type of human suffering, is so God’s works can be revealed, and God can gain glory. God makes people suffer so God can cure their suffering, and show off his power. God makes us needy so he can take care of our needs, and show off his power. And then we’ll worship him.

Um… if you set fire to a building so you can rescue people from the burning building, you’re not a hero; you’re an arsonist. Likewise if God creates evil so he can save us from this evil, he’s not good; he’s evil. Don’t go there.

I’m sure determinists mean well, but their beliefs really mangle their theodicy. God’s not creating problems just so he can solve them, and look good in so doing. God’s solving the problems we created with our sins. Jesus died for our transgressions, not for our falling into the booby traps he sovereignly set in our paths. He’s not the trickster god the nontheists imagine. He’s rescuing us from the natural consequences of our sins: Suffering and death.

And yeah, sometimes blindness is the result of those natural consequences. Sometimes a man is born blind because his parents did sin. Sometimes a woman later goes blind because of her own sins. Jesus’s kids knew this, so it wasn’t totally invalid for them to presume sin was the root cause of this man’s circumstances. But neither is it the only possibility. Sometimes accidents happen; some meaningless thing which has nothing to do with sin or judgment or God or any conscious decision. Life sucks that way.

In this specific person’s situation, he was blind because God was gonna do stuff through his blindness. Talk to certain blind people, and they’ll tell you their blindness was an unexpected blessing. Because they can’t see, they have to depend on their other senses. (Usually this is described as “all your other senses get sharper,” but they don’t just do this on their own; they get sharper because you pay more attention to them.) As a result they feel things others don’t notice, hear things we overlook, smell and taste what we take for granted, and are much better at discerning their environment than people who solely depend on their eyes. Disabled people tend to hear God better than able-bodied people. (That is, when they’re not bitter at him for not curing them on their timetable.)

And that’s what you’ll see later: This blind guy realized who Jesus is. Much better than the other folks in this chapter. His mind was sharper than theirs. Which of course it would be; without his eyes, he had to use his mind to observe his world. His blindness was preparation for God’s revelation.

Don’t miss Jesus’s comment,

John 9.4-5 KWL
4 While it’s day, we have to work the works of my Sender:
Night comes, when no one can work.
5 Whenever I’m in the world, I’m the world’s light.”

Cessationists tend to mangle this one, and presume Jesus is talking about the time he was on earth: While he was physically on earth (and for roughly six decades thereafter, as the New Testament was getting written), he and his apostles could perform miracles; but the long night of the Church Age was coming, during which time the Holy Spirit would stop curing people and inspiring prophecy. So they had to get cracking and do these miracles now, so that the NT could be full of miracle-stories, and the bible could light the world in Jesus’s absence.

And no, Jesus wasn’t talking about how it would be “night” once he was raptured to heaven. He was talking about his death. While he was dead, it was “night.” It’s not night anymore! Get to work. Do the works of the one who sent Jesus—and who sends us.

Curing the man.

When people make Jesus movies, they tend to cast an older guy as this blind guy. I doubt that’s appropriate. People throughout this story knew he was born blind, which means a number of ’em were around when that happened: He wasn’t born all that long ago. He might’ve been in his teens, same as Jesus’s students. His later impulsiveness (which I’ll get to) indicates he lacks some of the world-weary sense of someone who’s suffered a long, long time. So he didn’t have to slog through a very long life, before Jesus got the chance to reveal God’s works through him. Which he does right here.

John 9.6-7 KWL
6 Saying this, Jesus spat on the ground and made mud of the spit.
He smeared the man on his eyes with the mud.
7 Jesus told him, “Go wash in the Šiloakh pool.” (Šiloakh is translated “sent.”)
So the blind man went away, washed, and came back seeing.

Our culture finds this a little nasty, ’cause spit. Remember, Jesus’s culture saw saliva differently; as something you clean or cure with. Ordinary mud would probably have a little manure in it; spit-mud would certainly be cleaner than that. So Jesus put some of this concoction on the guy and told him to wash it off in the public pool.

Šiloakh was the end point of an aqueduct, connecting the Gikhon spring through Hezekiah’s tunnel. 2Ch 32.30 It was the nearest water source to the temple, and the priests particularly used it during Sukkot (i.e. the festival when this story took place Jn 7.2) to ritually clean the temple in preparation for Messiah’s coming. (Nowadays they inflict the tunnel on unsuspecting tourists. I went through it myself 20 years ago, wandering a half kilometer through utter darkness, knee- to hip-deep in cold water, through narrow spaces which a 300-pound American simply can’t fit through. Fortunately I weigh much less. But I digress.)

So in between all these priests making temple stuff ritually clean, this guy washed himself. And he could see.

I remember a preacher who once commented Jesus—who’s the LORD, y’know—made Adam out of dirt. Ge 2.7 Sculpted him out of the primordial muck. He figured this blind guy was an unfinished creation, ’cause he’d been born without working eyes. So Jesus grabbed some more of the stuff he originally made Adam with… and finished the job of creating this man. It’s a neat idea. I wouldn’t take it too literally though.

Medical science makes it possible to cure some people who’ve been born blind. Give ’em eye transplants, or radically correct their vision. Trouble is, if such people are used to being blind, it takes a lot of getting used to. Oliver Sacks, in his book An Anthropologist on Mars, wrote of a patient who found it mighty disturbing to get his vision back. (The story got adapted into a movie, At First Sight, though I don’t know how accurate the portrayal was.) We learned to interpret what we see when we were infants. But if you never did learn how to do this, it takes some getting used to. “Blind” can mean all sorts of things, from no sight at all to really poor vision. We don’t know what sort of blindness this man had, but he seems to have adapted to sightedness easily enough.

So the man’s life was radically changed in one way… and not so much in many of the others. Not yet. He didn’t have any other trade he could just leap into. He still needed to eat. So, back he went to begging.

Which always reminds me of this bit from Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

BEGGAR. “…Half a sheqel for an old ex-leper?”
BRIAN. “Did you say ex-leper?”
BEGGAR. “That’s right sir; 16 years behind the bell and proud of it, sir.”
BRIAN. “Well what happened?”
BEGGAR. “I was cured, sir.”
BRIAN. “Cured?”
BEGGAR. “Yes sir; a bloody miracle sir.” [holding out hand for money] “God bless you?”
BRIAN. “Who cured you?”
BEGGAR. “Jesus did, sir! I was hopping along, minding my own business; all of a sudden up he comes, cures me. One minute I’m a leper with a trade; next minute my livelihood’s gone, not so much as a by-your-leave. ‘You’re cured, mate.’ Bloody do-gooder.”
BRIAN. “Well, why don’t you go and tell him that you want to be a leper again?”
BEGGAR. “Ah, I could do that sir, yeah. Yeah I could do that, I suppose. What I was thinking was, I was gonna ask him if he could make me a bit lame on one leg during the middle of the week. Y’know, something beggable, but not leprosy. Which is a pain in the arse, to be blunt, excuse my French sir. But uh…”
MANDY. “Brian! Come and clean your room out.”
BRIAN. [drops a coin] “There you are.”
BEGGAR. [bows] “Thank you sir, thanks…” [outraged] “Half a denarii for me bloody life story?”
BRIAN. “There’s no pleasing some people.”
BEGGAR. “That’s just what Jesus said, sir!”

Half a sheqel is half a denarii, but the Pythons were going for comedy, not historical accuracy.

“Who cured you?”

Anyway the neighbors immediately noticed the difference. Maybe before he was cured, his eyes were covered, or shut, or something. Now his eyes were open. He was using ’em. Probably staring at everything which passed by, getting used to the idea of functional eyesight. But still begging, of course.

John 9.8-12 KWL
8 So the neighbors, seeing the man was begging as usual,
said, “Isn’t this the usual man who sits and begs here?”
9 Others said “That’s him”; yet others said “No, but he’s like him.”
This man said, “I’m him,” 10 so they told him, “How are your eyes open?”
11 This man replied, “A person called Jesus made mud, smeared my eyes,
and told me, ‘Go to Shiloakh and wash.’ So, going and washing, I received sight!”
12 They told him, “Where is that Jesus?” He said, “I don’t know.”

And here’s where the story turns dark.

John 9.13-14 KWL
13 They brought the formerly-blind man to Pharisees:
14 The day Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes, was Sabbath.

’Cause you know Pharisees are gonna make hay of this. Kneading, whether dough or mud, was one of the 39 things they banned on Sabbath, Shabbat 7.2) and they considered it sin.

One commentator I read, pointed out we shouldn’t presume the neighbors expected to agitate the Pharisees. Something miraculous clearly happened, and they wanted some feedback from their religious leadership. Happens all the time to me: Some current event with religious implications takes place, and since I’m a scholar, people ask me what I think of it. ’Cause they don’t know what to think of it… or they do, but wanna see what I think, either to confirm themselves, correct themselves, or judge me. This man’s neighbors might’ve known the Pharisees viewed Jesus as controversial; or they might not have, because Jesus after all did teach in Pharisee synagogues.

But Pharisee views about Sabbath customs, which they considered absolute, meant they were ironically gonna be blind to who Jesus is. As you’ll see as we go through the chapter.

Christ Almighty!