Timing Blindness

Healing of the Man Born Blind

Healing of the Man Born Blind (illumination, Codex Egberti, fol. 50; 980–993; Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The account of the man who had been born blind (John 9:110:21) shares some significant features with the story of the woman at the well (John 4:4–42). In both cases, the individuals’ births place them at or outside societal margins (John 4:9, 27; 9:2). Yet, in the end, it is such marginal individuals whom the narrative situates as most in step with Jesus’ mission and, therefore, most in step with Yahweh’s purposes for his people (John 4:23–24, 39–42; 9:35–38), when a different situation would typically have been expected (John 4:20, 22; 9:13–34, 40–41; 10:19–21).

Still, in the later narrative, the reversal is even stronger because of the lengthy opposition that the staunchest part of the “in group” develops to Jesus’ timing in healing the man who had been born blind (i.e., on the Sabbath; John 9:14, 16). In Jesus’ initial response to his disciples’ question about how the man came to have been born blind, Jesus affirms that the end was “that the works of God might be manifest in him” (John 9:3; ἵνα φανερωθῇ τὰ ἔργα τοῦ θεοῦ ἐν αὐτῷ). Without specifically mentioning the Sabbath, Jesus immediately continues with three temporal assertions: “it is necessary for us to work the works of the one who has sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one is able to work. When I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (John 9:4–5; ἡμᾶς δεῖ ἐργάζεσθαι τὰ ἔργα τοῦ πέμψαντός με ἕως ἡμέρα ἐστίν· ἔρχεται νὺξ ὅτε οὐδεὶς δύναται ἐργάζεσθαι. ὅταν ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ ὦ, φῶς εἰμι τοῦ κόσμου). These statements likely have referents beyond the scope of the immediate pericope (e.g., John 13:30), but they set up an important link with Jesus’ forthcoming criticism of the Pharisees for their “blindness” (John 9:39–41).1

At issue here are competing versions of Yahweh’s agenda for his people. The Pharisee’s admission of blindness would have been tantamount to repentance.2 Having been sent by the Father, Jesus claims for himself the right to pronounce and act according to the Father’s agenda (John 9:4, 39).3 To their own detriment, however, the Pharisees remain skeptical of this claim (John 9:16, 28–29, 39; cf. John 7:27).4 Instead, they prefer discipleship to Moses while not recognizing even Moses’ support for Jesus (John 5:39; 9:28–29; cf. John 10:1–21).5 Therefore, because they have stood their ground in asserting insight that they did not actually possess, what remains in the light of their encounter with Jesus is only a blindness for which such opponents are fully culpable (John 9:39–41).6

1. Chrysostom, Hom. Jo., 56.3 (NPNF1, 14:200–1); F. F. Bruce, The Gospel and Epistles of John (combined ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 1:209, 220–21; Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2003), 795.

2. Cf. Origen, Cels., 7.39 (ANF, 4:627–28).

3. Cf. Origen, Comm. Jo., 1.24 (ANF, 9:311).

4. Bruce, The Gospel and Epistles of John, 1:220; cf. Augustine, Grat., 44 (NPNF1, 5:464).

5. Augustine, Tract. Ev. Jo., 33.1 (NPNF1, 7:197).

6. Cf. Augustine, Enarrat. Ps., 81.7, 97.4, 135.12 (NPNF1, 8:392, 475, 626); Augustine, Faust., 21.2 (NPNF1, 4:265); Chrysostom, The Power of Demons, 2.4 (NPNF1, 9:189); Irenaeus, Haer., 3.24.2 (ANF, 1:458–59). See also Augustine, Serm., 86 (NPNF1, 6:514–17); Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (ed. and trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall; 2nd ed.; New York: Continuum, 2006), 354.

Cross-posted from New Testament Interpretation.

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