Knowledge plays a huge role in our Gospel reading today. The man born blind repeatedly admits, "I don't know." Where's Jesus? "I don't know." Is he a sinner? "I don't know." Who is the Son of Man? "I don't know."
By contrast, the Pharisees are insistent that they know lots: "We know this man is a sinner. We know God spoke to Moses."
And it begins with the disciples in an in-between place—we know somebody must have sinned to cause this suffering. We don't know who.
This is how I tend to approach problems, too. Or any question, really: I want to know. I keep believing that if I can just gather enough information, it will protect me against suffering. When I'm in pain, yes, I want a shoulder to cry on. But I also want a really good library and access to Wikipedia. There's a lot of truth to the saying that knowledge is power. But it's a lie to think that if we just gathered enough information, then we'd have control.
This happens on a personal scale. If I just learned this "one weird trick" to lose weight or boost my credit score, I'd have power over my habits. And it's true on a systemic scale—if we just collect everybody's phone records and emails, we'll all be safer. We tell ourselves we're just pursuing neutral information. But we start with the wrong questions and convince ourselves we've uncovered the right answers.
In this reading, there are a lot of questions—at least 18—and in the discussion between the man born blind and the Pharisees, you see these questions progress from attempts to gather information to questions that aren't really questions. They're weapons.
The story starts with one big question—a question we all ask in one form or another. "Why is this person suffering? Why am I suffering? What information can I get that will let me feel better about suffering?"
In the Book of Job, it's the same assumption that Job's friends make: There's great suffering, so there must have been great sin. As N. T. Wright says, "This is a comfortable thing to believe if you happen to be well-off, well fed, and healthy in body and mind. In other words, if nobody can accuse you of some secret previous sin."
We ask this question all the time. Why is this person in poverty? Why is this person addicted? Why is this person suffering? Is it because of bad decisions they made? Or is it because other people made bad decisions and created a system that trapped them?
But Jesus isn't interested in the question. He dismisses it. "Neither this man nor his parents sinned" (John 9:3).
Bible scholars suggest that he rejects the question even more forcefully than this translation suggests. There's no punctuation in the Greek, so it may be that Jesus replied, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned. But so that the works of God may be displayed in him as long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me." As Gary Burge puts it, "God had not made the man blind in order to show his glory; rather, God has sent Jesus to do works of healing in order to show his glory."
I'd always assumed the disciples' question was based in some kind of cultural belief that blindness was some kind of punishment from God. But apparently not. The commentaries say blindness is sometimes an image of ignorance or is associated with poverty, but it's not an indication of sin. When God called Samuel, Eli was blind because he was old, not because he had sinned. When Isaac was too blind to tell the difference between Jacob and Esau, he wasn't being punished. And blindness is usually thought of as a cause of poverty or ignorance, not an effect of something like sin. So we have here a blind beggar. The blindness explains why he's begging. Why is he blind? The disciples are asking a human question—but they're not asking a particularly first-century-Jewish question.
So were the disciples just … jerks? Were they playing "spot the sinner" as they walked through Jerusalem's streets? Probably not. More likely, it was an issue of déjà vu.
We've heard the story of the Samaritan woman at the well. That's John 4. Jesus goes from Samaria back to Cana, and that's where a royal official comes to him to ask Jesus to heal his son. And Jesus says, "Go … your son will live" (John 4:50). That's the end of chapter 4. Now here's the beginning of John 5: "Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals." Sounds familiar. "Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool"—sounds familiar—"which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades" (v. 1-2).
From there, Jesus goes on at great length explaining that he is, in fact, from the Father, and carries the Father's authority.
So two healings—one in John 5 and one in John 9. These two healings are like those "Find the Difference" picture puzzles, where almost everything is exactly the same except for a few big things. Or, maybe more accurately, it's like one of those parallel universe stories where everything is the same, but one or two differences change everything. Right? In both stories, you have an extreme example of long-term disability. In both stories, the disabled man is healed, but he doesn't know who did it. In both stories, the Jewish leaders investigate and obsess over the fact that there's been a violation of the Sabbath rules, and they don't seem happy that a man was healed. And in both cases, Jesus disappears but later tracks the man down.
But there are differences. The man born blind is brought before the Pharisees and defends Jesus. But the man who had been lame apparently goes to the Pharisees to tell them, "It was Jesus who told me to carry my mat on the Sabbath." The last time we see him, he is siding with Jesus' opponents. The last time we see the man born blind, he is worshiping Jesus. That's the most important difference in these parallel stories.
But before we get to that, let's recognize that the disciples probably realize things are repeating themselves: "Wait. We're in Jerusalem, on a Sabbath, near a pool." They think they're having an "aha" moment. Jesus' encounter with the disabled man ended with Jesus saying, "Stop sinning." Jesus' healing must have been about sin. But wait, did this guy even have time to sin? He was born blind. Better ask Jesus.
Jesus says, "No. Not the point." It's not that this man or his parents sinned. It's about the works of God being displayed in him. Jesus had said "stop sinning" to the paralytic. And he meant it. But what he repeats in John 8 isn't "stop sinning" but the reference to "my Father is working, and I am working." And he explains: "Now we're a lot farther down the timeline than we were at Bethesda—I'm not going to be with you much longer. Night is coming. And for now, I'm the light of the world. So we will let this guy see the light." This isn't a Genesis 3 moment. This is a Genesis 1 moment. Let there be light.
'And I washed. And I see.'
And it's a Genesis 2 moment, too. He reaches down into the dust of the ground and begins a new creation in the man's eyes. He tells him to wash in the pool of Siloam. John very simply says, "So the man went and washed, and came home seeing" (9:7).
Now I just mentioned the time when Jesus healed the official's son. All he said then was, "Go. Your son will live." Jesus didn't even see the son. He was miles and miles away. So why does Jesus use mud here? Why does he use spit (which was gross even in Jesus' time)? Why does he send a blind man across town to wash in a pool? Why all the fuss?
Well, four times in this chapter, people ask, "How did that work, exactly? How were your eyes opened?"
The man answers simply, "The man they call Jesus made some mud and put it on my eyes. He told me to go to Siloam and wash. So I went and washed, and then I could see" (John 9:11).
There's a lot of commentary about the mud, about the spit, about the walk to the pool, about the pool. And John the evangelist—that dude loves imagery. He loves double meanings, too, so if he's making references to the creation story and to how Jesus would be spit on and to the waters of baptism and all this other stuff, you know what? He probably is! But John is also being very clear here that for this guy who was healed? It's a pretty simple story. "He put mud on my eyes. And I washed. And I see."
I want you to think about that for a second. You can't just close your eyes and imagine what it would be to live like that. Because he didn't see what you see when you close your eyes. He saw what you see out of the back of your head. Not blackness—nothing. When he dreamed, he didn't dream images or darkness. He dreamed just sound, just smells, just emotions. That's what happens when you're blind from birth.
"Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind," he said (John 9:32). Well, nobody had. In the last 2,000 years, we've taken the earth—the good, natural, created world God made—and we took the creative minds God gave us in his image and we've put them together and figured out how to open the eyes of many people who've been born blind. Knowledge can be powerful and used for great good. There are lots of causes for congenital blindness, but we've figured out how to treat a bunch of them.
There's an MIT professor from New Delhi whose name is Pawan Sinha. He has this program called Project Prakash—prakash means "light" in Sanskrit. He's helped about 440 children who were born with cataracts to see. And the research he's been doing on how these kids learn how to see after they've been born blind is huge. It's shaping our understanding not just of how we see, but of how we learn, how our brains work, how computers can process visual data—but he says the biggest happiness is just those 440 kids. If he can expand his work, there are 200,000 or 300,000 kids he thinks can be treated in India. We can cure about 20 percent of India's blind children. India is one of the worst places for childhood blindness. But for now, it pretty much has to be kids.
You see, there have been several adults who have been given sight after being born blind, too. But they almost always can't adjust to it. There's initial euphoria and joy, but it's almost inevitably followed by severe mental health battles. As one study put it, "Some threaten to tear out their eyes or simply continue to act blind. Some are so depressed they die."
Dr. Sinha says the problem is information. Too much information. They see everything, and their minds have a hard time knowing where one thing starts and another ends. The world is just one big messy patchwork collage. Shadows look like objects. The kids have an easier time learning how to filter information out and focus—especially as they can see different objects move. The adults have a much harder time. Neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote about having dinner with a man whose sight was restored, and as he finished the food on his plate, he kept missing where the food was. It was almost as if he was blind again, only he really could see. The man explained that it was just too tiring for him to figure out where the food was on the plate. So he set his fork down and just used his hands, as he did when he was blind. Eventually that story, too, ended very tragically.
But that's emphatically not what happened to the man born blind in our gospel reading. When Jesus healed him, he didn't just heal his eyes. He also gave him the ability to see the world clearly. He changed the man—body, mind, soul, and spirit—so that the works of God may be revealed.
And that's not all that he healed.
Learning to see
Take a look at what happens to this man. He finds out his neighbors don't really know what he even looks like, despite seeing him every day. His mother and father are brought before the local leaders and basically throw him under the bus. They say, "Yes, he's our son, but we can't really vouch for this story he's telling. If he's going to stick by this Jesus story, well, he's on his own." And his community leaders essentially say, "Tell us Jesus sinned or we'll throw you out of what's not just the center of weekly worship, but the center of all community life." And they do. The man has gone from a beggar—depending on the mercy of his parents and his community—to being an outcast.
But now, he can see.
And he has Jesus.
Verse 35: "Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and … he found him." Jesus restores him physically, mentally, spiritually—and socially.
You know what I find interesting? Jesus heals this man and radically changes both his eyes and his mind so he can see the world immediately and clearly. But he only sees who Jesus is gradually, bit by bit, like those Indian children whose minds have to learn how to see the world for the first time.
To his neighbors, he said "the man they call Jesus" (9:11) healed him. Then when the Pharisees start debating, he says, "He is a prophet" (v. 17). Then after the Pharisees started yelling, he upped it to being "from God" (v. 33). As the pressure grows, his understanding grows. The Pharisees throw him out of the synagogue, and that's when he finally, for the first time, sees Jesus himself. And then you have this lovely exchange.
"Do you believe in the Son of Man?" Jesus asks (v. 35). Essentially, he is saying, "The authorities have thrown you out. But do you believe in the one whom the prophet Daniel says is 'given all authority,' whose kingdom will not pass away?"
The man answered, "Who is he, sir? ... Tell me so that I may believe in him" (v. 36).
Jesus said to him, "You have now seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you" (v. 37).
Jesus is saying, "When you were blind, you heard my voice." In chapter 10, which continues without a break from this reading, Jesus repeatedly refers to this—the sheep hear the shepherd's voice and listen; he knows them, and they follow him.
And now, for the first time, Jesus says, "You have seen me, the Light of the World, the Son of Man, who appeared to Daniel in a vision."
The man who had been blind said, "'Lord, I believe,' and he worshiped him" (v. 38). He sees something that at that point that even the disciples hadn't seen. They had not yet worshiped Jesus.
"For judgment I have come into this world," Jesus says in verse 39, "so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind." Verse 40 says, "Some Pharisees who were with him heard him say this and asked, 'What? Are we blind too?'"
Jesus could have answered this way:
"Gee, you think?! You had one job, Pharisees! One job! Help people with their questions about God. These guys came to you with a man born blind—who is healed! You guys are the ones who are supposed to know what that means! Healing the blind! That's something only God does. God told Moses, "Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the Lord?" (Ex. 4:11). The psalmist says, "[T]he Lord gives sight to the blind, the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down" (Ps. 146:8). There's no story of giving sight to the blind anywhere in our Scriptures, in the Old Testament. But Isaiah keeps talking about it being one of the signs and blessings of the messianic age! "Then will the yes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped" (Isa. 35:5). "I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness" (Isa. 42:6-7). Gee, this guy is giving sight to the blind more than he's performing any other kind of miracle—maybe there might be some religious significance to this that an expert in the Scriptures is supposed to catch!"
Jesus doesn't answer that way.
Although that's basically what the man born blind had already said: "This is an amazing thing! You say you don't know where he comes from, but he opened my eyes! That means he's from God! Yes, God spoke to Moses, but God listens to this guy!"
But Jesus doesn't even say a simple "Yes, you're blind, too." Instead, he gives an answer that finally answers that question about sin that the disciples started with: "If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains" (John 9:41).
Jesus has started this chapter by saying, "Look, don't blame this guy or his parents for his blindness. They're not at fault." Now he's reiterating it. Blindness itself isn't wrong. It's not a sin. It's not error. But if you're blind and you go around telling people you can see, you're wrong. It's not just that you look like a fool—you close yourself off to help, and you're going to hurt others, especially if you insist you can lead them. When the light comes to someone who doesn't want to see, it's a blinding light, not an illuminating light. And the Pharisees are forcing their eyes shut, not wanting to see the Son of Man who is speaking to them. You're not guilty because you're blind. You're guilty because you don't think you need to be healed.
The Pharisees were wrong about almost everything they said they knew. This man's blindness was not because he was born in utter sin. They were wrong about Jesus violating the actual Sabbath laws of Moses. They were wrong that they were true disciples of Moses. They were wrong about Jesus being a sinner.
You know what? The man born blind wasn't right about everything. He says, "We know that God does not listen to sinners" (John 9:31). Well, that was the view in his day (just as the extra Sabbath rules were seen as protecting people from sin). But thank God—he does answer the prayers of sinners, or none of us would be able to come to him.
But the man knew that he didn't know everything. "Whether he is a sinner or not, I don't know," he says. "One thing I do know. I was blind, but now I see!" (John 9:25). He knows he was born blind. He knows he's still learning to see.
Here are a few questions as I close.
Are we also blind?
Where have I stopped listening?
Where do I keep insisting, "I don't need to be healed"?
What part of Scripture have I set aside or am I misreading so I can feel morally superior to someone else? (You know what? That person I feel superior to may actually be wrong or ignorant. The man born blind didn't really know who Jesus was when he was cast out of the synagogue.) But for you—not the person you disagree with theologically—where do you not want to look, because it's uncomfortable?
How did he open your eyes? Maybe it's something he healed. Maybe it's something he revealed. What has he done to display the works of God in you?
And finally, what do you say about him, since he opened your eyes?
Ted Olsen is Editorial Director for Christianity Today and a member of Church of the Savior, an Anglican congregation in Wheaton, Illinois.