The gospel text for this Sunday, March 6 – Year A Scrutinies, is rather important for John’s gospel since it tells the story of a man, blind from birth, who receives his sight from our Lord, and is eventually described as the preeminent model of faith, understanding, and knowledge of who Jesus is. Indeed, the man born blind is to be compared with the Samaritan woman (Jn 4:1-42), and Nicodemus (Jn 3:1-21), both of whom model a comparative lack of understanding of who Jesus is. Nicodemus approaches the Light of the World at night, and walks away wondering “How can this happen?” (Jn 3:9). Similarly, and in stark contrast to Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman encounters the Light of the World at the very height of the day’s light, “about noon” (Jn 4:6). Although she’s only capable of testifying to Jesus as a prophet (compare Jn 4:16-19 with 4:28-29, 39), her talk about Jesus results in an entire town’s knowledge of Jesus as “savior of the world” (4:42).
In John 9, the man born blind is directly compared with the Pharisees (sometimes “the Jews”) – specifically the man’s blindness-leading-to-sight is compared with the Pharisees’ sight-leading-to-blindness. Paying attention to what the man born blind “knows” (or doesn’t know) about Jesus, and what the Pharisees “know” (or don’t know) is the key.
The way the text is laid out at the USCCB website is helpful in reading this narrative as it divides it into several “scenes” similar to a play – seven scenes, in fact. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/030616-fourth-sunday-lent-scrutinies.cfm
As one reads through the story, taking notice when and wherever the man born blind says what he knows (especially about Jesus), and what he doesn’t know is enlightening. Likewise, when and wherever the Pharisees (or “the Jews”) say what they know or don’t know is instructive, too. And if you think there’s a similarity between knowing and seeing, blindness and not-knowing, you’d be right on target. So, let’s “see” (pun intended) what the man born blind knows and doesn’t know, and what the Pharisees’ know, or don’t know.
In answer to the question “How were your eye’s opened?” the man born blind replies “a man named Jesus…” – so, he knows Jesus’ name, and that Jesus opened his eyes (9:10-11). But, when asked “Where is Jesus?” the man answers honestly “I don’t know” (9:12).
In the next scene – and interestingly after John slips in the detail that Jesus made mud and healed on the Sabbath! (9:14) – the man is interrogated by the Pharisees who ask how he is able to see. After the man describes what Jesus did, some of the Pharisees say what they know, that is, that Jesus “is not from God!” (compare with Jn 1:1-18), while other Pharisees wonder “How can a sinful man (who doesn’t keep Sabbath) do such signs?” (9:16). Notice the Pharisees’ adjudication over Jesus’ origins and character leads to a division among them at the end of verse 16; talk about Jesus can have (should have?) social consequences. Then, when the Pharisees ask the man “What do you have to say about him, since he opened your eyes (not ours!!!)?” (parentheses mine), the man answers “He is a prophet” (9:17). So, at this point, the man born blind has reached the same level of knowledge the Samaritan woman reached (Jn 4:19). How much farther down the path can he go, will he go?
Let’s skip verses 18-23 (though it is not unimportant!), when the Pharisees question the parents of the man born blind. But, notice who or what they say they know and don’t know when asked.
The next, and longest scene, begins with the Pharisees questioning the man again, but starting off with a bold declaration of what they know: “We know that this man is a sinner” (9:24). The man replies by stating that he doesn’t know if Jesus is a sinner or not, but he does know that he (the man) was blind, and now he sees (9:25).
After asking the man again about the healing process – who then asks (ironically) if they want to be Jesus’ disciples – the Pharisees say more about what they know and don’t know: “You are that man’s disciple; we are disciples of Moses! We know that God spoke to Moses, but we do not know where this man is from” (see again, Jn 1:1-18). The man born blind responds (9:30-34) with amazement at the Pharisees’ lack of knowledge about Jesus’ origins in light of the healing, and then says a little about what he now knows: “If this man were not from God, he would not be able to do anything” (9:33). So, now the man born blind knows a bit more about Jesus; he’s not only a prophet – he is from God! In any event, at this point the Pharisees can only berate the man before kicking him out of the synagogue (see 9:22).
In the next scene Jesus – who has been conspicuously absent since verse seven – hears the gossip (9:35!), finds the man, and asks “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” to which the man asks “Who is he sir, that I may believe in him?” Then Jesus clearly identifies himself for the man, much like he did for the Samaritan woman (4:26). However, in contrast to her, the man born blind responds to Jesus’ “full disclosure” with full-blown knowledge, and with appropriate worship: “I do believe, LORD,” and he worshipped him” (9:38).
Finally, the Pharisees – who overheard Jesus and the man – ask Jesus, “Surely we are not also blind, are we?” (9:40). Blind like who? The man born blind before he was healed? Or, are they really asking “Surely we are not also ‘not knowing’ are we?” Jesus’ response (9:41) is incisive: “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you are saying ‘We see,’ so your sin remains.”
What is so noticeable about this story is the blind man’s knowledge, especially how it evolves over time. And where he starts is perhaps most important: “I don’t know”! (9:12). Maybe starting with that humble admission prepares the man to receive the revelation of the Light of the World, the Lord Jesus, unencumbered by any preconceptions or pretense to certitude. His knowledge evolves from “I don’t know” to “he is a prophet” to he is “from God” to finally, “LORD.”
A fitting end to a wonderful story in a Gospel about Jesus who eludes such grasping, such certainties – a Jesus who responds to all of my grasping about who and what I think he is, much like he responds to Mary Magdalene – “Stop holding on to me!” (20:17). It is only after letting go of what she knows (“Rabbouni”), that Mary Magdalene comes to know Jesus fully – “I have seen the LORD” (20:18). Oh, for the grace that enables me to just let go of what I think I know, and humbly receive the astonishing revelation of Jesus Christ, the Light of the World.