Fourth Sunday of Lent, John 9:1-41

Here’s Mud in Your Eyes.

I've always wanted to preach a sermon this text with that title, but never quite had the courage (or chutzpah), but I think it fits. If you can do it in your congregation, go for it. Reminds me Fred Kane's title for the story of Nicodemus a couple of weeks ago,. He called his sermon, “Nic at Night.” I wish I could come up with titles like that.

As usual, first is the text (with detailed exegetical footnotes at the very bottom), then my comments follow.  


A Man Born Blind Receives Sight
1As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.[a] 2His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
3Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; [he was born blind]
So that[b] God’s works might be revealed in him,[c] 4we must work the works of him who sent me[d] while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
6When he had said this, he spat[e] on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7saying to him, “Go, wash[f] in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent[g]). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

The Neighbors
8The neighbors and those who had seen him[h] before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” 9Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.”
He kept saying, “I am the man.”
10But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?”
11He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.”
12They said to him, “Where is he?”
He said, “I do not know.”
The Pharisees Investigate the Healing
13They brought to the Pharisees[i] the man who had formerly been blind. 14Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight.
He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.”
16Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God,[j] for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. 17So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.”
He said, “He is a prophet.”
18The Jews[k] did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?”
20His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” 22His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”
24So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.”
25He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”
26They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”
27He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?”
28Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.”
30The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”
34They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?”[l] And they drove him out.

Spiritual Blindness
35Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”
36He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.”[m]
37Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.”
38He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.
39Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”
40Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?”
41Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.



There are several potential sermon places where I want to pause and ponder for a moment.
1.      The first is over the issue of whether or not Jesus said that God caused this man’s blindness so that God’s works will be made manifest in the healing of the blindness. This is a very difficult and interesting issue. There are two possible ways of understanding this:
a.       On the one hand, we could say no he was not born blind so that God’s works could be made manifest in him. That sounds a little “un-God-like.” Instead, Jesus was saying that he was just born blind, but, so that the works of God may be revealed, we must do the works of the one who sent me. That’s possible to say within the text, as I will show later.
b.      On the other hand, we could say yes, he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him, but then, all of us were born for that. We all are born to make manifest the good works of God (that’s the position that Jim Forbes makes, in a sermon that I will cite further below).

If you follow this interpretation in your sermon, note that Jesus says that “We must work the works of the one who sent me.” Jesus is leading the way, but it is we who must be about the business of bringing sight to the blind. We must continue the ministry of bringing sight to the blind.

You can also say something about light and sight being a metaphor. You could say something like, “there are many deeds and miracles that Jesus did that were left out of our Gospels. Why was this one included in, unless they saw in it something larger than just the physical act of healing blindness. Because of the argument at the end of the story with the spiritually blind Pharisees, the telling of the healing story obviously has as much to do with spiritual blindness as with physical blindness.” I think that that is not just good homiletically, I think it is also true to what the writer John is trying to convey. In John’s hands, Jesus’ life and work and words and hands and feet and nostrils and toenails are all metaphors for something deeper and more spiritual. It may not be exactly what Jesus said (or at times even close), but John is an evangelist, not a biographer, and you are a preacher of the Bible. So, go with it.

2.      The second is when the blind man is healed and goes back home to his neighborhood and they all question everything about the process and the procedure and the legality of the healing. They say it can’t be legal because Jesus did it on the Sabbath. But notice that no one praises God for the healing. No one says hallelujah, well done, we’re pleased. That kind of bothers me. Reminds me of the church where every good deed is criticized because the doers didn’t do it the right way.  Or politicians who criticize plans from another party for being insufficient and not good enough. (But depending on your congregation, you may not want to go there.)
Historically, scholars generally believe that this portion of the story points to events in John’s time of Christians being thrown out of the Synagogues for confessing that Jesus had changed their lives (note John 9 says Synagogue, which were in very short supply in Jesus day, but common in John’s). In part John is using this story to comfort those who were being persecuted generations later for their beliefs.
The Oxford Bible Commentary says that the man’s parents “represent the Christians who after 70 ce hesitate to confess Jesus as the Messiah, because they might be put out of the synagogue. Later Jewish documents distinguish between three forms of exclusion, two temporary ones, for a week or for at least thirty days, and a more decisive one, the ‘ban’ (ḥērem). It is possible that such a definitive exclusion was first introduced about 80–90 with the birkat hamminim, a prayer of‘malediction’ against pagans, perhaps even against Christians. The aposynagōgos [“expelled from synagogue”] in 9:22; 12:42; 16:2 might refer to this severe exclusion from the Jewish community (cf. Forkman 1972: 87–114)...[15]

I’m not sure that this changes the message that you might preach on the passage, but it is a fascinating side story that you should share with your congregation,[16] and one that will help them know something about how the Gospels were compiled and edited and redacted. People love to hear little background bits and pieces like this, and over time it helps prevent them from sliding into a false sense that the Bible is a flawless book of magic and everythinginitisliteralandspokenbyGod.

3.      The third is when the (post) blind man talks to the authorities and says I don’t know the answers to all of your questions, all I know is that once I was blind and now I see. You could easily link this conversation with the story of the hymn, “Amazing Grace.” It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to know Jesus, it takes having your life changed. Tell a story of someone who knew Jesus very simply, but very profoundly. Like the short story in the Fire on Poteau Mountain collection, “The Miracle of Lucy Mae Ward.”

The point of this story is blindness, but not physical blindness. By the time we get to the end of the story, the physical blindness of the original blind man becomes almost beside the point.

Note that two weeks ago we told the story of Nicodemus. Jesus talked about being born again as a new creation, a fresh birth with God, but Nicodemus saw it only as physical birth and talked about crawling back into his mother’s womb. The next week, last week, we told the story of the woman at the well. Jesus talked about living water and she thought he was talking about physical water. He said that his living water would live with her forever, so she said give me some of that living water so that I won’t have to come to this well every day to draw water. She thought of it only as physical water.

So this week when we are talking about blindness, what are the odds that Jesus is just talking about some kind of normal, natural, physical malady that this guy was born with? Not much. This story is really not about physical blindness.

On the delicate and complicated verse 3
3Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; [he was born blind]
The controversy rests on the meaning of the word, hina (iJna + subj) in v. 3, which is usually translated “so that,” as in, “so that [the work of God might be made manifest]” The nrsv and niv and others read the hina clause as expressing purpose. That is, the purpose for his blindness was “so that” Jesus could heal him and manifest God’s works. That’s troubling. More likely, the clause expresses result. That is, the man's blindness provides an opportunity for Jesus to do his works, but is not the reason for them. Does that make sense? The CEV is much closer to the intention of the original Greek, “Because of his blindness, you will see God perform a miracle for him.”

Here is a slight altering the NRSV text to more closely represent John’s original Greek with my explanatory note:
3Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned;
So that God’s works might be revealed in him, 4we must work the works of him who sent me.
Or put more clearly:
Neither this man nor his parents sinned.
In order that God’s works might be revealed in him, we must do the works of him who sent me.

The wording of this verse is kept intact (I took out the phrase, “he was born blind,” which was added by the nrsv translators for clarity, but not found in John’s narrative), but the punctuation is changed. In the nrsv version Jesus says that sin did not cause the man to be born blind, but he was born blind so that God’s works in the healing might be made manifest. I think that’s wrong. My changes (which follow the Greek more closely) agree that sin did not cause the blindness, but says that because of it, we must do the works of God in order make God’s work manifest. One implies that God caused the blindness in order to get glory later; the other says we must respond to someone’s blindness by doing the work of God.

That is a very important difference. Was the man born blind so that Jesus could show the power of God twenty years later? Or did Jesus’ healing (not the blindness) happen “so that” the power of God could be seen? As with the CEV, “Because of his blindness, you will see God perform a miracle for him.”

Forgive me for getting a little technical with this, but it’s important. Here is a discussion of the word from the Louw Nida Greek-English Lexicon on the hina (“so that”) issue. If it’s boring, you can take a break and go drink a cup of coffee and let your Office Administrator read this paragraph and signal you when he/she is finished. They say it is 
a marker of result, though in some cases implying an underlying or indirect purpose—‘so as a result, that, so that.’ τίς ἥμαρτεν, οὗτος ἢ οἱ γονεῖς αὐτοῦ, ἵνα τυφλὸς γεννηθῇ; ‘who sinned, this man or his parents, so that he was born blind?’ Jn 9.2. In some languages it is difficult to mark a result clause in a context such as Jn 9.2. This may be done, however, by restructuring the statement as ‘he was born blind; therefore, who sinned? Did this man sin or did his parents sin?’”[17]

On the other hand, here is a different and very interesting alternative interpretation. In the sermon, “The Work We Are Sent to Do” (found here), James Forbes agrees with the traditional reading (that the man was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him) but says that that’s why all of us are born. Not just the blind man, but all of us are born to show the works of God.
So Jesus' answer to their question, "Who did sin?" is really a rebuke. I can almost see him with his hand on hips, saying to them, "You asked about who sinned? Neither the man nor his parents. That is not the point." What is the point? The point is this: the man was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him. As a matter of fact that is why all of us are born; all of us are given life that the works of God might be revealed in us. The blind man presented an opportunity to manifest God's work of bringing the light of life. So maybe Jesus was saying, "It was not sin I was thinking about. I was thinking about how we must work the work of the One that sent me while it is day. Night comes when no one can work. I was thinking about the fact that we have passed and offered alms to this man many, many times, but I feel the shadow of the cross advancing over me. I was thinking I may not pass this way again and if I don't do something now, it might be an opportunity lost for eternity. If I don't do something now, it just might be too late.'”

“In John 9, Jesus comes and heals and then is gone. He returns at the end of the story to encourage and vindicate the one healed. In other words, our text records what life is like for those whom Jesus has blessed but who are living in the world between the first and second appearances of Jesus. John’s church has suffering a great deal (15:20-16:4) and most likely identified closely with the healed man who received abuse from family, neighbors, and religious leaders.”

There are six scenes in the story:
Some of this I’ve already mentioned, but this organizes it slightly differently. I would draw on this outline, but be cautious about preaching it without consolidating a couple of pieces. It’s far too long as it stands.
1.    Vv. 1-7 Introduction. They see a blind man. The disciples give theological explanations for it. Jesus doesn’t get involved with the theodical explanations (see note above), but says it can be used as an opportunity to make a statement about the power of God. Then Jesus disappears for a while.

2.      Vv. 8-12. The man is back in his old neighborhood with lots of questions. They seem bothered that he is not still blind. Who did it? Where is he? Is this the same guy we used to know? No, it looks like him, but it’s a different guy. No, I’m the guy. Notice that not one person says, “hey, congratulations.” “Hallelujah,” or whatever. Such good friendsAll they are interested in is who did it, where it happened, etc. Technical stuff. And, for what it’s worth, the man is on his own. Jesus healed him and then left him to fend for himself. Jesus gave him sight, but then he had to figure out on his own how to live with it.

3.    Vv. 13-17. So they took him to the legal authorities, Pharisees, who interrogate him even further. Notice that his answers to their questions here are fairly modest and shy. “He put mud on my eyes; I washed, now I see.” Straightforward, but nothing bold about it. The Pharisees are split on him. Some say he couldn’t be a man of God because the healing broke the no work on the Sabbath rules. But others say, how could he do the healing if he wasn’t a man of God? That’s their job: not to rejoice in is receiving his sight, but to search out whether it broke the rules. [We occasionally are like them: instead of rejoicing over something good happening around us, we instead investigate whether the do-gooder broke a rule to get it done. Instead of saying that it is a good thing that the Christian Nurture board has appointed Kimberly to be the adult activities person, we question whether they had the authority to make that change in her job description. Instead of saying a party in the church is a good thing, we question whether the partiers had correct authorization to do it. Barbara Brown Taylor says that the question we need to ask is “not ‘What if it is not God and I believe that it is?’ but ‘What if it is God and I believe that it is not?’ That is the one question the Pharisees forgot to ask.” 

4.      Vv. 18-23. The “Jews” still don’t believe him, so they ask the parents. His parents are timid and afraid because they’ve heard that if anyone claims that Jesus is the Messiah, they’d be thrown out of the Synagogue, so they say, yes, this is our son, and yes, he was born blind, but we don’t know anything about how it happened. Ask him, he is of age. There is fear and separation within the family.

5.      Vv. 24-34. Back to the blind man again. They accept now that he had been born blind and healed, but tell him to “give glory to God” instead of Jesus because Jesus broke the sabbath laws and therefore must be a sinner. Instead of the fairly timid response he gave earlier, now he gives a personal testimony. “I don’t know anything about that. All I know was that I was blind and now I see.” The man puts them into a bind: if Jesus was not of God, he could not have done this deed. “You do not know where he comes from and yet he opened my eyes.” So they drove him out. “Probably not yet expulsion from the synagogue (Joh_9:22) which required a formal meeting of the Sanhedrin, but certainly forcible driving of the gifted upstart from their presence.”[18]

In the end of the story, Jesus returns. The man far more boldly now confesses his faith in Jesus. Jesus says that in fact he came into the world to make those who are blind into people who can see and those who can see into people who are blind. Jesus, of course, means “blindness” as both the inability to see and the inability to understand. The Pharisees standing nearby say, hey, we aren’t blind, are we? They are assuming that because they are religious, then therefore they are able to see. They in fact are suffering from a deep spiritual blindness. Jesus says to them, if you say that you can see, then therefore, you must be blind. “He alludes to Isa 6:9–10, a text that the Synoptics apply to the reception of God’s rule (Mk 4:12 par.).[19]

[a] “From birth” (ek genetēs) A term used only here in the New Testament. A more Semitic way of putting it would be “from the mother's womb.” cf. Matt.19:12.
[b] “So that” (hina + subj). “so that [the work of God might be made manifest]” The nrsv and niv and others read the hina clause as expressing purpose. That is, the purpose  for his blindness is so that Jesus could heal him and manifest God’s works. It is at least as likely, and perhaps more so, that the clause expresses result. The man's blindness provides an opportunity for Jesus to do his works, but is not the reason for them. The CEV has, “Because of his blindness, you will see God perform a miracle for him.”
[c] The wording of this verse is kept intact, but the punctuation is changed and implied words supplied by the nrsv translators are placed in brackets. The reason is that in the nrsv version Jesus says that sin did not cause the man to be born blind, but he was born blind so that God’s works in the healing might be made manifest. My changes (which follow the Greek more closely) also says that sin did not cause the blindness, and we must do the works of God in order make God’s work manifest. One implies that God caused the blindness in order to get glory later; the other says we must respond to someone’s blindness by doing the work of God.
[d] “Weme” (ἡμᾶς δεῖ πέμψαντός με) Some manuscripts have “We must do the works of him who sent us.” “Although it is difficult to choose among the readings, a majority of the Committee preferred ἡμᾶς δεῖ, (a) because of its somewhat superior external support, and (b) because it is slightly more probable that copyists would have altered ἡμᾶς to ἐμέ than vice versa. The reading πέμψαντος ἡμᾶς, which is a non-Johannine expression, appears to have been introduced into several witnesses as correlative with ἡμᾶς δεῖ at the beginning of the sentence.” Bruce Manning Metzger and United Bible Societies, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition a Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies' Greek New Testament (4th Rev. Ed.), 194 (London;  New York: United Bible Societies, 1994).
[e] “He spit” (eptusen) aor. It was commonly believed that saliva had the power to cure demons, but its use was later banned in Jewish circles because it was used in the magical arts. It is also possible that since Saliva and dirt implied ritual impurity then Jesus is here defying Jewish sensibilities by healing independently of the prevailing notions of ritual cleanliness. Also, note that the day Jesus does all of this on is the Sabbath. This too may be a further intended affront to Jewish religious sensibilities.
[f] “Wash” (nípsai). First aorist middle imperative second person singular of niptō, later form of niptō, to wash, especially parts of the body (Vincent). Is there a slight implication of baptism here? He is blind, he meets Jesus, he goes and bathes and becomes a follower of Jesus.
[g] “Sent” “The pool’s name in Hebrew is shiloah from the Hebrew verb "to send.”NET Bible Note
[h] “Who had seen him” (theoreo). Pres. part. “Those” = the ones seeing him. The present tense probably indicates continuous action, that is, they regularly saw him begging at a particular place.
[i] “Pharisees” (pharisaios) Note that elsewhere in the chapter John will refer to them simply as “Jews” or “Jewish authorities” because of the split between the Johannine community and the Jewish Synagogue, but to his mind probably no distinction is intended.
[j] “This man is not from God” NEB carries the sense better, "is no man of God" (the sense of "from beside" will be preferred by those who think the statement has messianic overtones, ie. "he cannot be the one God has sent") and this because he does not obey the Sabbath law, cf. Deut.13:1-5. In strict accordance with the law, Jesus should have properly waited till the first day of the week to perform the healing, since the man's condition was not life threatening.” Findlay, Lectionary Bible Studies and Sermons,
[k] “The Jews.” Throughout John’s Gospel, the religious authorities are referred to as “The Jews.” It is an add expression, given the fact that Jesus, all of his disciples, and this blind man are all Jews. But its origin has more to do with the split within the Jewish community of John, writing forty years later than the reality on the ground in Jerusalem in c.e. 30.
[l] “By calling this man a sinner on account of his having been born blind, the Pharisees now tacitly acknowledge the miracle, thereby playing into the logic of Jesus’ divine character after all” Scott Hoezee, The Lectionary Commentary : Theological Exegesis for Sunday's Texts (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2001), p. 523.
[m] Note that the man has never yet seen Jesus with his blindness-free eyes and doesn’t at first recognize him.
[15] John Barton and John Muddiman, eds., Oxford Bible Commentary (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).
[16] Another would be John’s misuse of the term “the Jews” as though they were a foreign race from Jesus. The idea that a Jesus, a Jew, was being attacked by “the Jews” or that the disciples (who were all Jews) were hiding from “the Jews” (v 20:19), is odd on its face and reflects the reality of John’s community that was excommunicated from Jewish life, not a reality of Jesus’ time.
[17] Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible societies, 1989), 1:782.
[18] Word Pictures in the New Testament, Archibald Thomas Robertson (1958), vol
[19] John Barton and John Muddiman, Oxford Bible Commentary (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), Jn 9:35.