If you were to do Gospel of John Mad Libs, you might end up with the passage we read in church this morning. John 9 has a little bit of everything: the healing of a blind man, disputes with the Pharisees, controversies around the Sabbath, and the inability of two groups of people to understand what the other is saying. The chapter is essentially a list of John the Evangelist’s greatest hits. In spite of this implicit richness, there are many who are inclined to read this as a simple story of a miraculous healing: Jesus makes mud, spreads it on some guy’s eyes, and he is able to see, even though he was born blind. This is understandable in some ways. After all, the man’s story about what happened to him is pretty simple: “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.” He repeats a version of this several times throughout the passage, always with the same dry rehearsal of the facts.
I think the reason for the man’s repetition, however, is not that this is a simple story, but because the dry rehearsal of the facts exposes the tension between Jesus and the religious authorities. Notice that at the beginning of this passage, the disciples wonder aloud who was responsible for the man’s blindness. John includes this detail in part to illustrate how the religious authorities of the day viewed the world. For them, physical capacity was automatically associated with how sinful or righteous you were. If you were strong and healthy, the likelihood was that you were righteous. If you were physically infirm, the likelihood was that you or someone close to you was sinful. This distinction led the religious authorities to make determinations about who was “in” or “out” based on their understanding of people’s relative righteousness or sinfulness. John also argues that this led the religious authorities to look at everyone in terms of these categories of “righteous” or “sinful,” in terms of whether they were “in” or “out.”
This is ultimately the source of the misunderstanding between the man born blind and the Pharisees. The Pharisees looked at a man who had been blind from birth, a man firmly in the “sinful” category, and saw that he was no longer blind, that he could no longer easily be considered “sinful.” Instead of reevaluating their categories, the Pharisees try to prove that there’s no way the man could have actually been healed from his blindness. It’s almost hilarious: they assume that the guy is impersonating the real blind beggar, they ask his parents to explain what’s going on, they repeatedly tell the man that he was born in sin. In the meantime, the man repeats over and over, “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” The Pharisees refuse to recognize that the man has been healed, because in their worldview, people born in sin do not change, and are certainly not changed by people who don’t observe the Sabbath. The Pharisees refuse to change the way they look at the world. They refuse to see beyond their limited categories of “sinful” and “righteous,” and so they fail to recognize the truth when it stares them directly in the face.
While the Pharisees are clearly in the wrong in this passage, I suspect that more than a few of us have shared a worldview with the religious authorities of John’s gospel at some point in our lives. We like to put things in categories, to keep things organized. When we are organizing our closets, this is not a bad thing. But this is a dangerous habit to indulge when we are talking about other human beings. When we look at a person and make a determination about who he is based on how he looks, we are falling into the same trap as the Pharisees. When we think we know a person just because we know where she’s from, we are failing to recognize the truth. God calls us to look beyond our limited worldviews and appreciate the people of this world for who they are and who they can be, instead of who we think they ought to be.