In this, the third of five posts on believing in John’s gospel, we turn to Jesus healing the blind beggar in chapter nine. The blind man lacked any sense of meaningful life until he met Jesus. After being born blind he was relegated to social invisibility—left to exist through pity. He still had parents but now as an adult he was left to a lifetime of begging.
The episode starts oddly with karma-like speculations by Christ’s disciples about the man’s sad status, but Jesus dismissed them. The man’s disability, he said, was so “the works of God might be displayed in him” [v.3]. The blindness wasn’t a tragedy. God had a gracious purpose in it.
Readers might want to pause here and read the brief chapter—it’s a stirring story. As events unfold the poor beggar had a clear mind and, in the end, a courageous faith. Against all odds.
The calendar context was the Sabbath day. As earlier—in chapter five with the lame man by the pool—Jesus disrupted a diamond-hard social convention that sabbath-rest called for passivity. A three-quarter mile walk—a “sabbath day journey”—was their outer limit. But, as Jesus would insist, acts of compassion were still proper on the Sabbath.
Jesus, in fact, made sabbath-stretching a favorite issue. So by now he was called “a Samaritan” and “a demon” by Pharisees who demanded religious compliance. By the time of the blind man’s healing Jesus was blacklisted: “the Jews had already agreed that if anyone should confess Jesus to be Christ, he was to be put out of the synagogue” [v.22]. This was a social boundary for the beggar when Jesus came by. His parents, already tarred by moral suspicion—we recall the disciples’ question—faced being ostracized if their son responded to Jesus in faith.
So, let’s step into the beggar’s sandals for a moment. As the episode began, he was treated like so much social debris. Assuming the disciples had asked Jesus about him within his hearing, he realized he was simply an object lesson in sin. And later, after his healing, the crowds talked over him, ignoring him as he “kept saying” who he was. Yet later, as a judicial hearing began meant to condemn Jesus for another Sabbath healing, the beggar displayed amazing chutzpah. He had been reflecting while he begged. He knew, for instance, that “since the world began” nobody who was born blind had ever gained sight. He may have been disabled but he wasn’t disengaged. Just discouraged.
Another insight comes as his sense of right-and-wrong emerged. He, like Job, knew that personal suffering isn’t necessarily linked to divine judgment. And he also knew that Jesus had acted with compassion and moral goodness when he healed him. So, while the religious leaders hectored and demeaned him, the beggar stood his ground. In the hearing he first gave clear descriptions of the healing. But when the leaders pressed him to endorse their morally loaded claim that Jesus was “a sinner” [v.24] he’d had enough. He, a simple beggar, stood up to them, mocking their repetitive questions and their basic ignorance.
He, in fact, had flipped the scene. The assumption by the authorities that this dramatic healing was an evil action, done by an evil man intent on overturning the sanctity of the Sabbath, was obviously nonsense. “We know,” he retorted, “that God does not listen to sinners, but if anyone is a worshipper and does his will, God listens to him.” He pressed on to the obvious conclusion, “If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” The once invisible man was now fully defined and more robust than any of his flailing opponents. Jesus had changed him in more ways than one!
Yet the angry religious authorities still reacted. “And they cast him out.” The local synagogue, center of social life and networking, was now off limits to him. But we, the readers, are left to wonder just what he would miss after he had completely exposed their broken religious values.
It’s in this light that John carries us forward in what it means to believe. Of the courage it takes to dismiss broken social norms with real faith. “Jesus heard that they had cast him out, and having found him he said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ He answered, ‘And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and it is he who is speaking to you.’ He said, ‘Lord, I believe,’ and he worshiped him” [vs.35-38].
Faith and worship go together when we meet Jesus. As does a discovery of real purpose in life. And this alone brings about clear vision in a spiritually blind world.