In the ninth chapter of the book of John we are given a story of a healing, a bestowal of sight to one who has been blind from birth. Unlike many of the healing stories found in the first three books of the New Testament, this story is more than a simple interchange between Jesus, the healer, and the one who is healed, for the individual’s restoration to health is the catalyst for a dramatic conflict which takes place within the setting of society. The beginning of this story is the transformation of the individual, but as the plot progresses, we see the rippling effect that the individual’s transformation has upon the surrounding social hierarchy and relationships within it. We witness the inevitable confrontation between the way of the newly empowered and the old way of the world, where power and authority are wielded destructively. The man, once blind but now sighted, takes on and overcomes the oppressive force.
The simple, heroic story contained in John 9 is complete and satisfying in its own right. It has an additional function, however, in that it forms a unit with John 8. Together these two chapters combine to present a lesson about good stewardship of the prophetic gift to those who are called to minister the gospel, the power of God. Each chapter presents a distinctly different approach to encountering the darkness in the world. If we compare the two, we will see the better strategy. For while one is productive, the other is not. Let us learn the lesson these stories hold.
FRIENDS’ INTERPRETATION OF SCRIPTURES
Before examining the text, let’s first look at Friends’ way of understanding Scriptures. Traditionally, we have found spiritual meaning in Scriptures that is beyond the literal content of the text. Early Friends wrote about the spiritual implications of scriptural language and argued against literalism, which in their time was the prevailing basis for exegesis.
In Fox’s Journal, there is a story of an encounter with a Jesuit, who argues for a literal interpretation of Christ’s words: This is my body; take this in remembrance of me till I come. The Jesuit claims that the bread and wine once consecrated by a priest becomes “immortal and divine and he that received it received the whole Christ.” Fox replied to him:
Now Christ said, “This is my body”; also he said, “I am the vine, and the door and the rock of ages.” Therefore, is Christ an outward rock, door, or vine?
“Oh,” said the Jesuit, “that is to be interpreted.”
“Then,” said I, “interpret also his words, ‘This is my body,’ of which he said, ‘Take this in remembrance of me till I come'” (Journal, 344).
In the story we will explore in John 9, blindness and sight are used as metaphors. Blindness refers to spiritual ignorance; this story is not about physical impairment. Physical blindness (standing for spiritual insensitivity) was understood as metaphor by early Friends: “…for that eye that is turned from the light is the blind, and leads into the ditch, and is to be condemned” (Works, 4:25).
Additionally, when we read a story in scripture, we should keep in mind that some parts simply move the plot along, so that the lesson is easily grasped by means of a good, strong narrative. For example, when we read that Jesus healed the blind man by spitting on the ground and making a paste with the spit, and spreading it on his eyes, we know that these particulars are not significant in themselves. (There is no magic involved in healing the spirit.) Rather for the sake of the narrative, the cure must be as visible as the ailment itself, for it is the visibility of the cure that compels the Pharisees to acknowledge that it has occurred. Their chagrined weakness in the presence of heavenly power is an important part of this story.
If we marvel at the literal particulars of the cure (the spitting on the ground, the spreading of the paste on his eyes), if we see this as a magical “sign and wonder,” we put ourselves among that wicked generation that Jesus admonished.
An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, except the sign of the prophet Jonas (Mt. 12:39).
We come to understand the fundamental spiritual meaning of the scriptures when we ourselves have undergone our sojourn in and release from the belly of the whale, that darkest of places! Till then, like Jonah, we are all recalcitrant prophets in the dark whale’s belly, out of the life and power in which the Scriptures were written, out of the life and power in which they must be read and understood.
When we look at stories in Scripture, we must carefully distinguish on the one hand between those elements that function to make the lesson of the story clear and, on the other, those elements that run parallel and refer to our spiritual lives that are outside the story. An example of the latter is Jesus telling the blind man to wash in the pool of Siloam, which the writer tells us means “sent.” The blind one is “sent” in the story; just as in real life outside of the story, the Lord sends out the once blind but now-sighted ones, i.e. his ministers
to preach gospel to the poor; He hath sent me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind (Lk. 4:18).
The Scriptures often teach us a lesson about spiritual reality within ourselves or within the social sphere by constructing a narrative structure that is analogous to inward experience.
If we study the language of this character (the blind man) from the beginning to the end of chapter nine, we can see him change and become strong. There is a profound transformation of his personhood. This sense of personhood is the area in our own lives that Christ heals: that deep existential foundation on which our sense of self rests. Let’s follow the text through and see what the blind man says from beginning to end.
For the first ten verses of the story, he says nothing. He is spoken of by others; the disciples puzzle over the cause of his infirmity, and his neighbors argue about his identity. But he himself is passive, silent, and lifeless, a puzzle to others and without an identity: a non-person.
Following his cure, his first words (in the original Greek) are “I am” (Jn. 9:9 Mc Reynolds). These simple words reveal much. When the community’s chatter has ceased, the healed individual emits a simple, strong statement of self-awareness. The man knows who and what he is; the man asserts consciousness of being. This dramatic moment in the story is a point of reference for us readers in our own particular histories. For within each of our lives, there is a possibility of a moment when one first experiences the transcendent range of one’s being. Then is one convinced that it is for this joyful fulfillment that we humans have been created. When we have come into the knowledge of God, it is a moment of healing, of irrevocably affirming life. Having come out of the darkness, out of the emptiness, we can say simply: In this is life.
Important to notice in these early lines of the story is the simplicity of the man’s speech. Except for the names of others, he speaks in monosyllables only. He answers the questions others have posed to him, thereby allowing them to control the conversation. He has no agenda of his own and speaks only to provide information requested of him. He admits his ignorance and doesn’t hide it. “Then said they unto him, Where is he? He said, I know not” (Jn. 9:12). He holds to the truth: that is the working principle guiding his speech. He has no other agenda, and thus he does not use speech rhetorically, as a vehicle to manipulate others.
For a moment, let’s contrast the blind man’s simple use of language with that of another group of characters in the story—the Pharisees. The Pharisees, the authorities, do have an agenda: it is to hold onto power. The authentic power of God, Christ, has appeared on the scene and has healed the blind man, and this challenges the man-wielded authority, the man-made religion of the Pharisees. Because their control can only be assured by the sanction or acquiescence of their followers, they strive to influence adversely the thoughts and feelings of the community toward this new, authentic power that has appeared in their midst. They distort the truth, denying the evidence of the healing, and they discredit Jesus: the one who has manifested the power of God.
“This man is not of God,” they claim – putting the weight of their authority behind the declaration – for he violates the tradition; “because he keepeth not the Sabbath day” (Jn. 9:16). Repeatedly they question the newly healed one, hoping an opportunity will present itself to discredit the healer. “What have you to say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” In strong, simple, certain terms, the healed one responds, “He is a prophet” (Jn. 9:17).
Again and again they summon him, forcefully displaying their authority.
Then again called they the man that was blind, and said unto him, Give God the praise: we know that this man is a sinner.…Then said they to him again, What did he to thee? how opened he thine eyes (Jn. 9:24 and 26).
In the early part of this story, we saw that the healed man’s language was simple and passive. Now, we see a different stance:
He answered them, I have told you already, and ye did not hear: wherefore would ye hear it again? will ye also be his disciples (Jn. 9:27)?
The once-blinded beggar has changed; he has taken charge of the situation. He asks the questions, putting his opponents on the defensive, and even makes a joke at their expense. No, the Pharisees don’t want to become Jesus’s disciples, and the question puts their shameful intent squarely in front of them. The healed one has outwitted, shamed, and defeated those in power. He doesn’t stop there.
The man answered and said unto them, Why, herein is a marvelous thing, that ye know not from whence he is, and yet he hath opened mine eyes. Now we know that God heareth not sinners: but if any man be a worshipper of God, and doeth his will, him he heareth. Since the world began was it not heard that any man opened the eyes of one that was born blind. If this man were not of God, he could do nothing (Jn. 9:30-33).
The complexity and power of the man’s argument effectively stills those who are opposed to his witness. Yet, he is still guided by the same principle that guided his former, simple declarative sentences: a regard for truth. His assertive tone indicates confidence and self-assurance—again a contrast to his former powerless passivity. He has been healed, and the powers and principalities of the world feel the threat he poses to their control. He does bruise their head, and they in turn do bruise his heel (Gen. 3:15). To remain in power, they must expel from their society the one who has defeated them with the truth. And this they promptly do.
In the final seven verses of chapter nine, there is a recapitulation of the two main points in this story. Jesus initiates contact with the healed one who now has been cast out of the community and questions him: Does he believe in the Son of God? Is there to be recognition of the relationship between them? True to form, the man in his simple regard for truth seeks a manifest basis for his belief:
He answered and said, Who is he, Lord, that I might believe on him? And Jesus said unto him, Thou hast both seen him, and it is he that talketh with thee (Jn. 9:36-37).
This manifest basis for belief is direct, personal experience. The basis for belief is that which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes (1 Jn. 1:1).
To complete the story, we see Jesus himself outwitting the Pharisees and having the last word. To the Pharisees’ question: Are we blind also, Jesus responds: If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth (Jn. 9:41). This verbal firework leaves the Pharisees in the dark, the darkness being the place they have already chosen for themselves. To recognize one’s need, one’s blindness, is to be ready for change. If one is content with (or resigned to) oneself, the world, and one’s way of operating in it, one will sense no need for change, and therefore will not be ready to receive the new and living way, the Light of Christ. The blind one was ready, in that he recognized his need, his inability to see. The Pharisees were not; they claimed to see, and their sin thus remained.
REACTION TO IDOLATRY
In chapter nine we are given a success story. One who was weak became strong. One who was blind, could then see. And those who thrived in the corrupt world were set back in humiliating defeat. The story follows a well-trod narrative path, virtue triumphing over vice, the underdog coming out on top. As a story, it is complete in and of itself. However, this story has an added function. There is another lesson to learn here, and it is particularly addressed to those who are sent by the Lord into this alienated and corrupted world to present the gospel, the power of God. This is a lesson about reacting to the evil we will encounter, both within ourselves and within the world outside of ourselves. How do we handle this challenge productively? We must take a step backward into the previous chapter to find an answer to this question.
That chapters eight and nine comprise a single unit with an overarching theme can be seen by taking a quick overview of their structure. In each chapter, the starting point is Jesus’s declaration: I am the light of the world (Jn. 8:12 and 9:5). (The story of the woman caught in adultery was later inserted at the beginning of chapter eight. It is missing from all early Greek manuscripts.) That such contrasting stories begin at the same point and with the same statement is a clue to the reader that a comparison between the two is being made. There is nothing haphazard or casual about the placement of Jesus’s declaration at the beginning of these chapters. The statement names the force, the light of Christ, and implies the world is without that light. The disparity suggested is then played out differently in the two chapters.
We have already seen the successful outcome in chapter nine. Jesus did his work; he healed someone, and in turn, that someone – with his eyes newly opened to the light – outwits and shames the Pharisees in their darkened state. So it can be said that Jesus overcame the darkness indirectly through his healing work of the blinded. In contrast with chapter nine, in chapter eight, we see Jesus confronting his darkened attackers directly. When challenged by the Pharisees, Jesus counterattacks with a ferocious directness. He meets them head-on, contradicting, arguing, accusing, and insulting them.
The Pharisees therefore said unto him, Thou bearest record of thyself; thy record is not true. Jesus answered and said unto them, Though I bear record of myself, yet my record is true: for I know whence I came, and whither I go; but ye cannot tell whence I come, and whither I go (Jn. 8:13-14).
It is also written in your law, that the testimony of two men is true. I am one that bear witness of myself, and the Father that sent me beareth witness of me (Jn. 8:17-18).
Logic and wisdom cascade from Jesus throughout this chapter, and the Pharisees are submerged. Jesus speaks over their heads; he insults them. He calls them ignorant, worldly, slaves in sin, likely to die in their sins, unteachable, base-born, children of the devil, murderers and liars. His words are unrestrained, furious, and profuse. Here is a sample:
Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it (Jn. 8:44).
What is the end result of this verbal onslaught? The Pharisees pick up stones to throw at him.
Compare the ending of this story with the one in chapter nine. In chapter nine the one whom Jesus healed does the work of overcoming darkness, as it is manifested in the corrupt Pharisees. Here in chapter eight, Jesus himself has expended a great deal of energy, convinced, transformed, healed no one, and furthermore, he has endangered himself!
By comparing these two chapters, the prophetic minister can see the lesson about his or her work in the world. When one sees that the Word preached and offered has no place in the hearers, that the revelation given is unwanted, when minds are closed “because they receive[d] not the love the truth” (2 Thess. 2:10), then recall these chapters in the book of John. And, having done so, move on to reach those who have ears to hear and eyes to see. It may be tempting to lash out when deceit and greed are working destruction in tandem. Chapter eight of John shows us the waste that lies down that avenue.
Look once again at the opening statements in these chapters, this time noting their differences. At the beginning of chapter eight, Jesus says:
I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life (Jn. 8:12).
And in chapter nine he says:
I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world (Jn. 9:4-5).
Both statements have a reflective, re-orienting quality. In the first, he states his intention—his followers will have the light of life. In the second statement, he reminds himself that his time in the world is limited, and he must work now. This self-reminder follows fast upon the tirade which has just occurred in chapter eight. One comes to the conclusion: Jesus saw that the direct confrontation of hardened idolaters is a waste of precious time. He returns to his purpose; he recalls himself: I am the light of the world. The prophetic minister learns the lesson and draws the parallel: Look to one’s strength and purpose; don’t be weighed down in fruitless, enervating engagements.
This same strategy was offered by George Fox to Lady Claypole as guidance when he wrote:
For looking down at sin, and corruption, and distractions, you are swallowed up in it; but looking at the light that discovers them, you will see over them. That will give victory; and you will find grace and strength; and there is the first step of peace (Journal, 348).
One can see that the strategy for dealing with “sin, corruption and distraction” in oneself is the same as the strategy for confronting these same manifestations of alienation that one sees in others. Do not focus on the evil but on the Light that overcomes.
DISCIPLINED INTELLIGENCE IN GOSPEL WORK
I would like to point out two further examples in which the writer gives guidance for sensibly directing one’s efforts. In chapter eight, Jesus engages in a fruitless tirade against corruption and darkness in the world, and in chapter nine, he is a less central figure, one who goes about his work, healing one who was in deep decline. The main conflict in chapter nine is between the Pharisees and the healed blind man. They differed greatly in their readiness to receive the needed transformation. The blind man was very receptive, and the Pharisees were highly resistant, hardened, and unmoved.
Between these two extremes of full readiness and full resistance are placed two additional groups: the disciples and the blind man’s parents. Unlike the blind man, none of these people is fully ready to receive the light of Christ. They all are provided with something that they value in the present age and will therefore be less inclined to seek further, truly wanting a change. Even the disciples accept and depend upon their culture for their understanding of right and wrong, justice and order. They ask Jesus: Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind (Jn. 9:2)?
Their thinking is derived from and restricted by the boundaries of their culture. In turn, the culture can’t grow because the minds that sustain it have been bound, closed, and thus cut off from life in the Creator. Into this stifling situation, Jesus opens the window of heaven and allows the wind to blow where it will (Jn. 3:8):
Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him (Jn. 9:3).
Jesus asserts that the creative power of God continues to be revealed in the restoring of his creation to himself. The perfection of God will be made manifest here on earth, as it is in heaven. He envisions what is to come: the creation restored, re-made by the power of the Creator. The disciples can see only the present malady and look backward in time for its cause, but Jesus can envision and thus enact a remedy. Yet, though the disciples are ignorant of the prophet’s vision of God’s restored creation, they are teachable. They want to understand; they ask for the truth.
The parents of the blind man are not so well positioned in the middle ground they occupy between the blind man and the Pharisees. Unlike the disciples, they lean toward the corrupted and unteachable Pharisees. They want something other than the truth; they want a secure place within the community of synagogue society more than they want an alliance with the truth, even though this desire entails a denial of their own son. They are asked by the Pharisees to account for their son’s recovery of sight.
We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind: But by what means he now seeth, we know not; or who hath opened his eyes, we know not: he is of age; ask him: he shall speak for himself. These words spake his parents, because they feared the Jews: for any man did confess that he was Christ, he should be put out of the synagogue (Jn. 9:20-22).
That is the only appearance of the parents in this story. They enter and exit the picture having secured their place within the religious society. Many to whom the gospel is ministered within Quaker communities are held fast by this same desire. Though sensing and even privately acknowledging the authenticity of the gospel they have heard preached, they nevertheless reject it publicly, since acknowledgement would jeopardize their standing within the community.
These two stories in chapters eight and nine of John teach one to act with disciplined intelligence in gospel work. Ministering the Word may or may not result in communication, as communication requires both receptivity on the part of the hearer as well as fidelity on the part of the speaker. Insisting on the validity of gospel ministry while disregarding the lack of receptivity in those to whom one ministers is a waste of time, strength, and social viability. It is poor stewardship of God’s gifts.
As one would expect, this same lesson appears in early Quaker writing. Isaac Penington sees that those who are hardened and self-satisfied in their idolatry are “unworthy” and will be passed by,
[those] who are so sound and whole in their notional apprehensions and practices that they have no need of the physician…and whom he intendeth shall have no share with him.
Beginning with a line from chapter four in Hosea (a chapter describing idolatry and its consequences), Penington underscores the Lord’s instruction to his prophet to leave the idolater to himself or herself:
“Ephraim is joined to idols” (he is well, he hath enough, he hath no need of me) “let him alone,” saith the Lord….it is my will to have mercy on these my greatly distressed ones, and to destroy (inwardly to destroy, oh, who knows what that means!) the fat and the strong, and to feed them with judgment (Penington, 3:278).
One must discern and acknowledge the lack of receptivity when it occurs, and one must refocus attention to the Light and move on to do the work elsewhere. The present darkened situation is an opportunity for God’s power to be displayed. Jesus disciplined himself to see over the darkness and said: I must work the works of him who sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no one can work (Jn. 9:4). We, too, must look beyond the present darkness and attend to the work before us: receiving and ministering by God’s grace the new, yet age-old prophet’s vision of a world in transformation by the light that shines within.
Go through, go through the gates; prepare ye the way of the people; cast up, cast up the highways; gather out the stones; lift up a standard for the people. Behold, the Lord hath proclaimed unto the end of the world, Say ye to the daughter of Zion, Behold, thy salvation cometh; behold, his reward is with him, and his work before him. And they shall call them, The holy people, the redeemed of the Lord: and thou shalt be called, Sought out, A city not forsaken (Isa. 62:10-12).