The feast of Tabernacles (Sukkoth) was one of the great celebrations of the Jewish liturgical calendar at the time of Jesus, as it is today. It was celebrated as an autumn harvest festival, and people built little booths or tents that recalled the way they had dwelt during their wilderness wanderings and their arrival in the land flowing with milk and honey. The days and nights were filled with singing and dancing and ceremonies in which priests carried water from the pool of Siloam to pour in the temple (perhaps as sacrifices for the coming rainy season). It was also a feast of lights, as four great menorahs were set up in the temple, so that “there was not a courtyard in Jerusalem that did not reflect the light of the House of Water Drawing” (Mishnah).
Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem to celebrate this feast is narrated earlier in the Gospel (7:2); he remains there through the feast of the Dedication (Hanukkah, Jn. 10:21). Throughout, Jesus engages in long debates about his identity and relation to the Mosaic Law. Today’s Gospel is a narrative commentary on Jesus’ earlier claims that he is the life-giving water (7:35-38) and the light of the world (8:12, see 9:5). Jesus appears only briefly at the beginning and end of the narrative, while the healing of the blind beggar is told very concisely so that “the works of God might be made visible through him.” The real drama in the story flows from the interaction between the blind man and his accusers while Jesus is absent.
After washing in the pool of Siloam (the name is interpreted “one sent,” that is, Jesus himself), the man returns “seeing,” and is greeted by neighbors who cannot believe that he was the one born blind. Ironically, using one of Jesus’ favorite self-designations, he replies, “I am he.” Asked how this happened, he simply repeats what “the man Jesus” told him to do. Hauled next before the Pharisees, who are concerned about the Sabbath healing, he again repeats his account of what Jesus did. This precipitates a dispute among the Pharisees as to whether Jesus is “from God” (a theme that permeates John 7-10). When asked his view, the man says, “He is a prophet.”
The Jewish leaders then summon the man’s parents, who want nothing to do with explaining the healing, since “he is of age, he can speak for himself.” Summoned again before the leaders, the man is immediately confronted with the charge that Jesus is a sinner. The beggar’s courage increases as he becomes a witness not only to what Jesus did but to who Jesus is; and he taunts his accusers, asking if they want to become Jesus’ disciples. Ultimately then he recalls the earlier question and says, “If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” In anger they say he was born in utter sin, and they expel him from the synagogue.
Abandoned by his neighbors, rejected by his parents and expelled from the synagogue, the man is “found” by Jesus, who asks, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” When he asks who is the Son of Man, Jesus says, “You have seen him”—a wordplay on sight that suggests the real vision given to the man is that of faith. Then the man replies, “Lord, I believe.” The narrative concludes with the enigmatic statement of Jesus, “For judgment I came into the world, that those who do not see may see and that those who see may become blind.” The narrative is ultimately not simply about a contrast between people who are blind and those who see, but between those who know they are blind and those who claim to see.
This story provides rich fare for Lenten reflection. Used in the second of the scrutiny rites (prayers for cleansing and illumination of baptismal candidates), the motif of washing leading to sight anticipates baptism at the Easter vigil. The blind man’s brash fidelity during Jesus’ absence offers John’s persecuted community a model of courageous witness. Through opposition and persecution the blind man moves from a confession of “the man Jesus,” to “prophet,” to “one from God” and finally to a confession of Jesus as the Son of Man and Lord.
Christians today who have been “enlightened” through baptism are commissioned to confess and witness to their faith, when Jesus seems absent from their lives. Imitating the journey of the man toward greater insight about Jesus, Christians progress to an inner enlightenment so they can ultimately confess the crucified one as the Son of Man, who, when lifted up, will draw all things to himself. Lest the Jewish leaders be too harshly blamed, Christians today must ask about their own blindness. Recent church statements have rejected the use of violence in the name of God, condemned racism and preached tolerance for other religions. Yet history is replete with church-sanctioned violence, racial prejudice and religious intolerance. With what blindness will future generations call us to account? How can the healing power of Jesus lead us to true vision?