John did not include this story in his Gospel to warn us about the blindness of the Pharisees, although it is true that, in this instance, they did not see. John wrote this Gospel to show how easy it is for any of us to lose sight of Jesus, even when he works openly.
You shall indeed hear but not understand, you shall indeed look but never see. (Mt 13:14)
If Jesus were to show up today as a member of a cause you work against, would you recognize him?
Who are the “blind beggars” in our own lives who might be able to point out Jesus in places we miss?
In the mind of the Pharisees, it was impossible that Jesus should be the Messiah. The coming Messiah was clearly predicted in the prophets, and they saw in Jesus none of the signs. The man was an obvious charlatan, the kind of fraudster who “healed” those already well. This in itself would have been bad enough, but he did so even on the Sabbath; this was unconscionable.
One should never forget that the Jews of Jesus’ day were captives in their own homeland. Sometime in Jesus’ childhood, the Romans had ousted the last native king and began ruling the Jews directly through imperial bureaucrats. In the years that followed, foreign elites took possession of much of Israel’s agricultural land. Although the Romans generally supported local customs and traditions, they found it difficult to accommodate Jewish observance of the Sabbath. The Roman author Juvenal, for example, held up the Sabbath as a sign that the Jews were inherently lazy. It is not hard to imagine the corrosive ways that Israel’s foreign rulers pushed back against this obligation. It is also not hard to imagine the remnant of Israel’s leadership growing ever more strident in their demands to preserve it. The Sabbath was a primary symbol of Jewish nationality; it had to be protected at any cost.
Into this politically charged environment came a wandering Galilean Rabbi, performing his putative “miracles” on the Sabbath. It is no wonder that certain synagogues refused admission to Jesus’ disciples. Either Jesus was dangerously naïve or, as the Gospel elsewhere witnesses, he worried less about the risk of political upheaval than the needs of a single desperate man. The Father’s will was apparent: “Heal the sick!” Jesus fulfilled that will without hesitation.
The fact that this sick man was well known, and that many witnesses (including his parents!) attested to his blindness put the Pharisees in a difficult position. If they acknowledged that Jesus had indeed healed a blind man on the Sabbath, they would be admitting both that Jesus was legitimate and that the Sabbath could be violated. If they kept calling him a fraud, they might protect the Sabbath, but they would lose credibility in the eyes of all who knew the blind man—a considerable number.
These Pharisees are a warning for us. We must never lose sight of the fact that God is at work, even in places we think he cannot possibly be. How many Christians today would recognize Christ if he appeared among a group they had dismissed as fraudulent or corrupt? Yet Christ’s love is everywhere, bringing whatever is good to fulfillment. The blind man, who had nothing to lose, was able to see Jesus. By contrast, those who claim to understand with great clarity are often the most blind.