WHO IS THE BLIND MAN? This question is not about the name of the man the Lord Jesus heals of blindness in John 9 (in Christian lore he is given the name Celidonius). He is not named in the Gospel account because his name is irrelevant to the meaning of the passage.
Rather the question is: Of all the people described in this Gospel passage, which one is the blind man?
Several groups are mentioned in the passage: the disciples, the neighbors of the blind man, his parents and the Pharisees. The passage reveals something about each of them.
Christ’s followers are depicted asking a theological question on seeing the man born blind: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (v. 2) The assumption behind their question was commonly shared by people in the ancient world: if you experienced good fortune, you were pleasing to God but if you experienced evil, it was a result of your sinfulness.
This was considered true for individuals and the entire people as well. When Jerusalem fell to the Romans in the first century ad, Jewish thinkers attributed it to the sins of the nation: Israel had offended God and were punished by God withdrawing His protection from them. When Christian Jerusalem fell to the Persians in the year 614 and then to the Arabs in 638, its leaders said the same thing: Jerusalem had fallen because its Church had sinned.
While this connection might be directly or indirectly true in some cases, it is not so here. Neither the man nor his parents had sinned. The man’s condition was according to the providence of God: “that the works of God should be revealed in him” (v. 3).
Today most people are likely to say that our good or bad fortune is not caused by direct divine intervention, but because of purely natural causes. However, it is still important to say that our choices for good or evil can and do have consequences. Societies have fallen because they embraced an immoral culture (based on violence, slavery or perversion). Abortion is sinful; it also lowers birthrates and condemns societies to extinction. Divorce has consequences for the couple’s children and grandchildren. Our sinful choices have effects beyond us.
While the disciples’ reaction is not recorded, we find Christians today connecting their earthly fortune to God’s blessing or punishment in an automatic way. The modern Protestant movement called “the prosperity gospel,” promoted by preachers such as Joel Osteen and Creflo Dollar, teaches that God wants all His people to be physically healthy and financially successful. If a person is sick or not prosperous, they claim, it is because they are not “right with God.”
While the inquiring disciples in Jn 9 were not “blind,” we may wonder about those today who embrace either of these extremes: by living as if their choices affect only themselves or by following the prosperity gospel.
Those who knew the blind man were amazed that he could now see. Some could not conceive the possibility and asked: “’Is not this he who sat and begged?’ Some said, ‘This is he.’ Others said, ‘He is like him’” (v.9). Church Fathers such as St Irenaeus, St Basil the Great and St John Chrysostom explained their confusion in this way: if the man’s sight had been restored, they could accept it. This man, however, was blind from birth. He has no eyes at all. Jesus filled his eye sockets with clay, “adding [eyes] where before they were not” (St John Chrysostom) and gave them sight.
The Gospel says that Christ “spat on the ground and made clay with the saliva; and He anointed the eyes of the blind man with the clay” (v. 6). The Fathers directly connect this making of clay with the creation story in Genesis. St John Chrysostom noted, “When He said, ‘that the glory of God might be manifested’, He spoke of Himself, … To have said, I am He who took the dust of the earth, and made man, would have seemed a hard thing to His hearers; but this no longer stood in their way when shown by actual working. By taking earth, and mixing it with spittle, He showed forth His hidden glory; for no small glory was it that He should be deemed the Architect of creation” (St John Chrysostom, Homily 56 on John).
St Irenaeus said that this action “manifested the hand of God to those who could understand by what [hand] man was formed out of the dust” adding: “That which the artificer, the Word, had omitted to form in the womb, [viz., the blind man’s eyes], He then supplied in public, that the works of God might be manifested in him” (Against Heresies V, 15, 2).
The man’s parents affirmed his identity: “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind” (v. 20) but they evaded expressing their opinion on the miracle: “… but by what means he now sees we do not know, or who opened his eyes we do not know. He is of age; ask him. He will speak for himself” (v. 21). John explains their reticence in this way: to affirm the miracle would be to avow that Jesus was the Messiah. “His parents said these things
because they feared the Jews, for the Jews had agreed already that if anyone confessed that He was Christ, he would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, ‘He is of age; ask him’” (vv. 22, 23).
It may have to be explained to us, but Jews would assume that only the Messiah empowered by God could engage in a creative act. It would be easier to claim ignorance that to affirm that God was at work in Jesus and risk the consequences. This might be wisdom in the world, but it would be blindness in the spiritual realm.
The Pharisees are the “heavies” in this portion of John. In the previous chapter, John 8, Jesus condemns them for not seeing God at work in Him, calling them sons of the devil (see John 8:44). In chapter 10, the leaders of the Jews again confront Jesus, demanding to know whether He was the Messiah. Jesus replies, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in My Father’s name, they bear witness of Me. But you do not believe, because you are not of My sheep” (John 10:25, 26).
Jesus’ healing of the man born blind concludes with another encounter with the Pharisees (John 9:39-41). He reproaches them indirectly, saying “For judgment I have come into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may be made blind.”
But the Pharisees challenge Him further. “Then some of the Pharisees who were with Him heard these words, and said to Him, ‘Are we blind also?’ “Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you say, ‘We see.’ Therefore, your sin remains.”
The blind man had no sight through no fault of his own. The Pharisees claimed to see, without realizing that their pretension made them worse than blind.
Self-righteousness in religion can render us as blind as they. Relying on the Gospel as preached in the Church can free us from the blindness that results from being one’s own guide.