Coping in Jesus’ Absence (Jn. 9:1-41)
by Fred B. Craddock
Fred B. Craddock is professor of preaching and New Testament at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta. This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 14, 1990, p. 275, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found atwww.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
The form of a passage is often as instructive as its subject matter. So it is with John 9:1-41, the story of Jesus healing a man born blind. The text is pregnant with matters of major importance: the disciples ask about the relationship of suffering to sin. Jesus acts on his own initiative and not in response to the blind man’s faith. The man’s faith follows rather than precedes healing. We learn that the blind see and the seeing are blind -- no small matter both for life and theology. In addition we read two major christological pronouncements in the passage: "As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world" (v. 5) , and "For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind" (v. 39) . These and other offerings of this extraordinary text could occupy us at length and with great profit.
However, this story is in one respect unique not only in John but in all the Gospels. John 9:1-41 consists of a sign action by Jesus followed by a series of dramatic actions growing out of Jesus’ action. Jesus himself appears only at the beginning (vv. l-7a) and at the end (vv. 34-41) . In other words, Jesus heals the man, disappears from the narrative and reappears at the end to receive, confirm and vindicate the blind man now healed and a disciple. Most of the action occurs between Jesus’ two arrivals. It is difficult to believe it is coincidental that the form of the narrative corresponds to the form of the story of the church: Jesus comes with blessing and instruction, Jesus departs, Jesus will return with vindication for his church. The church is now living in the time of Jesus’ departure, the period between his first and his final manifestations. This Gospel is very sensitive to Jesus’ absence and responds with that most encouraging body of material between the Last Supper (John 13) and the arrest in the garden (John 18) . This "farewell" section is clearly designed to instruct and encourage the church "in the meantime." The story in chapter 9 reflects the same sensitivity to the life of the church between "a little while and you will not see me" and "a little while and you will see me."
The time of Jesus’ absence is no picnic. In fact, the man born blind could have said understandably to himself more than once, "I never asked to be healed. If this is what it means to be blessed of God, I think I am willing to relinquish some divine favors." Perhaps no biblical story illustrates quite so dramatically the truth of repeated experience: God’s favor more often leads into than away from difficulties. A relationship to God does not remove one from but often places one in the line of fire. Those who preach faith as the cessation of pain, suffering, poverty, restless nights and turbulent days are offering false comfort. Notice what happened to the healed man during Jesus’ absence.
The drama of what can happen to those blessed by Jesus unfolds in four scenes. In scene one (vv. 8-12) , the healed man tries to go home again but cannot. So radical is the change in him that his reappearance in the old neighborhood generates no joy, no celebration, no welcome home, only questions and doubts. His insistence that he is the same man gains mixed responses. He was formerly well known among these people; his stumbling and hesitant walk, his dependence, his poverty were his identity, they defined his place in the community. Now he walks upright, assured of place and direction, quite independent, only to discover that he has no place anymore. Who are you? Who is this Jesus? Where is he? I do not know.
In scene two (vv. 13-17) the healed man is hauled before religious leaders. They are interested in all reported miracles, especially if performed by unauthorized individuals and most especially if done in violation of some law. Such is the case here; the healing occurred on the sabbath. A quandary: if this man is truly healed, it was done by someone with the power of God, but if the healing took place on the sabbath, then it was done by someone opposing God’s law. Are you sure you can see? Were you really blind? Who did it? Further investigation is needed.
Scene three (vv. 18-23) finds the parents of the healed man being grilled by the religious leaders. Yes, he is our son; yes, he was born blind; no, we do not know what happened; no, we do not know who did it. Whatever joy they may have had is drowned in fear. Expulsion from the synagogue and social disgrace is a high price to pay for having a son especially blessed by God. They were unwilling to pay it.
In the final scene (vv. 24-34) the man is grilled a second time and more intensely. The authorities, faced with the irrefutable evidence of the healing, try to make the man denounce Jesus as a sinner. The poor man, armed only with his experience and sound logic, cannot believe a sinner could have the power of God. Anger and frustration rule: the man is denounced along with Jesus and expelled as a sinner. A few days previous the man’s life was blessed by Jesus and now his old friends disregard him, his parents reject him, and he is no longer welcome at his old place of worship. What a blessing! Jesus returns (v. 35) , late, but not too late.