Patrick Reardon on seeing, sinning and believing

WHENEVER the Gospel of St. John says that Jesus “sees” someone, the verb denotes more than the bare act of vision. If John takes the care to remark that Jesus “sees,” this is invariably a prelude to some transformation; some work of grace is at hand. Thus does Jesus “see” Nathaniel (John 1:47,50), the paralytic at the pool (5:6), the weeping Mary of Bethany (11:33), and His two dear ones at the foot of the Cross (19:26).

Thus, too, does St. John introduce the story of the man born blind, for he says that Jesus, “passing by, saw a man blind from birth” (9:1). This is a most important detail. The blind man himself, after all, cannot see Jesus, so Jesus must first see him. This is a story about the primacy of grace, illustrating the truth that it is “not that we have loved God, but that He loved us” (1 John 4:10). This story begins, then, with a man that Jesus saw, and it ends with that same man seeing Jesus: “You have both seen Him and it is He who is talking with you” (John 9:37).

As they behold the blind man, the Lord’s disciples are plagued by a theological problem – namely, whose fault is it that the man was born blind? They phrase this question in a curious and most interesting way: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (9:2) Jesus answers immediately, of course, that neither sinned, but that is not the last time this question will appear in the story. After his healing, both the man and his parents will be subpoenaed for interrogation by the Lord’s enemies, who have their own ideas about “who sinned” The latter will say of Jesus, “We know this Man is a sinner” (9:24). Then, when he refuses to agree with them, the man himself is pronounced guilty: “You were completely born in sins” (9:34). They thus provide their own answer to the question first posed by the disciples.

There is a deeper blindness in the story, nonetheless, an unrepentance that is the real sin. Thus, at the very end of the account Jesus gives a further response to the original query “who sinned?” To those hard of heart who condemned the man born blind, the Lord asserts, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you say, ‘We see.’ Therefore, your sin remains” (9:41). This is the story’s final answer to its first question. Thus, the problem of “who sinned” is an interpretive key to the whole narrative.

There is another opposition in this story, a contrast between the purely speculative question of the disciples and the practical action of Jesus. Faced with this phenomenon of blindness, the disciples want to assign the proper blame for the situation, whereas Jesus wants to change it. They look to a human cause, He to a divine purpose (“. . . that the works of God should be revealed in him” – 9:3).

The enemies of Jesus in this story are also theorists. They know that Jesus “is not from God” (9:16), because His interpretation of the Law differs from theirs. By way of contrast, the man born blind begins with no theory. Indeed, he is a practical empiricist, who knows what he sees: “One thing I know: that though I was blind, now I see” (9:25). For him, any theories about “who sinned” must commence with certain established facts, facts as plain as the mud that he washed from his eyes.

Commencing with these facts, the man will reason his ways to others, and one may observe a transformation in his regard for Jesus. It is ironical, moreover, that the interrogation of the Lord’s enemies becomes the impetus driving him to an ever more comprehensive recognition. Immediately after the healing, he speaks simply of “a Man called Jesus” (9:11). When pushed on the point, however, he finds himself forced to a new conclusion about Jesus: “He is a prophet” (9:17). As he argues with Jesus’ enemies, logic compels him to admit that Jesus comes from God (9:32). Finally, he recognizes that Jesus is the Son of God, and at his last appearance in this story the man born blind is prostrate before Him in adoration (9:35-38).

This intricate narrative is an illustration of a theme introduced early in the Gospel of John. As he begins to heal the blind man, Jesus announces, “I am the light of the world” (9:5), a self-identification paraphrasing a line near the beginning of the Gospel: “That was the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world” (1:9). This man born blind, then, is the image of all to whom the true Light appears.

Patrick Henry Reardon is a Senior Editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity. Touchstone is published in the United States.