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Essays, Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Exclusion—John 9:1-41

The story of Jesus’ healing of the blind man in John 9 presents us with the politics of exclusion in operation. However, in a twist, it is the politics of exclusion that are revealed to be excluded.

John 9:1-41
As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3 Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4 We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6 When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7 saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

8 The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” 9 Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” 10 But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 11 He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” 12 They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. 14 Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15 Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” 16 Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. 17 So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.” 18 The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19 and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” 20 His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21 but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” 22 His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23 Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.” 24 So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” 25 He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 26 They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27 He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” 28 Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29 We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” 30 The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31 We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32 Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34 They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

35 Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36 He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” 37 Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” 38 He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.

39 Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” 40 Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” 41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

The story of the healing of the man born blind (John 9:1-41) raises a fundamental question about the relationship between spirituality and politics for modern readers who might take for granted a division between them. Does spiritual life exist in a purely private realm? Does political life exist in a purely public realm? Is spiritual life without anything to do with political life? I am convinced that the answer must be no. The story of Jesus’ healing of the blind man suggests that spiritual life can be quite political. More specifically, the spiritual formation of the blind man shows the self-contradiction of the politics of exclusion that can be operative in a society and culture.

Let us examine the politics of exclusion that are extensively apparent in the story. The story bears witness to a mechanism of exclusion exercised against disabled persons. For instance, the status of the blind man as a beggar tells us that he is alienated from the center of a Jewish society (v.8). What is interesting is that religious reasoning contributes to maintaining the discrimination against such disabled people. The belief that optical impairment is connected with the sin of the person himself or his parents justifies the low status of the blind man as a beggar (v.2).

Moreover, the story touches on the issue of the exclusion of Jesus’ followers from the synagogue on the basis of their confession of Jesus to be the Messiah (v.22; cf. 12:42; 16:2). “The Jews”—a literary construction presented by the Johannine community—who do not believe that the formerly blind man recovered his sight with the help of Jesus called his parents to confirm that he was born blind and to ask how he regained his sight (vv. 18-23). In the process, the parents confirm that their son was born blind. But they refuse to describe the way in which he recovered his sight, on account of their fear of expulsion from the synagogue.

In contrast, the formerly blind man challenges the politics of exclusion in such actions as his revelation of his understanding of Jesus’ identity, a key aspect of his spiritual formation. In his first conversation with the Pharisees (vv.13-17), the man confesses Jesus as a prophet. In his second conversation with “the Jews” (vv.24-34), he does not agree that Jesus is a sinner (v.25), holding the conviction that God does not listen to sinners, but only to the one who worships him and obeys his will (v. 31). What is more, the formerly blind man is bold to indicate that Jesus must be from God, based on his miraculous performance (v.33). Throughout his debate, the formerly blind man demonstrates his spiritual growth in his understanding of Jesus’ identity. In the long run, the man is driven out of his own community, with the reaffirmation of the social stigma that he was born entirely in sins. His frankness about his faith brings about an excommunication, a complete exclusion from his community.

However, the end of the story shows an ironic twist: those Pharisees who drove the formerly blind man out of the community are themselves subject to the politics of exclusion as presented by Jesus. With the man’s ultimate confession that he believes in Jesus as the Son of Man (v. 38), Jesus states: “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind (v.39).” Jesus does not address judgment in terms of condemnation, but rather in terms of enlightenment. This statement brings into focus the exclusion of those Pharisees from the light that Jesus shines. The Pharisees are self-judged to be blind to the light of Jesus. On the other hand, the formerly blind man is found to regain spiritual as well as physical sight.

The story of the man born blind tells us about the politics of exclusion, which is always entangled with religious life. As is the case with this story, the spiritual formation of an individual may have the effect of causing political power to fall into its own trap of being excluded. In such a manner, religious transformation can both call for and effect political change.

Sung Uk Lim is a Ph.D candidate in the New Testament and Early Christianity Program at Vanderbilt University.

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