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Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Overcoming Sacrifice—John 9:1-41 (Fritz Wendt)

In the healing of the blind man in John 9 and the response of the religious leaders and teachers that follows, the power of scapegoating is revealed, as is the assurance that Jesus will overcome it.

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

8The 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?” 9Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” 10But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 11He 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.” 12They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

13They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind.14Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15Then 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.” 16Some 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. 17So 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.” 18The 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 19and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” 20His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind;21but 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.” 22His 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. 23Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.” 24So 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.” 25He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 26They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27He 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?” 28Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” 30The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

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

39Jesus 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.” 40Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” 41Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

Some people frowned, some spoke of shame. Disciples joined, “Are, Rabbi, say,
his parents or is he to blame? Somebody surely went astray!”

“Neither,” he said, “God looks for love and not for blame ‘mong humankind.”
And then, with pow’r from heav’n above (and mud) he healed those eyes long blind.

Scholars have tended to see John 9 and 10 as one unit ever since Thomas Cajetan in the early 1500s observed that the chapter division seems awkward. Both chapters talk, although in various forms and images, about one theme: blame and judgment.

The Gospel text opens with Jesus and his disciples walking past the “man born blind”. Because in the minds of their community blindness and sinfulness are connected, the disciples assume a matter of morality: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (verse 2). In response, Jesus says “neither sinned”, and proceeds literally to muddy things up, using his own saliva to make some mud, putting it on the man’s eyes, and telling him to go wash his eyes. Then, for the first time ever, the man sees.

This is when the blame game begins. The neighbors notice that the man known as a fixture sitting by the road is walking among them; they take him to the Pharisees who, divided among themselves, question the parents, and then come back to the healed man.

Their interrogation gets them nowhere. “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?” (verse 27). In response, they get angry and expel him.

The healing is complete as Jesus finds the healed man again, and he becomes a disciple: “Lord, I believe.” (verse 38). Jesus then is overheard by the Pharisees saying, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” (verse 39), and some of them wonder whether he means them. Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” (verse 41)

What is their sin that remains? It is the sin of their judgment.

French social commentator and philosopher, René Girard, says that all human societies are characterized by an unbearable tension that is born of the conflict of desire. Desire leads to competition, rivalry, and conflict, and Girard holds that scapegoating becomes the “solution”. A person or group is blamed for the crisis, and then is persecuted and sacrificed.

Once a victim is found, the community has created a social “glue” that gives them cohesiveness and peace. This peace, achieved by violence, is unstable and false because it requires constant denial.

Because their sin of judgment remains, the Pharisees don’t “get” Jesus, who is identifying with the suffering of the least of the people. Their need to judge makes them blind.

When we read the story on spiritual blindness together with Jesus as the Good Shepherd, we see how Jesus’ enemies don’t have enough spiritual vision to understand what sort of Messiah he is. Way back at his baptism, John the Baptist has stated what is the theme for all of John’s story of Jesus: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).

This Messiah is not like the hired hand who “sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them” (John 10:12). We see more clearly how and why this Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep when we also know him as the Lamb of God, the one who hands himself over to the wolf to be the Passover Lamb for us.

Rumi, the Sufi mystic and poet, tells this story: Once upon a time there was a holy man, riding his donkey. As he was riding, he saw a sleeping man and a snake was crawling into the man’s mouth. He hurried, but he couldn’t stop it. He took his club and gave the man several blows with it. Terrified, the man woke. He ran beneath an apple tree. There were many rotten apples on the ground. “Eat!”, said the holy man, “Eat, you miserable wretch! Eat.” “Why are you doing this to me?”, said the man. “Eat more, you fool,” said the holy man. “I’ve never seen you before,” replied the terrified man. “Who are you?”

But the wise man kept forcing him to eat, and then he chased him. He took his whip to the poor man and made him run for hours. Finally, at nightfall, full of rotten apples, fatigued, bleeding, the man fell and vomited everything, the good, the bad, the apples—and the snake too. When he saw the snake come out of him, he fell on his knees before his assailant and thanked him, “Thank God that you noticed me. I was dead and didn’t know it. You’ve given me new life.”

The holy man said, “If I had explained what I was doing, you might have died of fear. If I had told you about the snake, you wouldn’t have been able to eat, and if you hadn’t eaten, you wouldn’t have vomited. I saw your condition and drove my donkey hard into the middle of it, saying always under my breath, ‘Lord, make it easy on him.’ “The healed man said, still kneeling, “I have no way to thank you for the quickness of your wisdom and the strength of your guidance. God will thank you.”

The snake is Rumi’s symbol for the human ego. Rumi says the ego is a snake which develops slowly. The more it is fed, the stronger it becomes to fight with you; and the stronger it becomes, the more it dominates your better self.

The man in Rumi’s story had that snake beaten out of him because he had swallowed while being asleep. Sleep in Rumi’s writings is a symbol for not being aware. Had that man been aware, he wouldn’t have swallowed the snake. A person who remains aware will be on the lookout for the shenanigans of their ego.

Every inclination which springs from disregard of love, harmony, and beauty, including blame and judgment, is the work of the ego. Because the ego instigates against our longing for Life Eternal, we must remain awake and aware.

I want to return to verse 3, where Jesus says, he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him”. As Jesus talks about revealing God’s work, doing God’s work, he heals this blind man with mud. Here the evangelist sends us back to the beginning of creation: “The Lord God formed the man from the soil of the ground” (Genesis 2:7). The goal of God’s work and Jesus’ work is not just our salvation; it is bringing the whole creation to completion. I believe this is what Jesus refers to when he says with his dying breath on the cross, “It is finished”, or (as it also can be translated) “All Is Now Whole”.

The Son of God came into this world when human sacrifice was still in full force, in the form of executing blasphemers. Those who participated were blind to our lust for sacrificial killing, and it took the Son of God handing himself over to the sinful ways in which we are bound, to end the pattern. He was killed as the only way of leading humanity out of the culture based on death. By disrupting the ways of the death-based world, God’s Shalom crossed out all human ideas of atonement, including blaming and judging and scapegoating.

When Jesus says (John 9:4) that we “must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work”, we are included in the work of Shalom. As the people of God, we know that a government that wants to go all the way to the Supreme Court to reinstate its Muslim Ban is using the scapegoating mechanism Girard talks about: one group is blamed for the crisis and must be sacrificed.

Jesus’ death opens us to God’s vision for all of humankind: to be one human family, utterly alive with God. We are all one in love. There is no “other” for our family; when one of us suffers, we all suffer. Thus, it is our task to challenge every attempt to single out and sacrifice any of our sisters and brothers.

And may the Shalom of God, which is beyond everything we can grasp or understand, strengthen and enlighten you until that day when we all are meeting in that life that has no end: Life Eternal. Amen.

(Note: The two stanzas quoted at the beginning are from a song I wrote in the 1990s)

Fritz Wendt, M.A., M.Div., LCSW-R, a native of Northern Germany, is a Lutheran pastor, psychotherapist and church musician living in New York City. He works full-time in the Pediatric ER and Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry of Harlem Hospital.

3 thoughts on “The Politics of Overcoming Sacrifice—John 9:1-41 (Fritz Wendt)

  1. Thank you, Fritz, for Your message really touched me, as I am in a very, very desperate situation right now. And you are correct, in that many people turn away from you as if you have committed a crime, like so many in the UR church I am currently attending I feel like not going back there anymore. Thank you for the reminder that I am still in God’s hands. and by grace I’m hanging on….Coni AZ

  2. Lord, I Am Blind

    Lord, I am blind. I fail to be
    kin to the suff’ring in their plight.
    Come, heal my eyes and let me see.
    Light of the world, fill me with light.

    1. The man was blind since he was born.
    He sat there begging in the square
    and suffered grief from people’s scorn;
    he daily felt their hostile glare.

    2. Some people frowned, some spoke of shame,
    disciples joined, “Are, Rabbi, say,
    his parents or is he to blame?
    Somebody surely went astray!”

    3. “Oh no,” he said, “God looks for love
    and not for blame ‘mong humankind.”
    And then with pow’r from heaven above
    (and mud) he healed those eyes long blind.

    4. God’s Son went up to Calvary
    all judgment, scorn and hate to take.
    The Lamb of God has set us free.
    The bonds of violence let’s break.

    Lyrics: F Wendt 1990, revised 2017.

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