The man born blind, a character study

The man born blind, a character study

I have a confession to make. I haven’t been good about keeping up my writing, at least fiction. Since I finished a novel manuscript a few years ago, I have hardly written any fiction. I’ve been writing mostly about writing itself and Biblical reflections. I’ve told myself it’s research, because the area I most want to write is Biblical Fiction. In order to help me bridge the gap between fiction and Bible study, I’m going to do a little character study. Fiction requires compelling characters. That is what I’m using this research for, so I can picture the scene and try to get inside these characters’ heads. This will be longer than most of my blog posts so far.

In this study, I’m using one of my favorite unnamed characters in the Bible, the man born blind in John 9. I’m also hoping to make these episodes into a podcast. Sounds exciting, huh? Without further ado…

Who sinned and caused this man to be born blind?

In John chapter 9, Jesus and the disciples encountered a man born blind. Just prior to this, Jesus had an intense debate with the Jewish leaders in the Temple (Joh 8:12-58). This man would have been sitting somewhere begging, because there was very little work a blind man could do. Clearly, this was an organic condition. It doesn’t say whether he was partially blind or completely blind. The impression I get from reading it is he was totally blind. In first century Judaism, if a child was born blind, it had to be punishment for sin. Either the parents sinned, or somehow the child sinned while it was in the womb. This is why the disciples asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (Joh 9:2 NRS).

How can a child in the womb sin, you ask? Let’s say, for example, the child’s mother goes into a pagan temple while pregnant. In their minds, the child participates in that sin, even though clearly he/she had no choice in the matter. There were also ways a child could sin in the womb without the parents’ knowledge. That’s all speculation of course. I would even call it superstition. The thing about superstitions is, if you believe it, it’s not a superstition to you. Jesus’ answer says a lot, not only about the fallacy of that belief but also his mission in the world.

Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”

(Joh 9:3)

First, he addresses the question of “who sinned?” As so often happened with Jesus, when they presented a question in the form of “Which is it, A or B?” he answered, “C, none of the above.” The man’s blindness, he tells them, has nothing to do with anyone’s sin, not the man’s or his parents’. Then he told them God did have a purpose in having him born blind. The purpose was that God’s works might be revealed in him.

This is admittedly difficult for many people to take, the idea that God would cause misfortune on someone, because there is some mysterious purpose behind it. However, in this case, that mystery would not remain hidden much longer. God’s works were about to be revealed, not in the man’s blindness, but in what Jesus was about to do for him.

Then Jesus said something else that spoke to the nature of his mission.

“We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

(Joh 9:4-5 NRS).

I think here, he hinted that the miracles and healings he was doing would not continue much longer. Why? Because this was the only time in history when the eternal Word (in Greek logos) walked the earth as a flesh and blood human being. That would not last forever. Night was coming. He knew his mission would end at the cross. Until that day, however, he and his disciples had to work the works of him who sent him. Notice he stresses the words work and works. That is going to be important later in the story. For now, let’s continue and see what he does for the man.

Where did you get that mud?

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, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent).

Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

(Joh 9:6-7 NRS)

How did Jesus heal him? He spat on the ground, made mud from the dirt and saliva, spread it on the man’s eyes, and told him to wash in the pool of Siloam. Is there any indication that Jesus was doing this in response to the man’s faith? None whatsoever. The man did not ask to be healed. I bet he didn’t even know it was Jesus rubbing mud on his eyes because, hello! He was blind! He was just sitting in the same spot he had sat begging every day for all of his adult life; and all of a sudden, some fool comes along and rubs mud on his eyes. Why would anyone do this to me? Who is this man rubbing mud on me? What kind of man takes advantage of a blind man like this? Do you think this is funny?

Jesus tells him, “Go wash in the pool of Siloam.”

“Oh, I’m going to wash this off, all right, because that’s what I do when someone covers me with mud. Where did you get the mud from anyway? Wait a minute! Did I hear you spit? Oooohhh! You mangy dog!” he wags his finger at Jesus. “Don’t you go anywhere, because after I wash this mud off, I’ve got some words for you!”

I’m sure after washing the mud off, he would have given Jesus an earful. Except…after he washed his eyes, he saw a shimmering light. “What’s this? I know it’s water. This is what water feels like,” as he dipped his hands in it. I imagine he scooped some up in his hands and let it fall back into the pool. “Is this what water looks like? Wow, this pool is beautiful. I’ve been to this pool many times, but I’ve never seen it before. I’ve never seen anything before! I see people all around. I think they’re people. I don’t know, because I’ve never seen people before. What’s your name?”

“Simon.”

“Simon! I can see you! I can see all the people around here. I can see the sun. I can see the Temple over there, where they won’t let me in because I’m blind. Was blind.” He inhales with mouth and eyes wide open as the realization sets in. “I was blind. But now I see. Where is the man who did this? I’ve got some words for him!”

Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?

He did not understand how he was healed. He did not know it was Jesus putting mud on his eyes until after he was healed. He didn’t even know Jesus was healing him, because Jesus never told him why he was putting mud on his eyes. Jesus had his own reasons for healing this man, whether he believed in him or not. You’ve heard of “faith healing?” Call this a non-faith healing.

Some people around the man noticed him, and they were like, “Look at that man! He can see!”

“So what?”

“He’s the blind man who used to beg over in that corner. I saw him every day as I passed on my way home from the Temple.”

So John tells us,

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?”

Some were saying, “It is he.”

Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.”

He kept saying, “I am the man.”

(Joh 9:8-9 NRS)

I picture this debate going like, “That’s the blind man who sat there and begged.” “It can’t be him. Look, he’s not blind.” “It sure looks like him.” “That’s it. It’s someone else who looks like him.”

And the man is like, “Hey, I’m right here. You can ask me.”

“Are you the man?”

“Yes, I am the man.”

So then John tells us,

But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?”

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.”

They said to him, “Where is he?”

He said, “I do not know.”

(Joh 9:10-12 NRS)

Yeah, the man couldn’t point out Jesus in the crowd, because he never saw Jesus. (He was blind, remember?). So they take him to the Pharisees. They are the people who are supposed to know God and the scriptures better than anyone, so maybe they can make sense of this. Because if a man who was blind now sees, God must have had something to do with it. But the Pharisees have already had some controversies with Jesus, and this is not going to change their minds.

The work of a “sinner”

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes.

(Joh 9:13-14 NRS)

Uh oh! That is going to be a problem. Making clay and putting it to use is defined in the Traditions of the Elders as work. Every Jew knew working on the Sabbath was forbidden. That was not a minor commandment. It was one of the Top Ten. Jesus has already gotten into trouble with the Pharisees because he healed a paralytic on the Sabbath in chapter 5. It’s like he’s doing everything he can to thumb his nose at them. But actually, he explained earlier why he needed to do this, even though it was the sabbath, in verses 4-5.

“We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

(Joh 9:4-5 NRS)

This is why he stressed doing the works of God while it is day. By working the works of God, he broke the sabbath. Why? Was it just to antagonize the Pharisees? No. He said, As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world. But he would not be “in the world” for much longer. Soon, he would be crucified, dead, and buried. He would not be able to contact sick people in such direct fashion after that. So when he saw an opportunity to both heal a man born bind, and teach an important lesson to his disciples, he had to take it, sabbath or not.

Cognitive Dissonance: A great way to create tension in your story

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.”

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. 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.”

(Joh 9:15-17 NRS)

The Pharisees are experiencing something called Cognitive Dissonance. This is a condition, usually temporary, where the mind is stressed because it’s trying to hold two facts together and knows both of those facts cannot be true at the same time. Fact 1: Jesus opened the eyes of a man born blind. Fact 2: Jesus broke the Sabbath. From fact 1, they should conclude that he was sent from God. From fact 2, they should conclude that he is a sinner. They cannot both be true. Either he was sent from God, or he is a sinner. How they should react to him depends on which side they pick.

For the man, there is no dissonance. He opened my eyes. Only God can do that, so he was sent from God. But…. No buts! He was sent from God. Period.

The first impulse in Cognitive Dissonance is to deny the fact you don’t like. Fake news, the Pharisees say. But they had to investigate. Probably someone suggested, “Why don’t we ask his parents? They should know if he was born blind, because, you know, they were there.” Here’s how that went.

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  and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?”

His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 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.”

(Joh 9:18-21 NRS)

John says “the Jews” did not believe, but sometimes John refers to the Jewish religious authorities who opposed Jesus as “the Jews.” Most of the authorities continued to oppose Jesus, because they saw him threatening their most cherished traditions. But there is no way everyone who was there “did not believe.” I guarantee you some of the Jews who were there came to faith in Jesus because of this. How could they not? Some of you, if you saw this happen, would come to faith as well. The religious authorities, here represented by the Pharisees, were another matter entirely.

If they could have proven the man really wasn’t born blind, the debate would have been over. But his own parents, who would know, confirmed he was their son, and he was born blind. Their level of cognitive dissonance is off the charts now. What will they do?

Though I was blind, now I see

The Pharisees investigated the case of a man who was born blind and now sees. He claimed he saw because Jesus opened his eyes. That’s a problem for them, because they have already declared “anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue” (Joh 9:22 NRS). Why? Because he was a “sinner.” Why? Because he healed on the Sabbath, and he claimed to be equal to God (Joh 5:9-10; 17-18). To be fair, no Jew should ever believe any man or woman who claims to be equal to God. But if he is a sinner, how could he have opened the eyes of a blind man? {COGNITIVE DISSONANCE ALERT}.

If they could prove this miracle was fake, there would be no reason for anyone to believe he was the Messiah. But their own investigation proved it was real. {COGNITIVE DISSONANCE ALERT}. What do they do now? We pick up the story at John 9:24-25.

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.” {That’s how they resolve their cognitive dissonance}

He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 

(Joh 9:24-25 NRS)

This is not only a story of a blind man who receives sight. It’s also a story of willful blindness. They can’t acknowledge Jesus had any role in this miracle, so instead they insist the man give glory to God. I think it’s good to give glory to God when you receive a blessing, but sometimes people use that to avoid giving credit where credit is due. In this case, they “give glory to God” so they won’t have to give Jesus, a “sinner,” any credit for it.

For the man, they could call Jesus a sinner all day. Maybe they were right, maybe they were wrong. There is only one fact he knows for sure. He was blind, and now he sees.

John continues,

They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”

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?”

(Joh 9:26-27 NRS)

I think at this point, the man recognizes the Pharisees are just being willfully blind, and he is not willing to suffer fools gladly. And I wish I could have been there to see the look on their faces when he asked, Do you also want to become his disciples? Continuing, verses 28-29,

Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from” 

(Joh 9:28-29 NRS)

No one in this story would dispute that God had spoken to Moses. Not this man, not any of the witnesses, and certainly not Jesus. He had already told the Jewish religious leaders,

“Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father; your accuser is Moses, on whom you have set your hope. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But if you do not believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?”

(Joh 5:45-47 NRS)

That was a bold claim from Jesus. That Moses, who wrote the Torah, on which all scripture is based, wrote about him. Christians today are so used to hearing Jesus fulfilled Old Testament scriptures that I wonder if we understand how shocking this statement would have been to first century Jews. There was no way they should have believed anyone who said something like this without evidence. In this case, however, that evidence was standing right before them in a man who was born blind and now sees. Let’s see how that evidence responds to the Pharisees’ objections.

Here is an astonishing thing!

The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes”

(Joh 9:30 NRS)

Okay, I have to interrupt here for a moment to say, I love this man! I think he might be my favorite unnamed character in the Bible. He was a walking, talking “no B.S. zone.” He’s like, “How shocking! You don’t know where he comes from! Forget that he opened my eyes. I thought that proved he was sent from God. But you don’t know where he comes from. Well, that totally discredits him. I was going to become his disciple, but if you don’t know where he comes from, well, I was clearly a fool for thinking that.” You do get he’s being sarcastic, right?

Then he drops the sarcasm and gets to some serious theology, continuing from verse 31,

“We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing”

(Joh 9:31-33 NRS)

God does not listen to sinners. God listens to those who worship God and obey God’s will. If he were not from God, he could do nothing. You didn’t need any advanced theological training to know this. Every Jew knew this. This was Judaism 101. Shabbas school even. If he were not from God, he could do nothing, so look at what he just did. He opened the eyes of a person born blind.

This was not your run of the mill, ordinary miracle. This was something no one had ever done since the world began. In Jesus’ time, there were others who claimed to be miracle workers and healers. But none of them had done anything close to this. Search through history, and you won’t find anyone who had done this. No angel, no prophet, none of the patriarchs, not Moses, no miracle worker, no healer, no magician, no one has ever opened the eyes of a person born blind. So if he’s a sinner, you tell me how he opened my eyes.

Quite a convincing argument, don’t you think? He’s going toe-to-toe in a theological debate with the best theologians in Jerusalem, and he is crushing it. Did I mention I love this man?

Is this enough to change the minds of the religious authorities?

They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

(Joh 9:34 NRS)

So they made good on their threat to throw anyone out of the synagogue who confessed Jesus as the Messiah (9:22). What did they mean that he was “born entirely in sins”? Remember back in Verse 2 when the disciples asked Jesus whether the man sinned or his parents? That was the common belief about children born with blindness, deafness, or some other disability. The child was born in sins, either because of the parents, or because the child somehow sinned in the womb. And again, I’ll remind you Jesus said sin had nothing to do with the man’s blindness (Joh 9:3). But the man would have been treated with that attitude all his life, so I don’t think he felt any great loss when they drove him out [of the synagogue]. And if he was eager to be Jesus’ disciple before, he was all the more eager after that. Time for Jesus to reenter the scene.

Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”

He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.”

Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.”

He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.

(Joh 9:35-38 NRS)

As I said before, no Jew should have worshiped Jesus, called him Lord, or believed he was the Son of God, or the Son of Man for that matter. Not without evidence, and it would have to be evidence way beyond a reasonable doubt. This man received exactly that, so it was appropriate for him to worship Jesus and believe him when he called himself the Son of Man. He’s like, “Son of Man? Who is he? Just tell me, and I’ll believe. In fact, I’ll believe anything you tell me. I’ll believe anything you want me too. Why shouldn’t I? I was blind, and you opened my eyes.”

This man knew how to put two and two together. If Jesus were not from God, he could not have opened my eyes. I know we are taught not to have any gods except the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But he would not ask me to do anything God would disapprove of. If he did, God would not have let him do what he did for me.

Summary

There are a lot of unnamed characters in the Bible. Usually, we don’t get much of their personality. They are mostly props or role-players. This man’s personality leaps off the page. I love how he debates the Pharisees. I keep thinking what must it have felt like if you couldn’t see and someone just started putting mud over your eyes, no explanations. You think he has pulled some kind of cruel joke on you. But then you wash the mud off, and you can see. Even though he was a Jew, John tells his story in a way that his worship of Jesus near the end of the chapter makes sense.

Nothing annoys me more about Christian or Biblical fiction than when someone converts to faith in Christ, but the author does not make it feel authentic. There is nothing inauthentic about this man. In one chapter, he went from blindness, to seeing, to believing, to worshiping, and every bit of it felt real. Like I said, he is a walking, talking “no B.S.” zone. I know it’s not right to call him a fictional character, but I would be proud to have a character like him in one of my novels or short stories.

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