This post begins a series on a passage of Christian Scripture, John 9 (The Healing of the Man born Blind). The usual themes of culture, traditions, and redemption will be discussed, but they will be applied to interpreting this passage of Scripture, as I prepare to preach on this passage on Sunday. This post is not meant to be a commentary on any specific current events in the United States. It is purely part of my preparation for Sunday, and will be continued tomorrow.
Have you ever met someone famous without realizing it? Growing up in Atlanta in the 1990s, the biggest celebrities in town were the members of the Atlanta Braves. My dad once road an elevator with Sid Bream (only famous to Braves’ fans), not realizing it until right before the last stop. My mother once asked Hank Aaron (famous to nearly everyone) for directions to the nearest restroom at the old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, completely unaware.
Jesus’ Naive Disciples
That feeling of awkward cluelessness is what I often think about when I read the stories in the Gospels. If one gives any attention at all to the minor details of the text, one can easily conclude that the disciples — that is to say, all of the eventual authors of the New Testament, save one — were unaware of who Jesus was, for nearly the entire time that he was with them.
There was the transfiguration, where Peter mistakenly acknowledged Jesus as being a mere prophet, equal to other prophets from history. There was John 14, where Phillip was scolded by Jesus, after he asked Jesus to “show us the Father”. There were James and John, who came with their mother to ask who would get the best seat in the house.
I’m sure Peter, James and John thought, “what if I could have understood just a little bit more, while he was still here with me?”
And here, in John 9, the disciple Jesus loved, now enlightened, is writing about events that occurred at a time when he himself was probably similarly oblivious. And John’s choice to include this story, with all this in mind, is incredible. In this story, it is incredible to see just who is aware of Jesus’ identity, and who apparently is not.
The disciples show their inquisitiveness, and their confusion, with the opening verses of the chapter. They see a blind beggar and ask Jesus, “Rabbi,who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” The problem with the question is that it shows a misunderstanding of sin, and of God; the disciples apparently believed that by doing good things, one can manipulate God into making life easier. Good things happen to people who do good; bad things happen to people who do bad.
The Light of the World
Jesus corrects the disciples, and heals the man, but then says something amazing. He said, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
Culture is a set of traditions, customs, and obligations that gives a people meaning and purpose. In the Jewish culture, the idea of the Light of the world was incredibly significant, especially at the time when Jesus happened to be in the synagogue.
In John 7, it is clear that Jesus had gone to Jerusalem for the time of the Feast of Tabernacles, or Sukkoth. During that festival, there was something called the Water-drawing ceremony, in which the temple was lit with four enormous oil lamps (each about 75 feet tall), to commemorate the Spirit of the Lord filling the Temple with his glory. From the Jewish Talmud:
He who has not witnessed the rejoicings at the water-drawing has, throughout the whole of his life, witnessed no real rejoicing. At the expiration of the first holiday of the festival they descended into the women’s court, where a great transformation was made. Golden candelabra were placed there, with four golden basins at the top of each; and four ladders were put to each candelabrum, on which stood four lads from the rising youth of the priesthood, holding jars of oil containing 120 jugs, with which they replenished each basin. The cast-off breeches and belts of the priests were torn into shreds for wicks, which they lighted. There was not a court in Jerusalem that was not illuminated by the lights of the water-drawing. (From the Mishnah, Sukkah, chapter 5)
So, in the midst of this great tradition that was part of the very foundation of meaning and purpose for the people of Israel, under the light of the lamps of the water-drawing festival, Jesus says “I am the light of the world.”
To the Pharisees, the leaders of the common people of Israel, the significance of Jesus’ statement could not have been clearer. They got it immediately. To them, the “light of the world” was the Spirit of God, which dwelt in the temple, to which most of them had devoted their entire lives. For a Nazarene to walk in and claim to be the light of the world was preposterous. If the light of the world was going to walk in off the street into their temple, surely God would have notified them ahead of time.
None The Wiser
The words near the end of the story cut to the heart of the matter. The man who had been healed, is looking for his healer. Jesus, the healer, says to the man, who had never seen anything in his life, “You have seen him” (John 9:37). The man, now seeing, responds by falling down in worship.
What an awesome feeling of incredible, life-giving, purpose-filled satisfaction that must have been for the man, who had been blind his whole life, was heeled by Jesus, and then got to worship his healer. This is where we want to be — at the feet of the man who gives us sight.
In all of this, though, the disciples’ voices are noticeably absent. We know that they did not all leave — at least John must have stayed to witness this, and later record it in his gospel — but their silence makes it seem as if they had vacated the premises. After the initial question, those who were most closely identified with Jesus were never heard from again.
Finally, one cannot fully analyze this story without carefully dissecting the many, many words of the Pharisees. It is clear that, standing underneath the great lights of the temple, sweating from their heat, they had an interest in Jesus not being the light of the world. He spoke in the cryptic way that he did so that they would know his words were meant specifically for them. And to them he said, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.”
So, there are three groups: those with Jesus all the time (the disciples), those against Jesus all the time (the Pharisees), and a man who had never seen Jesus before. And, as is often the case, the most unlikely of characters makes the most significant statement of the story. The question for us is: will we do the same, or will we be none the wiser for seeing the Light of the World?