Three Points You May Have Missed from John 9

The Sunday Gospels in Lent are some of the most important, moving parts of Scripture, hands down.  There’s a lot to say on last Sunday’s Gospel (the raising of Lazarus from John 11), but the Gospel from the Sunday before that (John 9:1-41) has a number of great moments which really stand out.

(1) The Meaning of Suffering

First, John 9:1-3,

As he passed by he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him.”

A simple, no-nonsense answer which gets straight to the point. It’s also, quite undeniably, a rebuke to those like Pat Robertson or the Westboro Baptist Church who profit off of tragedies to shill their version of the Gospel.  Jesus has a similar rebuke in Luke 13:1-5

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

It couldn’t be clearer. Instead of blaming the victims of tragedies, we should use those tragedies as a reminder that we’re going to die, as a time to get right with God, and to start living right. People naturally understand this, which is why those who study the issue say things like:

For a time after September 11, church attendance quite understandably experienced a rapid rise. Casual churchgoers experienced — again, understandably — a heightened sense of spiritual awareness and a more urgent search for answers and perspectives that would enable them to process and live through this terrible tragedy.

We shouldn’t ignore God’s lamentation in Hosea 13:6: “When I fed them, they were satisfied; when they were satisfied, they became proud; then they forgot Me.” He sometimes permit suffering as a way to shake us out of our blind self-satisfaction.  This is unquestionably for our own good. When we feel self-satisfied, surrounded by our material or physical pleasures, we’re not just worse followers of Christ, but worse people in every sense.  When tragedies happen, we remember that the glories of the world fade, and start seeking once more for the glories of Heaven.

So to the question, “Why is there suffering?” Jesus poses two answers. One, as a reminder that unless we repent, we’ll all perish — not in the physical sense, but in the eternal and spiritual sense.  And two, to bring glory to God.  This is most true in cases like the one we see here in John 9, where Jesus miraculously heals the man.  As I’ve noted before, just as the physical tragedy was really a warning sign of a much bigger spiritual reality, the physical healing was also a sign of a much bigger spiritual reality: namely, that we have a God who heals bodies and more importantly, souls.

This is why Christians, and particularly Catholics, have such a seemingly perverse outlook on suffering.  While everyone else in the world has the sense to fear and avoid it, Catholics often embrace it and praise God for it. As St. Peter says, “But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:13).  And again, “if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name” (1 Peter 4:16).  Paul says he rejoices in his sufferings (Colossians 1:24), and “glories” in them (Romans 5:3).  We understand, at a basic level that as bad as suffering is, Malcolm Muggeridge was right:

“Contrary to what might be expected, I look back on experiences that at the time seemed especially desolating and painful with particular satisfaction. Indeed, I can say with complete truthfulness that everything I have learned in my 75 years in this world, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened my experience, has been through affliction and not through happiness.”

So the first thing Christ has done in John 9 is to provide meaning and purpose to suffering. It’s a reminder that suffering isn’t a sign that God is cruel, or that God is helpless to stop it. Simply, there’s more going on than we know (John 38-41 is a great reminder on this point, when God rebukes Job for trying to tell Him how things out to be).

(2) Jesus and the Sacraments

Right after speaking to the Apostles, Jesus turns to the blind man (John 9:6-7):

When He had said this, He spat on the ground and made clay with the saliva, and smeared the clay on his eyes, and said to him, “Go wash in the Pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). So he went and washed, and came back able to see.

We know from Scripture that Jesus didn’t need to smear mud and spit on the blind man’s eyes.  Compare this healing to the healing of blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10:51-52), who Jesus simply talks to.  In fact, Jesus wasn’t even physically present for the healing of the Centurion’s servant (Matthew 8:5-13).

Each of these instances of healing tell us something different.  With the Centurion, Jesus offers to come (Matthew 8:7), but the Centurion says, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed” (Mt. 8:8). So the healing of the Centurion tells us about Jesus’ holiness and His awesome power: by healing the girl from afar, we’re reminded that no matter how great we are in the eyes of the world, we’re nothing compared to Jesus Christ.  In contrast, Bartimaeus is saved through his following of Christ (Mark 10:50) and declaration of belief (Mark 10:51), which Jesus summarizes as “faith” (Mark 10:52). So that healing teaches us something about what faith entails.

What then, of this blind man?  Jesus never even speaks to Him prior to the miraculous healing.  Here, we’re learning something new. Specifically, we’re learning about the power of the sacraments.  One of the defining things about Catholicism (contra Protestantism) is our belief that God uses physical means to communicate His Holy Spirit.  The Catechism says of the sacraments (CCC 1084):

“Seated at the right hand of the Father” and pouring out the Holy Spirit on his Body which is the Church, Christ now acts through the sacraments he instituted to communicate his grace. The sacraments are perceptible signs (words and actions) accessible to our human nature. By the action of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit they make present efficaciously the grace that they signify.

God is Spirit (John 4:24), so it seems silly that God, who need not use matter, should choose to do so anyways, relying on material things like bread and wine to make the Eucharist, water for Baptism, the laying on of hands and the anointing with oil for Confirmation and Holy Orders, and so forth. Protestants often reject certain physical things (images of Christ and the Saints in church, for example), and when accepted, physical things are treated as mere symbols.  So the waters of Baptism couldn’t actually do what 1 Peter 3:21 or Acts 22:16 say they do, because it’s water.

But Catholics don’t think that the physical things on their own save, but that the physical things connected with the Spirit save (John 6:63).  The Catechism points out that Christ’s Incarnation was a sacrament of sorts (CCC 515):

His humanity appeared as “sacrament”, that is, the sign and instrument, of his divinity and of the salvation he brings: what was visible in his earthly life leads to the invisible mystery of his divine sonship and redemptive mission.

Consider. Christ saves us through His physical death on the Cross, offering up His physical (literal) Body and Blood to suffer and die on the Cross.  All Christians believe that.  Yet none of them think we’re saved simply through human sacrifice, or offering up flesh to God the Father as if we were pagans. It’s that Christ willingly offers up His physical Body and Blood, and that Body and Blood united with the Spirit atone for the sins of the whole world. That’s a profound teaching, that the God who is Spirit saves us through Matter (united with Spirit). In so doing, in using Matter in salvation, Christ opens the gate for our own salvation, as our physical bodies are not simply cast off as old husks, but are glorified.  Philippians 3:20-21 says this explicitly.

So that’s what we’re seeing here in John 9.  We find Jesus Christ, capable of healing through any means He so chose, using spit and mud. What a beautiful symbol of the Incarnation.  The God who chose to enter the world through conception and childbirth (not a clean process), and who exited it for a time through  Crucifixion (even less clean), embraces the materiality of the world like the Father embracing the Prodigal Son.  That this was sacramental wasn’t lost on the blind man.When asked how he was healed, his reply was that  (John 9:11), “The man called Jesus made clay and anointed my eyes and told me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ So I went there and washed and was able to see.” The word “anoint” there is an accurate translation.  The same word found in both John 9:6 and John 9:11 is epichriō, and the root word chriō, which refers to anointing every time it appears in Scripture.  And of course, it’s a very sacramental term.

And this sacrament of anointing (prefiguring Confirmation) is hand-in-hand with another sacramental action: he’s told to go wash.  The parallel to Baptism is so obvious I need not dwell. He washes, and can see. Jesus makes clear that what we’re really dealing with here isn’t the physical sight of either the man, or the Pharisees, but the greater reality of spiritual blindness and sight (John 9:40-41).  So just as the anointing with mud and spit and the washing in Siloam bring physical sight, the washing in Baptism and the anointing in Confirmation bring spiritual sight.

(3) Discipleship, and Being Sent

Finally, all of the sacraments call us to discipleship with Christ, because everything calls us to discipleship with Christ.  John realizes that it’s no coincidence that the Pool is called Siloam, which is why he makes sure we know it means “Sent” (John 9:7). This should immediately call to mind for us the healing of the other blind man, Bartimaeus. There’s a beautiful scene in Mark 10:52, in which Jesus says to him:

Go,” said Jesus, “your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road

So the “Go” is really a “Come.” Bartimaeus isn’t sent away with the “Go,” but liberated to follow Christ along the road.  This also ties it back to the healing of the Centurion (Matthew 8:8-9),

The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

The Centurion, then, marks the sign of authority the ability to send, and recognizes this authority in Jesus without Jesus even needing to say “Go.” But He does anyways (Mt. 8:13):

Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go! Let it be done just as you believed it would.” And his servant was healed at that moment.

So the command to “Go” is at once a recognition that we are the servants of Christ, and an invitation to join Jesus on His journey. This is also not lost on the blind man. The last we see of him is his falling to his knees to worship Jesus Christ as God (John 9:38).

It’s fascinating that the healing methods Jesus uses with the unnamed blind man of John 9, the Centurion, and Bartimaeus are so different, and yet the result is the exact same.  He tells each of them, and each of us to “Go.”  The Mass recognizes this even its very name, which comes from Missa, as Pope Benedict recognized in Sacramentum Caritatis:

“In antiquity, missa simply meant ‘dismissal’. In Christian usage, however, it gradually took on a deeper meaning. The word ‘dismissal’ has come to imply a ‘mission’. These few words succinctly express the missionary nature of the Church”  

For this reason, the Mass ends in one of three ways after the Blessing:

Go in the peace of Christ.
   or  The Mass is ended, go in peace.
   or  Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.

Let us take these final as seriously as the blind men and the Centurion did, as invitations from our Master to love, serve, and follow Him.

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