John’s appropriation of Jewish festival metaphors continues throughout chapters 9 and 10. Jesus again declares his power greater than the torches used to light the women’s court: “So long as I am in the world I am the light of the world.” The man born blind washes Jesus’ healing mud from his eyes in the waters of Siloam – which were used in the ritual prayers for winter rains – and is able to see. In chapter 10, after the lengthy and, to later eyes and ears, confusing argument about sheep, shepherds, gates, and folds, Jesus preempts the winter season Festival of Lights. This is neither accidental nor insignificant. The Festival of Lights (Hanukkah) celebrates the Israelite victory over Syrian-Greeks in 167 bce, and the reconsecration of the Temple in 165 with sacred oil that miraculously lasted 8 days.
A connection that is not usually made with John’s Gospel in the context of the festivals of Tabernacles and especially of Lights (Hanukah) is the apocalyptic story told in Daniel. This story is set in the time of the Exile; but it was written during the Maccabean uprising and defeat of the Syrian-Greek invaders of the 160s bce. John’s Jesus says “I and the Father are one”; and “do you mean to say to the one the Father set apart and sent to earth, ‘You’re blaspheming,’ just because I said, ‘I am God’s son’? If I don’t do my Father’s works, don’t believe me; if I do, even if you can’t believe in me, believe in the works, so that you’ll fully understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” At the end of chapter 10 John’s Jesus returns to “Bethany, on the other side of the Jordan” (likely a fictitious location), where John the Baptist had first baptized, “and there he stayed. Many people came to him; they kept repeating, ‘John didn’t perform any sign, but everything John said about this man was true.’ And many came to believe in him there.”
But not in the gospel writer’s conflicted community. If the writer of John’s Gospel believed that Jesus was the savior described in Daniel who would come to earth to liberate the people, be raised to heaven to wait until God’s rule was established on earth, and then return to a transformed earthly kingdom of God (Daniel 7), the continued celebration of the festivals of fire and water would have been a waste of time and a denial of prophetic scripture. That the religious leaders in his community refused to believe Jesus was the fulfillment of the liberation of the people described in the legend would have seemed incomprehensible to those who subscribed to the Baptist’s apocalyptic view.
Most of these two chapters are likely examples of the conflict among factions in John’s community, and between “believers and non-believers” in Jesus as the Anointed One. The man born blind whose sight is bestowed on him is thrown out of the synagogue by the end of the story. Then Jesus takes off on what can only be described as a diatribe against people who sneak in and attempt to steal the sheep. But, John says, the sheep know the true shepherd’s voice. Not only that, there are other sheep in other folds who also will recognize his voice. Much of this was probably clear to John’s community, not as a declaration of a universal kingdom of God, but that all factions should unite under Jesus.
So what should 21st century progressive Christians do with all this?
The number of sermons on the man born blind delivered to captive audiences world wide and spanning three milennia must number in the trillions. Unfortunately, plenty of mischief has been done by cherry-picking specific passages, not knowing (or caring) what the history or the context was. For example, “He was born blind so God could display his work through him.” This is first of all terrible theology, not to mention that this Jesus must be a total megalomaniac. The idea is monstrously unjust that a) God would create a blind baby so that the “savior of the world” would one day prove God’s glory and power by conferring sight; b) Jesus would claim to be the one designated by God to actually perform this magic (for the glory of God of course); and c) the parents and the child would feel blessed while they are stigmatized and traumatized for years by a society that wants to know “who sinned” and caused this misfortune. Yet even today this thought is pervasive among grief-stricken people and victims of accidents whether biological, medical, or mechanical. Many are able to work through their circumstances and arrive at wholeness despite their illness or injury. But that difficult journey is different from glib and pious judgment about the meaning or purpose of life’s “burdens.”
Another favorite verse is 9:4-5: “We must carry out the work of the one who sent me while the light lasts. Nighttime is coming.” These phrases have found their way into a beloved hymn: Work for the Night is Coming! The point is to bring people to Jesus and save their souls because an apocalyptic end is coming soon. What John likely meant was that so long as Jesus was on the planet, he had to do as many miracles as possible because his death was imminent.
At the end of chapter 9, after he has been thrown out of the synagogue, the man born blind finally realizes that Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus says he has been sent into the world “to hand down this verdict: that the blind are to see and those with sight are to be blind.” This is Old Testament judgment. God often deliberately “hardens the hearts” of people so that God’s power can be realized. The most famous example is Pharaoh in Exodus 4:21. Later, after Moses’ death, in the summary of Joshua’s conquests (Joshua 11:16-23) the narrator tells us “Joshua made war a long time with all those kings. There was not a town that made peace with the Israelites, except the Hivites, the inhabitants of Gibeon; all were taken in battle. For it was the Lord’s doing to harden their hearts so that they would come against Israel in battle, in order that they might be utterly destroyed, and might receive no mercy, but be exterminated, just as the Lord had commanded Moses.”
John’s opponents in his fledgling Christian community could not get a break. “If you really were blind,” John’s Jesus says, “you would be free of sin; but now since you say, ‘We see,’ your sin is confirmed.” John has decided that not only is the blindness of the Pharisees willful; God himself has caused it. The religious leaders know the law and the prophets, and they refuse to believe that Jesus is the fulfillment of all of it. By the end of chapter 10, Jesus has given up. “The work I do in my Father’s name is evidence on my behalf. But you don’t believe me because you’re not my sheep.”
Preachers have turned themselves inside out trying to make chapter 10 into some kind of call for a universal Christianity, or a parallel with the parable of the lost sheep (Matthew 18:12-14), or worst of all, a slur against Jews or believers of other religions who try to climb into the sheep pen (heaven) through another way. But despite all the imagery about sheep and gates and flocks and shepherds and who recognizes whose voice, Chapter 10 is not about anti-Semitism. The chapter continues the attempt on the part of John to describe who Jesus was. “Just as the Father knows me and I know the Father, and I give my life for my sheep. Yet I have sheep from another fold, and I must lead them too. They’ll recognize my voice and there’ll be one flock, one shepherd. . . . I have the power to give [my life] up and the power to take it back again.” Here again is the apocalyptic promise of Daniel 7.
But neither that legend nor Jesus’ arguments about the business of herding sheep make sense in the 21st century. These chapters are of little use to progressive Christians except as artifacts of early Christianity — metaphors of blindness notwithstanding. In their own context, these stories are interesting. Warped to fit 3rd Century Christian dogma, they represent Christian triumphalism at best, and anti-Semitism at its most insidious. Unfortunately these chapters are required reading for the 4th Sunday in Lent in Year A (Matthew) and the 4th Sunday in Easter in all three years of the Revised Common Lectionary.