(St. John ix.)
After the scene in the Temple described in the last chapter, and Christ's consequent withdrawal from His enemies, we can scarcely suppose any other great event to have taken place on that day within or near the precincts of the Sanctuary. And yet, from the close connection of the narratives, we are led to infer that no long interval of time can have elapsed before the healing of the man born blind. Probably it happened the day after the events just recorded. We know that it was a Sabbath, and this fresh mark of time, as well as the multiplicity of things done, and the whole style of the narrative, confirm our belief that it was not on the evening of the day when He had spoken to them first in the Treasury,' and then in the Porch.
On two other points there is strong presumption, though we cannot offer actual proof. Remembering, that the entrance to the Temple or its Courts was then - as that of churches is on the Continent - the chosen spot for those who, as objects of pity, solicited charity; remembering, also, how rapidly the healing of the blind man became known, and how soon both his parents and the healed man himself appeared before the Pharisees - presumably, in the Temple; lastly, how readily the Saviour knew where again to find him - we can scarcely doubt that the miracle took place at the entering to the Temple, or on the Temple-Mount. Secondly, both the Work, and especially the Words of Christ, seem in such close connection with what had preceded, that we can scarcely be mistaken in regarding them as intended to form a continuation of it.
It is not difficult to realise the scene, nor to understand the remarks of all who had part in it. It was the Sabbath - the day after the Octave of the Feast, and Christ with His disciples was passing - presumably when going into the Temple, where this blind beggar was wont to sit, probably soliciting alms, perhaps in some such terms as these, which were common at the time: Gain merit by me;' or, O tenderhearted, by me gain merit, to thine own benefit.' But on the Sabbath he would, of course, neither ask nor receive alms, though his presence in the wonted place would secure wider notice and perhaps lead to many private gifts. Indeed, the blind were regarded as specially entitled to charity; and the Jerusalem Talmud relates some touching instances of the delicacy displayed towards them. As the Master and His disciples passed the blind beggar, Jesus saw' him, with that look which they who followed Him knew to be full of meaning. Yet, so thoroughly Judaised were they by their late contact with the Pharisees, that no thought of possible mercy came to them, only a truly and characteristically Jewish question, addressed to Him expressly, and as Rabbi:' through whose guilt this blindness had befallen him - through his own, or that of his parents.
For, thoroughly Jewish the question was. Many instances could be adduced, in which one or another sin is said to have been punished by some immediate stroke, disease, or even by death; and we constantly find Rabbis, when meeting such unfortunate persons, asking them, how or by what sin this had come to them. But, as this man was blind from his birth,' the possibility of some actual sin before birth would suggest itself, at least as a speculative question, since the evil impulse' (Yetser haRa), might even then be called into activity. At the same time, both the Talmud and the later charge of the Pharisees, In sins wast thou born altogether,' imply that in such cases the alternative explanation would be considered, that the blindness might be caused by the sin of his parents. It was a common Jewish view, that the merits or demerits of the parents would appear in the children. In fact, up to thirteen years of age a child was considered, as it were, part of his father, and as suffering for his guilt. More than that, the thoughts of a mother might affect the moral state of her unborn offspring, and the terrible apostasy of one of the greatest Rabbis had, in popular belief, been caused by the sinful delight his mother had taken when passing through an idol-grove. Lastly, certain special sins in the parents would result in specific diseases in their offspring, and one is mentioned as causing blindness in the children. But the impression left on our minds is, that the disciples felt not sure as to either of these solutions of the difficulty. It seemed a mystery, inexplicable on the supposition of God's infinite goodness, and to which they sought to apply the common Jewish solution. Many similar mysteries meet us in the administration of God's Providence - questions, which seem unanswerable, but to which we try to give answers, perhaps, not much wiser than the explanations suggested by disciples.
But why seek to answer them at all, since we possess not all, perhaps very few of, the data requisite for it? There is one aspect, however, of adversity, and of a strange dispensation of evil, on which the light of Christ's Words here shines with the brightness of a new morning. There is a physical, natural reason for them. God has not specially sent them, in the sense of His interference or primary causation, although He has sent them in the sense of His knowledge, will, and reign. They have come in the ordinary course of things, and are traceable to causes which, if we only knew them, would appear to us the sequence of the laws which God has imposed on His creation, and which are necessary for its orderly continuance. And, further, all such evil consequences, from the operation of God's laws, are in the last instance to be traced back to the curse which sin has brought upon man and on earth. With these His Laws, and with their evil sequences to us through the curse of sin, God does not interfere in the ordinary course of His Providence; although he would be daring, who would negative the possibility of what may seem, though it is not, interference, since the natural causes which lead to these evil consequences may so easily, naturally, and rationally be affected. But there is another and a higher aspect of it, since Christ has come, and is really the Healer of all disease and evil by being the Remover of its ultimate moral cause. This is indicated in His words, when, putting aside the clumsy alternative suggested by the disciples, He told them that it was so in order that the works of God might be made manifest in him.' They wanted to know the why,' He told them the in order to,' of the man's calamity; they wished to understand its reason as regarded its origin, He told them its reasonableness in regard to the purpose which it, and all similar suffering, should serve, since Christ has come, the Healer of evil - because the Saviour from sin. Thus He transferred the question from intellectual ground to that of the moral purpose which suffering might serve. And this not in itself, nor by any destiny or appointment, but because the Coming and Work of the Christ has made it possible to us all. Sin and its sequences are still the same, for the world is established that it cannot move.' But over it all has risen the Sun of Righteousness with healing in His wings; and, if we but open ourselves to His influence, these evils may serve this purpose, and so have this for their reason, not as, regards their genesis, but their continuance, that the works of God may be made manifest.'
To make this the reality to us, was the work of Him' Who sent, and for which He sent, the Christ. And rapidly now must He work it, for perpetual example, during the few hours still left of His brief working-day. This figure was not unfamiliar to the Jews, though it may well be that, by thus emphasising the briefness of the time, He may also have anticipated any objection to His healing on the Sabbath. But it is of even more importance to notice, how the two leading thoughts of the previous day's Discourse were now again taken up and set forth in the miracle that followed. These were, that He did the Work which God had sent Him to do, and that He was the Light of the world. As its Light He could not but shine so long as He was in it. And this He presently symbolised (and is not every miracle a symbol?) in the healing of the blind.
Once more we notice, how in His Deeds, as in His Words, the Lord adopted the forms known and used by His contemporaries, while He filled them with quite other substance. It has already been stated, that saliva was commonly regarded as a remedy for diseases of the eye, although, of course, not for the removal of blindness. With this He made clay, which He now used, adding to it the direction to go and wash in the Pool of Siloam, a term which literally meant sent.' A symbolism, this, of Him Who was the Sent of the Father. For, all is here symbolical: the cure and its means. If we ask ourselves why means were used in this instance, we can only suggest, that it was partly for the sake of him who was to be healed, partly for theirs who afterwards heard of it. For, the blind man seems to have been ignorant of the character of his Healer, and it needed the use of some means to make him, so to speak, receptive. On the other hand, not only the use of means, but their inadequacy to the object, must have impressed all. Symbolical, also, were these means. Sight was restored by clay, made out of the ground with the spittle of Him, Whose breath had at the first breathed life into clay; and this was then washed away in the Pool of Siloam, from whose waters had been drawn on the Feast of Tabernacles that which symbolised the forthpouring of the new life by the Spirit. Lastly, if it be asked why such miracle should have been wrought on one who had not previous faith, who does not even seem to have known about the Christ, we can only repeat, that the man himself was intended to be a symbol, that the works of God should be made manifest in him.'
And so, what the Pharisees had sought in vain, was freely vouch-safed when there was need for it. With inimitable simplicity, itself evidence that no legend is told, the man's obedience and healing are recorded. We judge, that his first impulse when healed must have been to seek for Jesus, naturally, where he had first met Him. On his way, probably past his own house to tell his parents, and again on the spot where he had so long sat begging, all who had known him must have noticed the great change that had passed over him. So marvellous, indeed, did it appear, that, while part of the crowd that gathered would, of course, acknowledge his identity, others would say: No, but he is like him;' in their suspiciousness looking for some imposture. For there can be little doubt, that on his way he must have learned more about Jesus than merely His Name, and in turn have communicated to his informants the story of his healing. Similarly, the formal question now put to him by the Jews was as much, if not more, a preparatory inquisition than the outcome of a wish to learn the circumstances of his healing. And so we notice in his answer the cautious desire not to say anything that could incriminate his Benefactor. He tells the facts truthfully, plainly; he accentuates by what means he had recovered,' not received, sight; but otherwise gives no clue by which either to discover or to incriminate Jesus.
Presently they bring him to the Pharisees, not to take notice of his healing, but to found on it a charge against Christ. Such must have been their motive, since it was universally known that the leaders of the people had, of course informally, agreed to take the strictest measures, not only against the Christ, but against any one who professed to be His disciple. The ground on which the present charge against Jesus would rest was plain: the healing involved a manifold breach of the Sabbath-Law. The first of these was that He had made clay. Next, it would be a question whether any remedy might be applied on the holy day. Such could only be done in diseases of the internal organs (from the throat downwards), except when danger to life or the loss of an organ was involved. It was, indeed, declared lawful to apply, for example, wine to the outside of the eyelid, on the ground that this might be treated as washing; but it was sinful to apply it to the inside of the eye. And as regards saliva, its application to the eye is expressly forbidden, on the ground that it was evidently intended as a remedy.
There was, therefore, abundant legal ground for a criminal charge. And, although on the Sabbath the Sanhedrin would not hold any formal meeting, and, even had there been such, the testimony of one man would not have sufficed, yet the Pharisees' set the inquiry regularly on foot. First, as if not satisfied with the report of those who had brought the man, they made him repeat it. The simplicity of the man's language left no room for evasion or subterfuge. Rabbinism was on its great trial. The wondrous fact could neither be denied nor explained, and the only ground for resisting the legitimate inference as to the character of Him Who had done it, was its inconsistence with their traditional law. The alternative was: whether their traditional law of Sabbath-observance, or else He Who had done such miracles, was Divine? Was Christ not of God, because He did not keep the Sabbath in their way? But, then; could an open transgressor of God's Law do such miracles? In this dilemma they turned to the simple man before them. Seeing that He opened' his eyes, what did he say of Him? what was the impression left on his mind, who had the best opportunity for judging?
There is something very peculiar, and, in one sense, most instructive, as to the general opinion entertained even by the best-disposed, who had not yet been taught the higher truth, in his reply, so simple and solemn, so comprehensive in its sequences, and yet so utterly inadequate by itself: He is a Prophet.' One possibility still remained. After all, the man might not have been really blind; and they might, by cross-examining the parents, elicit that about his original condition which would explain the pretended cure. But on this most important point, the parents, with all their fear of the anger of the Pharisees, remained unshaken. He had been born blind; but as to the manner of his cure, they declined to offer any opinion. Thus, as so often, the machinations of the enemies of Christ led to results the opposite of those wished for. For, the evidential value of their attestation of their son's blindness was manifestly proportional to their fear of committing themselves to any testimony for Christ, well knowing what it would entail.
For to persons so wretchedly poor as to allow their son to live by begging, the consequence of being un-Synagogued,' or put outside the congregation - which was to be the punishment of any who confessed Jesus as the Messiah - would have been dreadful. Talmudic writings speak of two, or rather, we should say, of three, kinds of excommunication,' of which the two first were chiefly disciplinary, while the third was the real casting out,' un-Synagoguing,' cutting off from the congregation.' The general designation for excommunication' was Shammatta, although, according to its literal meaning, the term would only apply to the severest form of it. The first and lightest degree was the so-called Neziphah or Neziphutha; properly, a rebuke,' an inveighing. Ordinarily, its duration extended over seven days; but, if pronounced by the Nasi, or Head of the Sanhedrin, it lasted for thirty days. In later times, however, it only rested for one day on the guilty person. Perhaps St. Paul referred to this rebuke' in the expression which he used about an offending Elder. He certainly adopted the practice in Palestine, when he would not have an Elder rebuked' although he went far beyond it when he would have such entreated.' In Palestine it was ordered, that an offending Rabbi should be scourged instead of being excommunicated. Yet another direction of St. Paul's is evidently derived from these arrangements of the Synagogue, although applied in a far different spirit. When the Apostle wrote: An heretic after the first and second admonition reject;' there must have been in his mind the second degree of Jewish excommunication, the so-called Niddui (from the verb to thrust, thrust out, cast out). This lasted for thirty days at the least, although among the Babylonians only for seven days. At the end of that term there was a second admonition,' which lasted other thirty days. If still unrepentant, the third, or real excommunication, was pronounced, which was called the Cherem, or ban, and of which the duration was indefinite. Any three persons, or even one duly authorised, could pronounce the lowest sentence. The greater excommunication (Niddui) - which, happily, could only be pronounced in an assembly of ten - must have been terrible, being accompanied by curses, and, at a later period, sometimes proclaimed with the blast of the horn. If the person so visited occupied an honourable position, it was the custom to intimate his sentence in a euphemistic manner, such as: It seems to me that thy companions are separating themselves from thee.' He who was so, or similarly addressed, would only too well understand its meaning. Henceforth he would sit on the ground, and bear himself like one in deep mourning. He would allow his beard and hair to grow wild and shaggy; he would not bathe, nor anoint himself; he would not be admitted into an assembly of ten men, neither to public prayer, nor to the Academy; though he might either teach, or be taught by, single individuals. Nay, as if he were a leper, people would keep at a distance of four cubits from him. If he died, stones were cast on his coffin, nor was he allowed the honour of the ordinary funeral, nor were they to mourn for him. Still more terrible was the final excommunication, or Cherem, when a ban of indefinite duration was laid on a man. Henceforth he was like one dead. He was not allowed to study with others, no intercourse was to be held with him, he was not even to be shown the road. He might, indeed, buy the necessaries of life, but it was forbidden to eat or drink with such an one.
We can understand, how everyone would dread such an anathema. But when we remember, what it would involve to persons in the rank of life, and so miserably poor as the parents of that blind man, we no longer wonder at their evasion of the question put by the Sanhedrin. And if we ask ourselves, on what ground so terrible a punishment could be inflicted to all time and in every place - for the ban once pronounced applied everywhere - simply for the confession of Jesus as the Christ, the answer is not difficult. The Rabbinists enumerate twenty-four grounds for excommunication, of which more than one might serve the purpose of the Pharisees. But in general, to resist the authority of the Scribes, or any of their decrees, or to lead others either away from the commandments,' or to what was regarded as profanation of the Divine Name, was sufficient to incur the ban, while it must be borne in mind that excommunication by the President of the Sanhedrin extended to all places and persons.
As nothing could be elicited from his parents, the man who had been blind was once more summoned before the Pharisees. It was no longer to inquire into the reality of his alleged blindness, nor to ask about the cure, but simply to demand of him recantation, though this was put in the most specious manner. Thou hast been healed: own that it was only by God's Hand miraculously stretched forth, and that this man' had nothing to do with it, save that the coincidence may have been allowed to try the faith of Israel. It could not have been Jesus Who had done it, for they knew Him to be a sinner.' Of the two alternatives they had chosen that of the absolute rightness of their own Sabbath-traditions as against the evidence of His Miracles. Virtually, then, this was the condemnation of Christ and the apotheosis of traditionalism. And yet, false as their conclusion was, there was this truth in their premisses, that they judged of miracles by the moral evidence in regard to Him, Who was represented as working them.
But he who had been healed of his blindness was not to be so betrayed into a denunciation of his great Physician. The simplicity and earnestness of his convictions enabled him to gain even a logical victory. It was his turn now to bring back the question to the issue which they had originally raised; and we admire it all the more, as we remember the consequences to this poor man of thus daring the Pharisees. As against their opinion about Jesus, as to the correctness of which neither he nor others could have direct knowledge, there was the unquestionable fact of his healing of which he had personal knowledge. The renewed inquiry now by the Pharisees, as to the manner in which Jesus had healed him, might have had for its object to betray the man into a positive confession, or to elicit something demoniacal in the mode of the cure. The blind man had now fully the advantage. He had already told them; why the renewed inquiry? As he put it half ironically: Was it because they felt the wrongness of their own position, and that they should become His disciples? It stung them to the quick; they lost all self-possession, and with this their moral defeat became complete. Thou art the disciple of that man, but we (according to the favourite phrase) are the disciples of Moses.' Of the Divine Mission of Moses they knew, but of the Mission of Jesus they knew nothing. The unlettered man had now the full advantage in the controversy. In this, indeed,' there was the marvellous,' that the leaders of Israel should confess themselves ignorant of the authority of One, Who had power to open the eyes of the blind - a marvel which had never before been witnessed. If He had that power, whence had He obtained it, and why? It could only have been from God. They said, He was a sinner' - and yet there was no principle more frequently repeated by the Rabbis, than that answers to prayer depended on a man being devout' and doing the Will of God. There could therefore by only one inference: If Jesus had not Divine Authority, He could not have had Divine Power.
The argument was unanswerable, and in its unanswerableness shows us, not indeed the purpose, but the evidential force of Christ's Miracles. In one sense they had no purpose, or rather were purpose to themselves, being the forthbursting of His Power and the manifestation of His Being and Mission, of which latter, as applied to things physical, they were part. But the truthful reasoning of that untutored man, which confounded the acuteness of the sages, shows the effect of these manifestations on all whose hearts were open to the truth. The Pharisees had nothing to answer, and, as not unfrequently in analogous cases, could only, in their fury, cast him out with bitter reproaches. Would he teach them - he, whose very disease showed him to have been a child conceived and born in sin, and who, ever since his birth, had been among ignorant, Law-neglecting sinners'?
But there was Another, Who watched and knew him: He Whom, so far as he knew, he had dared to confess, and for Whom he was content to suffer. Let him now have the reward of his faith, even its completion; and so shall it become manifest to all time, how, as we follow and cherish the better light, it riseth upon us in all its brightness, and that faithfulness in little bringeth the greater stewardship. Tenderly did Jesus seek him out, wherever it may have been: and, as He found him, this one question did He ask, whether the conviction of his experience was not growing into the higher faith of the yet unseen: Dost thou believe on the Son of God?' He had had personal experience of Him - was not that such as to lead up to the higher faith? And is it not always so, that the higher faith is based on the conviction of personal experience - that we believe on Him as the Son of God, because we have experience of Him as the God-sent, Who has Divine Power, and has opened the eyes of the blind-born - and Who has done to us what had never been done by any other in the world? Thus is faith always the child of experience, and yet its father also; faith not without experience, and yet beyond experience; faith not superseded by experience, but made reasonable by it.
To such a soul it needed only the directing Word of Christ. And Who is He, Lord, that I may believe on Him?' It seems as if the question of Jesus had kindled in him the conviction of what was the right answer. We almost see how, like a well of living water, the words sprang gladsome from his inmost heart, and how he looked up expectant on Jesus. To such readiness of faith there could be only one answer. In language more plain than He had ever before used, Jesus answered, and with immediate confession of implicit faith the man lowly worshipped. And so it was, that the first time he saw his Deliverer, it was to worship Him. It was the highest stage yet attained. What contrast this faith and worship of the poor unlettered man, once blind, now in every sense seeing, to the blindness of judgment which had fallen on those who were the leaders of Israel! The cause alike of the one and the other was the Person of the Christ. For our relationship to Him determines sight or blindness, as we either receive the evidence of what He is from what He indubitably does, or reject it, because we hold by our own false conceptions of God, and of what His Will to us is. And so is Christ also for judgment.'
There were those who still followed Him - not convinced by, nor as yet decided against Him - Pharisees, who well understood the application of His Words. Formally, it had been a contest between traditionalism and the Work of Christ. They also were traditionalists - were they also blind? But, nay, they had misunderstood Him by leaving out the moral element, thus showing themselves blind indeed. It was not the calamity of blindness; but it was a blindness in which they were guilty, and for which they were responsible, which indeed was the result of their deliberate choice: therefore their sin - not their blindness only - remained!