Historical Cultural Context
Secrecy, deception, and lying are integral parts of Mediterranean culture and valued strategies for maintaining and preserving honor. Westerners are often baffled by this.
Recall the shock one year after the end of the Gulf War when Americans learned that the young girl who testified to a congressional committee that Iraqi soldiers took Kuwaiti babies out of incubators and threw them on the floor to die had deceived the committee. She hid her al-Sabbah (the ruling family of Kuwait) identity from committee members and completely fabricated this report. It never happened.
Today’s Gospel Reading about healed blindness reveals glimpses of secrecy, deception, and lying in Mediterranean culture.
While the ancient world certainly knew blindness as a real physical condition, they seemed to consider it no worse than ignorance or a stubborn refusal to understand.
Luke writes of Jesus: “on many that were blind he bestowed sight” (Lk 7:21) but he reports only one specific healing of a physically blind person (Lk 18:35-43)!
On the other hand, Luke-Acts reports many instances of people who refused to “see or understand” and people who chose to “see or understand” There thus seems to be greater interest in metaphorical than physical blindness.
In John’s report of the man who was blind from birth, both motifs are played out strongly. It is futile to argue about the man’s physical condition. He and his parents said he had been physically blind; others doubted or denied it.
But the controversy stirred by the man’s cure ranges beyond physical blindness to deception and lying. Here is a fruitful area for reflection.
The Healed Blind Man
After the healing, there is confusion about the man’s identity. “It is he,” said some, while others countered: “No, but it is someone like him.” And the healed man kept insisting: “I am the man!” (Jn 9:9).
In a world without photo IDs and social security numbers, proving personal identity is a real challenge.
The Pharisees also seem to accept the healing as a fact (Jn 9:15) but are divided about Jesus’ identity: is he a man “from God” or not (Jn 9:16)?
Some hostile Judeans doubt that the healed man ever was blind at all (Jn 9:18)! His parents confirm their son’s congenital blindness but evade the hostile questions about the healing. “Ask him. He is old enough to speak for himself.”
Hostility and enmity toward Jesus are certainly part of this story. At the same time, there are sincere people really struggling to “see” and “understand” what has happened or who Jesus really is.
The prevalence of secrecy, deception, and lying in this culture explains skepticism as a natural part of day-to-day life, and even make hostility and enmity understandable if not excusable.
The concluding verses (Jn 9:39-41) illustrate how masterfully Jesus worked within his culture. When needed, he used his powers to heal. In the debates that followed, he drew on his cultured strengths and weaknesses.
The fluctuation between physical and metaphorical blindness is common in the gospel traditions. Jesus’ point here, as always, is that physical blindness would be understandable and preferable to the willful metaphorical blindness of those who refuse to believe in him.
The contemporary popular song captures the idea very well: “There are none so blind, as those who will not see.”
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible
**From Saint Louis University