The Pharisees Interrogate the Man's Parents (9:18-23)
Jesus' disregard for their sabbath regulations is so blatant the opponents cannot accept the idea that God would honor such lawlessness. So to reconcile what has happened to their presuppositions, they assume that the man must not have been blind. Not only do they reject the man's evaluation of Jesus as a prophet, they don't even accept his testimony about his own former condition! Instead, they investigate. They call in the parents and ask them to identify the man, confirm whether or not he was born blind and explain how he gained his sight (v. 19). The parents clarify that he is indeed their son who was born blind, but they refuse to speculate on how he gained sight. This is now the third time the question of "how" has been asked. But here the parents understand the question to be asking for more than what mechanism enabled him to receive his sight, because they say they know neither how nor by whom this happened. The issue now is by what or whose power this unheard of event took place. To answer this more serious "how" question would require a confession regarding Jesus and his relationship to God, as the explanation makes clear (v. 22). Such a confession has implications for one's life within the community, and the parents are not willing to be put out of the synagogue for the sake of Jesus. The parents fail to stand up for Jesus in the face of the Jewish opponents, so it is clear they do not model discipleship. Their son is of age, that is, thirteen years old or older, so he must answer such a question for himself.
This scene is full of tragedy, for these parents are not allowed to give thanks to God for the great thing he has done for their son. They must have agonized over his blindness and the begging he was forced into. Now he has been miraculously healed, and they must put aside the overwhelming parental joy and knuckle under to the goons from the committee for the investigation of un-Jewish activity, as it were. The parents' agony would have been very great, given the guilt over the possibility that it was their sin that had been responsible for their son's blindness. In such a situation Jesus' healing would have far-reaching implications concerning God's gracious acceptance of sinful humanity. Not only was their son released from the bondage of his blindness and its related life of begging, but they and their son would see themselves in a new relation to God. Yet they had to stifle all of these feelings of joy and gratitude when they were called in by the authorities for questioning.
The parents' fear stems from the threat that anyone who acknowl-edged that Jesus was the Christ would be put out of the synagogue (9:22). Such exclusion was used in the Old Testament (Ezra 10:8), and later sources speak of different degrees of exclusion that were exercised, from a week-long exclusion from the congregation, to a thirty-day exclusion, to an unlimited exclusion from the congregation with avoidance of all contact, to an exclusion from the entire community of Israel (Schrage 1971:848-49). At the time of Jesus one of the lighter forms may have been exercised, and this continued to be the case for some time, as Paul's example indicates: he was thrown out of local synagogues (for example, Acts 13:50; cf. 1 Thess 2:14-16) but was not viewed as outcast from the people of Israel.
Later in the first century, as the gulf between followers of Jesus and the synagogue widened, the harshest form of exclusion came into force. Many scholars see this reference to being put out of the synagogue (aposynagogos poieo, v. 22; 12:42; 16:2) as reflecting changes in the synagogue liturgy late in the first century. A curse against heretics, known as the Twelfth Benediction, or the birkat ha-minim, was added to the liturgy (cf. b. Berakot 28b-29a). This is taken as a way of smoking out the Christians and thus causing the separation between church and synagogue. John is probably writing late in the first century, and although such a separation was taking place then, it is unclear whether John is referring specifically to this addition to the liturgy and whether the addition had such an intent (Robinson 1985:72-80; Beasley-Murray 1987:lxxvi-lxxviii, 153-54; Carson 1991:369-72). After a careful study William Horbury concludes that the addition "was not decisive on its own in the separation of church and synagogue, but it gave solemn liturgical expression to a separation effected in the second half of the first century through the larger group of measures to which it belongs" (Horbury 1982:61; cf. Lindars 1981:49-54). Given such separation, this story would have particular relevance for John's first readers.
Under this threat of expulsion we can see the nucleus of a community gathering around Jesus, clearly distinct from these officials who represent what emerges after A.D. 70 as official Judaism. Jesus has withdrawn from the temple (8:59), and now he is gathering a group around him over against the structures and leadership of Israel. Jesus will set this process in place as this story continues (9:35). The full expression of this split will not emerge for some years, but its seed was planted, John says, by Jesus himself.
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