Jesus is in the business of healing people. Jesus wants to mend bodies, hearts, minds, relationships, and families. When Jesus heals, he plans for people to go in for the full treatment. The healings of the lame man in John 5 and the blind man in John 9 provide a fascinating comparison.
The stories have a lot in common. Both involve a healing by Jesus of an unsuspecting person. Both of the healings are spectacular because of the longstanding condition of the men who are healed. The lame man was lame for 38 years and the blind man was born blind. Both cause quite a stir with the authorities, because both take place on the Sabbath. Both show Jesus seeking out the previously healed person for a second encounter. What differs in the two accounts is the response of the healed person.
The story of the lame man takes place in Jerusalem, near a pool called Bethesda. Jesus initiates with the lame man, asking him what seems to be a rather strange question: “Do you want to be healed?” In this case, the question serves to show what the man is thinking about how he might be healed. Jesus neither asks for a show of faith, nor demands anything of him. He simply says, “Get up, take up your bed and walk” (5:8). Immediately, the man is healed, takes up his mat, and leaves.
Jesus’s specific command to take up his mat constituted a violation of the Sabbath law in the eyes of the religious authorities. On seeing the man, the authorities inform him that he is breaking the law by carrying his bed. The man’s response is to pass the buck, saying, in essence, “It’s not my fault! The man who healed me told me to do it.” When pressed about this man’s identity, the once-lame man has to confess ignorance. This might have been the end of the story, but Jesus is not finished with this man. Jesus seeks him out and for a second time initiates with him. Jesus isn’t interested in simply healing the man’s physical ailment. He is interested in the man’s total healing.
Jesus reminds the once-lame man that he has been made well. His next phrase is the curious bit: “Stop sinning, that nothing worse may happen to you” (5:14). Does this suggest that the man’s condition was a result of some sin? Or was it that his life was characterized by sin and Jesus is calling him forth to new life. In John’s Gospel, sin is often unbelief, so is Jesus challenging him for unresponsiveness, his failure to believe in and pursue Jesus? Whatever is the case with the man’s past, Jesus invites him to live out a new future, to walk not in sin, but in newness of life.
The man’s response to Jesus’s exhortation? Nothing! No, “thanks for healing me!” or “Yes, Lord, I hear and heed your words.” There are no signs of gratitude, transformation, or understanding. Instead the text says he “went away” from Jesus and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him. “Told” is a strong verb, better translated “announced” or “openly declared.” He gives no response to Jesus, but immediately runs to Jesus’s enemies. The next verse (v. 16) makes clear that this event resulted in the Jews’ increased persecution of Jesus.
What are we to conclude about the once-lame man? There’s not much to go on and that’s the problem. Jesus’s healing elicits no thanks. His follow-up invitation elicits no response. In fact, the only thing he does do is run to the authorities to tattle on Jesus (his silence in regard to Jesus makes his words to the authorities all the more deafening). If he has been invited on a faith journey, he shows no signs of taking steps toward that path. He is cured, but not healed.
Things look very different when we turn to the man born blind in John 9. Jesus initiates with the man and goes about healing him in a rather odd way, anointing his eyes with a saliva-mud mixture. Jesus tells the blind man to go and wash in the pool of Siloam. The man obeys and his sight is restored. We read in v. 7 that he “came back.” Unlike the lame man, the blind man knows who his healer is, but he has not seen Jesus, as by the time he returns, Jesus has departed.
Jesus’s making mud constituted working on the Sabbath, the same charge brought against Jesus in John 5. The once-blind man is brought to the Pharisees, who question him about what happened. He tells the Pharisees: “He put mud on my eyes, and I washed, and I see” (9:15), and later concludes that Jesus is a prophet (9:17). Unsatisfied with the man’s answer, the Jewish authorities summon the man’s parents who confirm that this is in fact their son, but they are afraid to comment on how he was healed because they “feared the Jews” (9:22). More specifically, they feared they would be put out of the synagogue. Rather cowardly, the parents put the onus back on their son, saying “he is of age, let him speak for himself” (9:23).
Given this episode with his parents, the reader knows that there is a lot at stake in the man’s response to the authorities. They ask him to recount his story again. In v. 24, they say to the man, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” The phrase, “give glory to God!” is a form of oath. Ironically, he will give glory to God by what he is about to say. While the authorities assert what they think they know, the once-blind man acknowledges what he does not know, but reiterates what he most certainly does know: he isn’t blind anymore!
With no real way to counter this blunt fact, the authorities can find nothing better to do than to ask him to repeat the whole story. The blind man has begun to tire of this song and dance and starts to get a little saucy. He mockingly asks the authorities if they want to become Jesus’s disciples. This barbed comment hits the mark and the authorities, enraged, “heaped insults on him” (9:28 NET). They speak more than they know or mean to when they exclaim, “You are his disciple!” They mean it as an insult, but the reader understands that it is the unfolding truth – this man is on the express route to becoming a disciple of Jesus. Again, they spout off their so-called knowledge, claiming “We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man we do not know where he comes from” (9:29). This is delicious irony. For once, the religious authorities say something true, but in a way they don’t know or intend. The whole problem is that they don’t, in fact, know who Jesus is.
Downright fearless at this point, the once-blind man again turns up the sarcasm, taunting the religious leaders for what they don’t know (and should know), demonstrating far more theological acumen than his challengers. Devastated by the theological beat-down, the authorities are reduced to name-calling and arrogance, claiming that the man was born “in utter sin,” the very point Jesus rejected in 9:3-5. In a condescending tone, the authorities snort: “and you would teach us?” At this point the reader should be screaming, “Well he did just teach you! As a matter of fact, he just seriously schooled you, but you’re too proud and blind to notice!” It shows how truly blind they are, that in the face of their utter ignorance, they can still be arrogantly contempt. The blind man received physical sight, but went on to an even greater sight, spiritual sight. The authorities, who physically see, are spiritually blind. Finally, they do the very thing that the man’s parents were afraid they would do. They cast him out, using their power to make the once-blind man pay for his defense of, and growing allegiance to, Jesus.
Jesus isn’t done with this man. Jesus is in the business of coming back to those he initially touches and taking them deeper. Jesus seeks him out and asks him if he believes in the Son of Man. The man responds with inquisitiveness and a desire to believe (9:36). Jesus reveals himself to the man, which elicits the man’s immediate confession (“Lord, I believe”) and worship. With the once-blind man we get the full arc of discipleship: initial obedience and trust, a powerful witness under fire and at great cost, willingness to grow in his understanding and knowledge, and finally, full confession and worship. Concerning healing, this guy signed up for the full treatment.
The contrast between the two is clear. One is cured. Another is healed. One saw the restoring touch of Jesus as an end (a “take the healing and run” kind of thing). Another saw it as a beginning. One saw it as an opportunity to walk away from Jesus. Another saw it as an opportunity to follow after Jesus. For one, Jesus was simply the guy who healed him. For the other, Jesus became Lord. One was motivated by self-preservation. Another paid the price to follow Jesus. One guy left his encounter with Jesus able to walk, but unwilling to follow in Jesus’s footsteps. The other man gained physical sight, but pressed on to gain spiritual sight. One man is an exemplar of faith. The other is a sad portrait of what might have been, a failed opportunity for discipleship.