James Alison on John 9


Link: James Alison on John 9.

In this story (John 9) we watch a revolution in the understanding of sin, and a revolution that takes place around the person of Jesus, but is actually worked out in the life of someone else. The structure of the story is the same as is to be found time and time again in John: that of an expulsion, or proto-lynching, one of the many that lead up to the definitive expulsion of the crucifixion, which is also the definitive remedy for all human order based on expulsion. The revolution in the concept of sin consists in the following: at the beginning of the tale, sin was considered in terms of some sort of defect that excludes the one bearing the defect. At the end of the tale sin is considered as the act of exclusion: the real blindness is the blindness which is not only present in those who exclude, but actually grows and intensifies during the act of exclusion.

This change of perception is exactly the change that was wrought by the resurrection of the crucified Christ. That is to say that what John has done is apply to one of Jesus’, no-doubt historical, healings of a blind man on the sabbath the revolution in the understanding of sin that came about as a result of the resurrection. The sin of the world is understood quite specifically as being involved in the work of “your father the devil,” who “was a murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44; part of the proto-lynch that immediately precedes the story of the man blind from birth). Sin is recast entirely in the light of the casting out of Jesus. Jesus is quite specifically shown as having no problem with the sort of “sin” that is taken to exclude the “sinner” from the community: he cures the blind man with no problem at all (just as, in the previous chapter, he held nothing against the woman caught in adultery, but everything against those who would stone her). Sin is revealed as the mechanism of expulsion which is murderous, and those are blind sinners who are involved in that mechanism without being aware of what they are doing. The problem is not with those who are only blindly part of the mechanism of exclusion: they at least do not know what they are doing, and thus have no guilt. The problem is with those (like the pharisees who question Jesus in John 9:40) who form part of such mechanisms of exclusion, but think that “they see” — that is, think that they have moral insight, know good from evil, are capable of discernment and judgment. Such people not only take part in mechanisms of exclusion, but justify them as good, and from God. Their guilt remains.


The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. Luther once wrote in his commentary on Genesis:
    “Sin wants to be righteousness.” I think it helpful because whenever we slide into righteousness, that’s usually the first step toward harming another.

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