‘As Jesus walked along he saw a man who had been blind from birth.
“Master, whose sin caused this man’s blindness,” asked the disciples, “his own or his parents’?”
“He was not born blind because of his own sin or that of his parents,” returned Jesus, “but to show the power of God at work in him.”’ (John 9:1-3, J.B. Phillips translation)
I love this story. I love the way Jesus cuts through theological speculation with compassionate practical action. And I love the character of the man who’s been healed and the forthright, sarcastic wit with which he deals with the pompous Pharisees.
Theological speculation vs compassionate action
This story has, I think, so much to say to us about suffering and theology. And perhaps the first thing it has to tell us is that in the face of real and present human suffering, theological speculation is tremendously unimportant.
Jesus and his trainee crew are walking past this man who from birth has been completely unable to see. The disciples don’t seem at all concerned for the man himself; to them he’s merely an interesting theological conundrum. Indeed, their theology (mis)leads them to assume that his condition is the result of sin, and therefore deserved and not meriting any compassion. They’re strongly reminiscent of Job’s ‘comforters’, whose simplistic karma-like theology leads them to assume that Job must have sinned, because otherwise he wouldn’t be suffering.
Jesus by contrast doesn’t stop to engage in theological debate. His spoken response is pithy, fascinating and enigmatic, open to a variety of interpretations. But perhaps the crucial purpose of Jesus’ response is to bring a summary halt to his followers’ theologising, declaring it null and meaningless, an empty exercise in missing the point.
Instead his primary response is one of practical, compassionate action. Instead of treating the man as an object for debate or a social pariah, he responds to him as a real person with real needs. He instigates the process of healing – apparently without being asked. But then crucially he does involve the man; he tells him to go and wash the mud off his eyes in the Pool of Siloam (‘Sent’), which will complete the healing. Jesus gives the man the dignity of choice; he gets to be an active participant in his fate, not merely a passive subject.
So Jesus’ action is what really counts. Nonetheless, his words are still fascinating and worth pondering.
The disciples are asking the age-old question in the face of human suffering – ‘Why?’ It’s what most of us ask when suffering happens to us or when we see it in the world. But in the framing of the question they mistakenly assume a particular kind of answer.
So firstly, Jesus rejects outright the idea that the man’s ‘suffering’ or ‘problem’ (or however we view it) is caused by sin at all. When ‘bad’ stuff happens or things ‘go wrong’ (as we see it), we’re so often tempted to assume that it’s because we (or whoever the victim is) must have done something wrong. Jesus emphatically says that’s not the case here, and therefore may well not be in other cases of suffering and difficulty.
Now, we might well want to argue back – but we live in a fallen world, things aren’t as they should be, and it’s a mess because of sin. That’s surely the original root cause of all suffering, of anything that isn’t right in the world. I’ve argued along these lines myself. I’m not sure that Jesus’ words completely disallow this theology, but they do at least put a fairly large question mark by it.
That the works of God be shown?
Jesus then says something enigmatic and very hard to interpret. Our translations mostly render it to imply the man was born blind in order that the works of God might be shown in his life: ‘this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him,’ as the NIV puts it. I’m uncomfortable with this. It suggests that God may have deliberately chosen to inflict blindness on the man in order that he might be glorified in the man’s healing.
I’m not convinced this is the best reading, but if it were would it really be such a problem, in the light of eternity and the bigger picture? The man is ultimately not only physically healed, but spiritually healed too; and he gets to play a fantastic role in the unfolding story of God’s redemption, one which will be remembered through the ages. Perhaps this is a case where the happy ending really does overwhelmingly redeem what has gone before, rendering it (in the final analysis) almost negligible. Perhaps.
However, some suggest an alternative rendering along the lines of: ‘Neither he nor his parents sinned. But now let the work of God be shown in his life’. If so, Jesus isn’t saying that God caused or allowed the blindness for his greater purposes; indeed, he isn’t offering a theological explanation at all. The question for Jesus is not ‘why?’, but ‘what now?’ What matters is not the cause, but the outcome – and our response that helps or hinders the outcome God desires.
Consider it joy?
So the story suggests that we may be looking at our problems and troubles (and those of the world) through the wrong end of the telescope. When we bring them before God in prayer, we quite naturally focus on the negative. We assume something has gone badly wrong – that this bad thing shouldn’t have happened. And of course it’s a short step from there to complaining and then to blaming God, to feeling that he shouldn’t have let this happen and he’s not running things too well.
But Jesus seems to challenge us here to take a different view. Rather than these things being problems which require blame, they can be seen (paradoxically) as positive opportunities for faith and action. They are situations in which God’s redemption and healing and mercy and goodness can be revealed; entry points for the heavenly Kingdom to break into our world.
I’ve always struggled with those words in James’ epistle, ‘Consider it pure joy whenever you face trials’. But in light of this story, I can maybe begin to see a little of what he might mean. The troubles themselves are not joy, but through them God’s grace can come, and that can ultimately transform them into sources of blessing and redemption. ‘My power is made perfect in your weakness…’
The question of healing
This story also raises the vexed question of healing. Can we expect God to heal miraculously today? If we’re faced with a problem (in our lives or someone else’s) as intractable as blindness, can we actually do anything about it, and if so what?
This is a large and difficult issue, and I don’t have the answers. All I will say briefly is that I do believe God can and sometimes does heal physically, but that isn’t universal and may not be the norm. What we can do is bring the situation to God in trust, and let him be God. And whether or not God chooses to heal physically, we can show practical compassion.
Physical healing is a wonderful thing, but it isn’t the be-all-and-end-all. In the NT, the Greek word for physical healing – sozo – is the same as the word for ‘salvation’, the spiritual healing of the whole person. In both the story of the man born blind and the one of the paralytic man lowered through the roof, Jesus makes a specific link between physical and spiritual healing, or forgiveness of sins. The physical healing is a visible sign of the inner transformation that has taken place.
But the inner healing doesn’t require an outward manifestation. We can be healed in the deepest sense and yet still remain physically sick or broken; we can be given spiritual sight yet still be physically blind.
“Your guilt remains”
So the man whom everyone has always dismissed as a sinner and pariah is healed and justified. By contrast, the official theologians and good churchgoers (as represented by the Pharisees) are sent off with a flea in their ear.
The Pharisees have, as usual, got all hung up on the fact that Jesus apparently ‘broke’ the Sabbath to heal the man – though what he’s really doing is fulfilling the Sabbath. They can’t see past their righteousness code to the bigger picture staring them in the face in the person and action of Christ. Outraged both at the healing and at the impudent cheek of this ex-blind ‘sinner’ who dares to lecture them, they miss the point and miss what God is doing.
So when they flippantly or incredulously ask “What? Are we blind too?” they are ironically pronouncing their own judgement. “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin,” Jesus replies, “but as you claim you can see, your guilt remains”. They think they see and so have no need of healing, but they’re actually far blinder – and in a much more spiritually deadly way – than the person with physical blindness ever was.
It’s a salutary warning for me, and perhaps for all of us who see ourselves as Christians or theologians. We’re ‘saved’ – healed, restored, made whole – by grace, and we need to extend that same grace to all, particularly those who are excluded or marginalised by our religion and theology, our church structures and cultures.
Suffering and sin
So this story neatly ties together the two topics of sin and suffering. Sin does create suffering, but we can’t assume that any given case of suffering is the result of someone’s sin. And furthermore, we’re all broken; we all need healing in some sense, and we dare not either write others off as sinful and unworthy of healing, nor view ourselves as too ‘sorted’ to need it.