But before we can get started in chapter 9 we need to remember John’s overarching theme. We don’t have to guess at it because he lays it out in chapter 1:1-13. Jesus is light and the bringer of light. The darkness doesn’t “get” Jesus and remains in opposition to him. Go through John (s.l.o.w.l.y) and notice all the darkness vs. light stories.
The story in John 9 seems to stand alone quite well so, without any further setup: “As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth.” Stop right there. Jesus noticed people. He saw them. He didn’t hurry from one place to another with the kind of me-based tunnel vision that most of us have. In our world of noise and rush and the constant siren call of the next thing it can be hard to practice this one discipline: to see and, more specifically, to see others. Here is a man who has been blind since birth. He has no standing in society but he is worth Jesus’ time and notice.
This is a critical thing to absorb before moving on to verse two: “His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’” Did you catch that? Jesus saw a man; his disciples saw an object lesson or theological issue. It was reported to me by a friend years ago that several churches in his community met to discuss “the gay issue” and the “gay problem.” If memory serves me, my friend said that it was hours into the discussion before a young man stood up and said “I am not a problem. I am Mark.” The churches had been discussing problems without realizing (I assume) that there was at least one gay man among them and he wasn’t a problem, he was a person. Regardless of where you come down on this or any issue, it helps to remember that the other person is a person, not a problem.
The apostles were trying to make sense of their world. That’s how we come up with a lot of our ideas about God: we want things to make sense. If we believe in a good, all powerful God and if we also believe in justice we have to believe that there is some penalty for sin. It is an easy move from there to assigning blame to those who are suffering, assuming that there is some sin behind that suffering…but whose? This “blame the victim” mentality doesn’t just exist in religion, it is everywhere. Eastern religions push the horrible doctrine of Karma that says we suffer to balance out the evil we have done in the universe: we get what we deserve. When entire nation systems are built on that doctrine, we get India with its caste systems and lack of provision for the poor.
We see people who are continually sick and on the prayer list and after awhile compassion fatigue sets in and we wonder what they’re doing wrong to be so sick all the time. We fall for supplement quacks and TV doctors with gleaming teeth that tell us we are suffering because of this or that food we eat (or don’t eat) or because we didn’t do their exercise program or…We find ways to blame the victim (or a conspiracy or the government) when we suffer. The apostles were just like us: they saw something (not someone) and wanted to understand it. In one sense, we are all Job’s counselors and after awhile we default to blaming the victim.
Perhaps they just wanted to settle an old argument among themselves – and their society – about exactly how God struck back at sin and if He might use the children’s misery to punish the parents. Perhaps they were frightened at seeing someone disabled and wanted to find a reason that they weren’t and, by finding it, keep from becoming disabled at the hands of God themselves. Some of our veterans who’ve returned with missing limbs and horribly burned and scarred faces feel this every day as people glance their way and then either stare in horror/fascination or quickly turn and go the other direction. It is a natural human response to seeing reminders of our frailty. “It could’ve been me” or “there but for the grace of God go I.”
This next part has caused a lot of trouble in some circles and rejoicing in others. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” Calvinists have written reams on this, saying that this proves that all things are in God’s plan. They say that God planned from eternity that this man be born blind so that when Jesus came by he could heal him and, thus, show his power. This begs a lot of questions and raises a lot of issues: weren’t there enough blind people already available in 1st century Judah? Couldn’t Jesus show his power another way? Didn’t he? Are you saying that the bringer of light is a bringer of darkness, too?
Jesus sees this man’s blindness as an opportunity to do good “along the way” as Deuteronomy 6 might say. “As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” Did you notice? There’s that “light theme” again. Jesus cuts off the theological debate for it is not a question of who sinned or even if sin had anything to do with the man’s blindness, it is a question of who is going to help the blind man. I believe that Jesus is actively speaking against the assumptions of Calvin and his followers who claim that this passage proves that blindness is as much a part of God’s plan as is the restoration of sight. That makes Jesus not only a bringer of light…but the reason for darkness in this man’s life. The consequence of strict Calvinism is to lay at the feet of God the blame for every evil deed, every moment of suffering in human existence (and even that in the animal kingdom): all planned, all determined by God. One of the most famous Calvinists in the US today was asked the day after the school shootings in New England if God determined which child was shot and which child was not and he said “Yes.” I find that abhorrent and I don’t see that teaching in John 9 – or elsewhere.
Instead of accepting that some people have to suffer and be born blind because sin is in the world or because God has a higher purpose, Jesus immediately goes to work to restore light to this individual. I am chastened by his response because I have often caught myself thinking and puzzling over ramifications, doctrine, and issues instead of just acting in love where I was with what I had to the people in front of me at the time. Jesus doesn’t say “he was born blind so that God’s power and works may be revealed” but that is way we usually read it because we read it so fast and we read it through our humanity: assumptions and all. Greg Boyd says this in God at War “…Jesus is simply saying that, in contrast to the misguided moralistic speculations of the disciples, the only thing that matters concerning this man’s blindness is that God can overcome it and thus be glorified through it…” (pg233). Jesus made it plain in Luke 13:1-5 that the doctrine of karma and the assumptions of Job’s counselors are groundless and false: there isn’t a sin-punishment matrix that perfectly fits over human experience.
Sometimes we suffer because we are alive on a planet where everything dies. Sometimes we suffer because bad people do bad things and their evil splashes consequences on us. Sometimes we suffer because we took too long coming down the birth canal through no fault of our own or our mother’s. Sometimes things happen. Full stop. The question is, how we will treat those who’ve been caught by the crashing waves of evil or disease or suffering and how we will behave when it is our turn to be swept out by that same wave? Jesus reminds the disciples that their time is limited: see a person, help a person. Now. Don’t wait. Don’t spend time in arguing the theology of it, just do it. Reminds me a bit of Romans 14:1-15:7.
There is much more to be said about this story but I will let it wait for a few days. Thanks to all of you who wrote me, shared the last post, and who’ve encouraged me to write more of these. I am praying about doing a book length treatment of these stories since they brought me back to faith and have kept me there. As a non-theologian, that is not an easy decision. Pray that I will have the wisdom to do them justice here and elsewhere. Peace.