Text: John 9:1-41
“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” It is interesting how in conversation something that is said in passing can become the focal point or sticking point of the conversation. Take for instance my visit to Duke Divinity School a couple of weeks ago. I was invited to participate on a panel at the Divinity School in which the topic was LGBT issues and the church. The panelists included three pastors and two professors. Before a room of about 80 students, each panelist was asked to give a five- to eight- minute “talk” on LGBT issues and the church, which would be followed by a question and answer time. As we moved into the question and answer session the focus of the conversation centered not on LGBT issues and how the church might be more responsive to issues of inclusion, but rather on another topic: the authority of scripture. Within minutes after the Q & A time began the question was asked, “But what about what the Bible says about homosexuality? The Bible says that it is a sin.” Figuring that this was an institution in which open biblical inquiry was not only acceptable but also encouraged, I quipped, “When might we begin to accept that on some issues the Bible got it wrong?” Without intending it to happen, my remark became a sticking point of the conversation that followed and for a while we lost our focus of what we had gathered to discuss.
“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Much like the need to settle the question of “what the Bible says about homosexuality,” before we can address the more pressing need of inclusion in the church so, too, must we acknowledge the disciples’ question about the relationship between suffering and sin before going much further into the meaning of John 9. To not do so has the potential to distract us from the intended message of the gospel writer. Even if we think we have settled this theological question in our minds, it still has a way of placing doubt in our minds and hearts. To not say anything about this question also fails to acknowledge our struggle as human beings to understand suffering in our lives and world.
It seems that the disciples’ question about the relationship between suffering and sin was a curious but honest question. They really want to know: Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind? It is a fair question for the disciples to ask of their teacher, given the theological equations of the day: blindness equals sickness; sickness equals sin; and sin equals human fault. I say it is a fair question, but it is also a question to which they knew the answer based on the teachings of their day. So I have often wondered when reading this text if in asking the question the disciples were hoping that there might be a new and different answer. I like that Jesus didn’t ignore their question. And I especially like that he gives them something new and different to think about. Jesus tells them: no one sinned. It’s nobody’s fault. There is no one to blame. He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.
In all honesty, I wish Jesus would have just stopped with “no one sinned” and left off the part about the man’s blindness being “so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” For me, I don’t believe that any more than I believe that the man’s blindness was about someone’s sins. What I can and do believe is that through the man’s blindness there was an opportunity for God to be seen and known and maybe that is what the gospel writer means when he writes, “so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” Maybe all we can say about our suffering is that in it there is the potential for God to be revealed. I want to be clear: We do not suffer so that God may be revealed. But in our suffering there is the potential for God to be known and experienced in ways that we might not otherwise know. That is my understanding of the relationship between suffering and sin.
With that said—with the sticking point out of the way—what else might we ponder from this story of Jesus and the blind man? Fred Craddock writes of this narrative: “Perhaps no biblical story illustrates quite so dramatically the truth of repeated experience: God’s favor more often leads into than away from difficulties. A relationship to God does not remove one from but often places one in the line of fire. Those who preach faith as the cessation of pain, suffering, poverty, restless nights and turbulent days are offering false comfort.”
In the story of Jesus and the blind man, the drama of what can happen to those blessed by Jesus unfolds in four scenes. In scene one, the healed man tries to go home again but cannot. So radical is the change in him that his reappearance in the old neighborhood generates no joy, no celebration, no welcome home, only questions and doubts. His insistence that he is the same man gains mixed responses. He was formerly well known among these people; his stumbling and hesitant walk, his dependence, his poverty were his identity; they defined his place in the community. Now he walks upright, assured of place and direction, quite independent, only to discover that he has no place anymore. Only hostile questions: Who are you? Who is this Jesus? Where is he?
In scene two, the healed man is hauled before religious leaders. They are interested in all reported miracles, especially if performed by unauthorized individuals; and most especially if done in violation of some law. Such is the case here. The healing occurred on the Sabbath, which present a quandary: if this man is truly healed, it was done by someone with the power of God, but if the healing took place on the Sabbath, then it was done by someone opposing God’s law. More questions ensue: Are you sure you can see? Were you really blind? Who did it?
Scene three finds the parents of the healed man being grilled by the religious leaders. Yes, he is our son; yes, he was born blind; no, we do not know what happened; no, we do not know who did it. Whatever joy they may have had is drowned in fear. Expulsion from the synagogue and social disgrace is a high price to pay for having a son especially blessed by God. They were unwilling to pay it.
In the final scene, the man is grilled a second time and more intensely. The authorities, faced with the irrefutable evidence of the healing, try to make the man denounce Jesus as a sinner. The poor man, armed only with his experience and sound logic, cannot believe a sinner could have the power of God. Anger and frustration rule: the man is denounced along with Jesus and expelled as a sinner. A few days previous the man’s life was blessed by Jesus and now his old friends disregard him, his parents reject him, and he is no longer welcome at his old place of worship. (Fred Craddock, Christian Century, March 14, 1990) The price of seeing—faithful, spiritual seeing— often leads into rather than away from difficulties.
In 1725, John Newton was born in Wapping, a district in London near the Thames. His father was a shipping merchant who was brought up as a Catholic but had Protestant sympathies, and his mother was a devout Independent unaffiliated with the Anglican Church. She had intended for her son to become a clergyman, but she died of tuberculosis when he was only six years old. For the next few years, he was raised by his distant step-mother while his father was at sea, and spent some time at a boarding school where he was mistreated. At the age of eleven, he joined his father on a ship as an apprentice; his seagoing career would be marked by headstrong disobedience.
John Newton grew up without any particular religious conviction, but his life’s path was formed by a variety of twists and coincidences that were often put into motion by his obstinate ways. He was pressed into the Royal Navy and became a sailor, eventually participating in the slave trade. One night a terrible storm battered his vessel so severely that he became frightened enough to call out to God for mercy, a moment that marked the beginning of his spiritual conversion. In the days that followed, he ended his career in slave trading and began studying theology.
Inspired by the blind man’s confession in John 9, this slave-trader turned abolitionist composed the words to one of the most recognizable songs in the English-speaking world.
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me,
I once was lost but now I am found,
Was blind, but now, I see.
“Now, I see.” John Newton’s conversion is another example of how our suffering can create the opportunity for God to be revealed, and for us to recognize God and “see.” In our text this morning, the blind man is literally given the gift of physical sight, but just as for Newton, the meaning of the story is about spiritual seeing. Jesus chooses a blind man to illustrate his deeper point, to challenge us to recognize the ways in which we are blind and can’t recognize our blindness ‒ and the ways in which we are wrong about the blindness of others. But the story goes even further in showing that there are real consequences for seeing – those who see are moved into and not away from difficulty. Are we willing to pay the price of seeing? Are we willing to risk our understanding, our belonging, our very identity in order to see where God is being revealed in our world today? If so, our hope lies in the assurance that such seeing is done in the light of God’s amazing grace.