I must confess to you: I have been dreading talking to you about this text all week. The presence of cause and effect in this text is overwhelming. The text says multiple times that the reason the blind man is blind from birth is because he sinned (and since it was from birth, there is the implication his parents sinned, and the blind man is being doubly punished and exists in double sin). Those gathered insist that Jesus must be sinful too because he does not follow the law – he heals on the Sabbath, and he cannot possibly speak for or act for God as a sinner. Jesus also says those gathered are sinners for they cannot see God. Even at the beginning of John’s story, even Jesus says, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”
I have not wanted to preach this text today because I do not at feel comfortable with the cause and effect nature of this text, especially what that cause and effect nature seems to imply about suffering. Can Jesus really be saying this man was made blind so that God could be revealed? Is this text saying God causes suffering – pain, disability, ostracizing from community, poverty so deep that only begging will ensure survival? That concept is a huge hurdle for me because that is not at all my theology of suffering. And I especially do not like hearing that theology of suffering this week – a week when we are watching the cases of Coronavirus creep up in our country and double in our county and have begun asking the same sorts of questions the people in this passage are asking: Where is God in this? Why is God allowing not only this terrible virus to happen, but the accompanying societal upheaval? Is God causing this suffering for some greater good? This kind of health crisis pulls at all of us and in our innermost, private places, and makes us wonder, even if we cannot say the words aloud, “Did God have something to do with this virus?” Or sometimes we find ourselves not embarrassingly asking the question, but boldly shouting at God, “What in the world are you doing? Why aren’t you here fixing this? How could you do this?!?” The absolute LAST passage I want to hear when we are asking these bone-deep theological, desperate questions is a text that seems to imply God causes suffering for God’s own glory.
That is why I am especially grateful for biblical scholars who can journey with us in interpreting scripture. Biblical Scholar Rolf Jacobson took a look at that same verse that has been nagging me all week, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” Luckily Jacobson is better at Greek than me. He explains that the writers of the New Revised Standard Version inserted text into the English translation that simply is just not there. In the original Greek, the words “he was born blind,” are not there. Instead of the text saying, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him,” the text actually says, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned [period]. In order that God’s works might be revealed in him, we must work the works of him who sent me…” According to Jacobson, Jesus is not saying the man was blind so God could be revealed. Jesus is saying no one sinned. But given the situation, God has given his disciples the opportunity to do something good to reveal God’s goodness.[i] In other words, God does not cause suffering. But God can use us in the midst of suffering for good.
I don’t know about you, but that has shifted my understanding of this text completely. All of the arguing about who sinned, what laws you must follow to be holy, and who should be in or out are a distraction. The same can be true of us. When we start trying to logic our way through fault, or sin, or blame – even blame on God, we lose our way; we become blind like those gathered and arguing in our text today. Instead, this text is inviting us to ask different questions. Instead of whose sin caused this virus, we can ask, “How can I be a force for good in the midst of this virus?” Instead of why God is doing this or allowing this to happen, we can ask, “Where are the opportunities to see God acting for good in the midst of suffering?” Instead of where is God in this, we can ask, “Where am I finding moments of God’s grace in this?” I am not arguing our questions and demands of God are not valid at this time. In fact, I think our quiet doubt of and our raging anger at God are perfectly normal – and maybe even necessary for honest relationship with God. What I am arguing is this text is not a reinforcement of our sense of darkness, but instead an invitation into light – an invitation to seeing when we may feel blinded. My prayer this week is that we stumble into those moments of light this week – that we find those moments of grace upon grace that give us renewed comfort, hope, and faith. May God bless you in the journey toward the light. Amen.
[i] Rolf Jacobson, “Sermon Brainwave #713 – Fourth Sunday in Lent,” March 14, 2020, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1240, on March 19, 2020.