Who sinned?

a sermon on John 9:1-41


his gospel narrative is framed by two questions; one asked quite explicitly—“who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”—and the other asked implicitly—who is blind? The first question has to be heard against the background of the ancient world, in which it was generally assumed that a physical affliction or disability such as blindness must have some moral cause. If someone is blind, there must be a reason, and so the disciples want to know if this particular man is sightless on account of his own sin or if has something to do with the sin of his parents.

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This is a line of reasoning that had already hit a theological wall in the Old Testament book of Job, in which Job’s three friends or “comforters” came to him in his affliction, and tried to sort out the nature of the sin that has landed him in his disaster. Job, of course, pleads his innocence, and the way in which that book is structured the reader is quite aware that Job’s suffering has absolutely nothing to do with any sin or moral failing. But still those friends persist with their theological system: i) God rewards righteousness and punishes sin, and ii) you (Job) are suffering, therefore iii) this must be a punishment for some sin. Repent and things can begin to be set right. The book of Job demolishes that particular system, though the answers it does give aren’t necessarily easy ones… in the end Job is confronted by God who essentially says to him, “where were you when I created the world?” and “there are things much bigger than you can get your mind around.” Not exactly the stuff of comfort and consolation when your life has fallen apart, though Job does find it strangely life-giving.

Well, in spite of its apparent demolition in the book of Job, the old theological system held by Job’s friends is alive and well during the time of Jesus, clearly voiced by his disciples in that question, “who sinned?” I’m quite convinced that this same theological system is anything but gone even in our own time, though it might be voiced a little less openly than it once was. “What did I do to deserve this? Why me? Is God punishing me for something?” are questions I often hear people ask when they crash up against a serious affliction, be it physical or otherwise.

Here, Jesus will have none of it, though in a very real sense his answer might seem to create another problem. “Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.’”

Right, so this blindness has nothing to do with anyone’s sin. But is Jesus suggesting that the man was born blind to create an opportunity for an object lesson? Is he saying that this blindness is part of the divine plan, such that after twenty or thirty years of a hard life, Jesus can come along a restore his sight “so that God’s works might be revealed in him”?

Frankly, set within the context of the whole gospel tradition, that really doesn’t hold. Jesus just doesn’t use people that way, much less people’s pain and suffering. Rather, Jesus is about the restoration of things; sight to the blind, freedom to the captives, good news to the poor. In everything he does, he unveils how things should be and shall be; he enacts the world’s future by showing, in particular and specific acts, the nature of the promise. This blind man now has sight, these hungry people now have food, this lame person can now walk. This is how it shall be in the fullness of time, when God’s greatest work shall be revealed, and the whole of creation will be restored. Every healing becomes a radical statement about the world’s future.

I am well aware that in our own day questions of hope, healing and restoration are no less real than in Jesus’ day, and in fact this was the topic on our plate at last night’s ideaExchange session at Aqua Books. There is any number of documented accounts of extraordinary healings, and I suspect there are people here who have experienced something of this in your own life or in the life of someone close to you. Yet there are also all of those instances where faithful people cried out to have some sickness healed, depression lifted, or condition resolved, only to be met by what seems like silence. Is it any wonder that like the disciples or Job’s comforters, we still fall into asking, “so what is wrong with me?” or “what have I done that I am not healed?” And for me or anyone else to try to theologically explain away the reality of that kind of struggle or suffering is at least wrong-headed, and sometimes outright destructive. To give a neat and systematic answer at that point is to fall into the very trap that seems to have so caught many of the Pharisees with whom Jesus contends.

You see, they can’t cope with what Jesus has done for the man born blind, and the sticking point for them is that the healing took place on the Sabbath day; the day on which no work is to be done. Though the Sabbath day is meant to be a gift for the restoration of the community—a day on which the marketplace and money will not dictate the community’s life, and on which all people regardless of status and wealth are freed from the burden of work—it has been hardened by legalism. “Some of the Pharisees said, ‘This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.’” Notice, of course, that other Pharisees were not so locked down by legalism: “But others said, ‘How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?’” That’s important to recognize as we tell these stories, as it keeps us from too neatly lining up against the Pharisaic movement in Judaism, and might ultimately keep us from collapsing into an implied anti-Semitism. Some of these people could see that something important was going on in this Jesus character.

And ultimately as John tells us this story, he wants us to consider the question of who is truly blind and who can actually see. That question emerges with great clarity at the end of the narrative, when Jesus says, “I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’” No doubt this is a bit of an enigmatic statement, which on first glance might suggest that it is God’s will that some will be intentionally blinded to the truth, but I don’t think that is what Jesus is saying. It has much more to do with his unveiling of what is already going on, namely that those who lived with utter confidence in their systems of thought and belief were in fact blind to what was unfolding right before them. And so John continues,

“Some of the Pharisees near Jesus heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’

Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.

“If you were blind, you would not have sin,” which is an utter reversal of the assumption the disciples make at the outset of the story. It is a kind of in-your-face refutation of that closed theological system, but it is also the set-up for what Jesus most needs us to hear: “Now that you say, ‘We see’, your sin remains.” Or as Peterson translates it in The Message, “since you claim to see everything so well, you’re accountable for every fault and failure.”

Ultimately, this gospel stands as challenge to our closed systems, and as an invitation to a radical openness to what God in Christ might be doing in our midst. That was a hard thing for those Pharisees, and in many respects it is no less hard for a preacher and pastor. There are days when an airtight system would serve me really well, in giving counsel to someone as to how they might beat their cancer, overcome their depression, or resolve some other personal issue. But this story keeps me from doing this, because it reminds me that sometimes I don’t see and sometimes I can’t offer anything like systematic solutions to the struggles that real and faithful people are living through.

And it is an invitation to stand before the mystery, hands and hearts and minds open before the Christ who will not be boxed into a system, and who continues to give sight in surprising ways, often to those considered least likely and least deserving.

5 Responses to Who sinned?

  1. scott says:

    Hi Jamie,

    You’re right, this isn’t the best medium for such a discussion :-D

    When I am in Winnipeg I will definitely look you up!

    Peace be with you,

  2. scott says:

    Hi Jamie, just a few observations from a browsing stranger.

    Job’s suffering has lots to do with moral failing. The moral failings of his wife and friends deny him all manner of true comfort. In God’s desire, his friends would support him, but they all bring their own wickedness to the party and compound the mess.

    I actually disagree with you in that I think Jesus means exactly what he says about the cause of the man’s blindness. God makes object lessons of people *all the time* and hi-jacks “their” lives for _his_ purposes(Israel, Esau, Job himself, David (did he anoint himself?) every single prophet, Jesus, every single apostle, you , me). He makes no apologies for doing so.

    This isn’t cruel or malicious – God is relentlessly kind, ever desiring to bless us despite ourselves. But sometimes we get in the way.

    In the law that this blind man’s compatriots should have been reading, God explicitly takes responsibility for making blind men blind (Ex 4:11). But… he makes all sorts of provisions in his law for caring for the poor and the helpless.

    The blindness of this man’s life is God’s responsibility, but the *hardness* of it is entirely due to man’s lack of compassion and abominable treatment of the poor and handicapped.

    The fact that a blind man’s life is miserable is our fault, not God’s, and he is faithful, loving and just enough to judge and make perfect recompense. He is also, as you so wonderfully draw out, fully capable of healing and restoring – in this age – the hurts we bring before him.

    I think the spiritual ancestor of this incident is when God kicks Adam and Eve out of the garden of Eden, denying them access to the tree of life. How can a good God deny them such a good thing? Isn’t he being a jerk by making their lives harder and shorter? No, but he is putting a plan in gear.

    Blindness is just an extension of God’s early action in closing the garden gate. If we condemn him for blindness, we have to condemn him for holding back life itself.

    @Bryan: I would have thought Paul’s letter to the Corinthians was pretty ironclad that illness *can* be caused by spiritual malady (drinking judgement through improper Lord’s suppering):

    “That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep” – 1 Cor 11: 30

    James paints the positive side of the dynamic, placing confession alongside the healing of illness through prayer. “Therefore confess your sins to one another and pray for one another so that you may be healed.”

    • Jamie says:

      Hi Scott,
      I love your engagement with the questions here, and the insistence that God does hijack people all the time… but I still see the life of the blind man in a different light from that of the prophets or apostles. A prophet like Ezekiel is clearly hijacked… but he was a priest first, committed to a vocation of service. Hosea, too is hijacked (you want that marriage?), but in the context of a life-long engagement with God. I just see the situation of the blind man as being of a different order. Still, I take you point!

      I also think you’re bang on in saying that it is the society that really fails him.

      On the matter of 1 Corinthians, it is an issue addressed to members of the Body, who have begun to act in ways clearly not in keeping with the call to be the Body. It is also clear that Paul understands that even the illness is born of mercy: “But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.”

      Anyway, I’m sure a much longer conversation could be carried on, and longer conversations are best shared in person!

      Thanks for your careful response.

  3. Bryan says:

    Sin leading to physical affliction has recently come up as a group of friends and I have been working our way through Genesis.

    On the one hand you have scripture like this passage, Job, and Luke 13. On the other hand you have Genesis 38:7, Acts 5:5, and even John 5:14. There seems to be a theological discontinuity.

    The best I can do with it is what Peter Enns does in his work ‘Inspiration and Incarnation’

    “Job’s friends were not wrong in thinking that God blessed obedience and punished disobedience. They were wrong in appealing to this principle superficially, without sufficient knowledge of the particulars of the situation. There is a deed-consequence patter in the OT, as we see in Deut. and the Proverbs, but it cannot be applied rigidly. There is much more to the book of Job than this, but it seems that one point it makes is to warn against a superficial application of this pattern in and and every situation.”

    Yet, I am still not completely satisfied by that answer because it doesn’t take the NT (and Christ) into account. Not sure where to go on this question.

    • Jamie says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful response, Bryan. I think part of “where to go with this question” is to recognize that scripture itself is carrying on an internal dialogue in which there is a very real and very vibrant wrestling through of things. For instance, in 2 Samuel 5 we read of how David engineered the capture of Jerusalem, which includes the statement that, “Whoever wishes to strike down the Jebusites, let him get up the water shaft to attack the lame and the blind, those whom David hates. Therefore it is said, ‘The blind and the lame shall not come into the house.’” Yet this same King David actually adopts Mephibosheth, the son of his old friend Jonathan… and the young man is lame (1 Samuel 9).

      Move now to the New Testament, and what do we find in Jerusalem? According to John 5, “Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralysed.” It is in fact a place of hope and healing for the very ones David was said to hate. And it is at that place that Jesus meets and heals a paralytic man.

      In other words, for all of the gusto of David’s pronouncement as he engineered the capture of Jerusalem, in the long run (and in the Bible, the long run can be very long indeed!) something else entirely emerges.

      As my friend and mentor Robert Capon drilled into me, with the Bible you simply have to keep reading and re-reading the story in its entirety; otherwise it is too easy to do damage.


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