Several themes and thematic questions run through the Old Testament. Generation after generation wrestle and struggle with various ideas and concerns; especially as they encounter God and God’s on-going revelation in through their own experiences. Questions like “who is God?”, “how do I treat the foreigner?,” and “what is justice?” Today’s Gospel reading picks up on a theological discussion that has been played out for centuries. Jesus and His disciples happened past a blind man and so they raise the question, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents.” Rabbi – teacher, what say you?
God’s people have been trying to understand the nature and ramifications of sin for a long, long time. After creation, it is the second theme taken up in the bible. The Garden of Eden, the fruit of the forbidden tree, Cain and Able, the tower of Babel, the Flood – the first Genesis stories revolve around the notion and nature of sin and its consequences. The Exodus stories of the golden cafe, the grumbling for food and water, and Moses striking the rock twice when God said once: all continue to explore and develop this motif. Saul is chosen as king, then rejected for offering a priestly sacrifice before battle when Samuel is delayed. David is chosen as king, then judged for his indiscretions with Bathsheba that led him to arrange the death of her husband, Uriah. Centuries later, a moral and theological reform sweeps through the nation under King Josiah after the old book of the law is rediscovered. It holds that God blesses those who obey and punishes those who don’t. But after the Assyrians devastate the northern kingdom of Israel and the Babylonians destroy the southern kingdom of Judah, leveling the temple in Jerusalem and forcing survivors to live into exile, some begin to wonder if this theology holds water. The book of Job is the sharpest critic; offering the challenge that some suffer much, much more than can be justified by their ‘sins.’
Through today’s Gospel reading, we enter into a facet of this ongoing search. In the book of Exodus, God warns that a person’s sins will be visited on his or her children, even to the fourth generation (20:5). Centuries later, the prophet Ezekiel challenges this notion by insisting that children do not suffer on account of their parents’ sins. God punishes the individual who committed the sin, the prophet proclaimed, not the innocent offspring (18:20). Well, these two positions are mutually exclusive and so, in an effort to reconcile the two, scholars concluded that it was possible for a child to sin while in the womb; thus causing birth defects. Not everyone was satisfied with this, thus the debate raged on. Given this background, you can see what the disciples are getting at when the ask Jesus – the Rabbi/teacher – to weigh in.
“Who sinned, this man or his parents?” Jesus response is neither. “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” Another translation puts it this way: “This happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” Either way, Jesus’ answer is problematic because, while it lays to rest the idea that birth defects are punishment for sin, it opens the door to the idea that God causes them in order to show off what God can do.
Craig Koester is a New Testament professor at Lutheran Seminary in Minnesota whose writing on the book of John has helped me make sense of several difficult passages. After looking at the original Greek, he says a better way to translate Jesus’ response is this: “Neither this man sinned nor his parents, but in order that the works of God might be revealed in him we must work the works of Him who sent me while it is still day.” “Instead of trying to look back to determine what lay behind the blindness,” Koester writes, “Jesus looked ahead to what he might do with the blindness.”
So here is what Jesus adds to this age-old discussion: He does not categorically reject the idea that God punishes sin nor does He deny that human actions can and do have negative consequences. What He says is that not all suffering is caused by sin and that suffering elicits God’s compassion and God’s power to heal and God’s desire to make all things whole.
Years ago, when I was married, my wife miscarried several months into a pregnancy. I was devastated and while it in no way reflected my theology then or now, in my pain and grief all I could do was remember every sin I ever committed and I interpreted the loss as their consequence; as a punishment. As I said, this is not what I believe theologically, but it is what I experienced personally. Maybe it was the result of the Tempter’s taunts in a moment of weakness or maybe it is a natural human response in the face of overwhelming loss. Over time I began to know once again the same Jesus who touched the man born blind; the Jesus who was not interested in assigning blame, but who wanted to do God’s work for the broken-hearted.
More than one of you has sat in my office or called me on the phone or sat across a table from me and described the pain and the brokenness and the messiness of your life. You know that, as I listen, I always say it is worth exploring your part in all that has unfolded. How did you contribute to it? What have you learned? What will you do differently the next time? Pain and suffering, while unwanted, have a way of bearing the fruit of wisdom and insight. And while I say this to you, you also know that most of what I do is try to untangle you from the notion that you somehow deserve what is happening to you. My experience has been that most of the pain in my life has been disproportionate to whatever sin may have caused it and that is the sense I get when I listen to your stories as well.
To this century’s old deliberation about the nature of sin and its connection of suffering, Jesus says this: “Let’s not try to figure out who is to blame. Let’s figure out what God is capable of doing with it.” God’s work for the man born blind restored his sight. The ultimate work of Jesus in the face of sin was accomplished on the Cross. There we see most fully God’s willingness to be in relationship with us even though it causes God pain and suffering. “I will bear your sins,” God says, “because my love for you cannot be broken”; it is much the same as a parent who endures a child’s tantrums, a child’s fears, and a child’s sicknesses because the joy of being in relationship far outweighs the cost.
“Neither this blind man sinned or his parents, but do you know what I see here? I see an opportunity to do God’s work.” Jesus has a marvelous way of reframing the question, doesn’t He. But it is also one that is very challenging. Someone recently posted this on facebook: The good news is God answers prayers… the bad news is God uses people like me and you to do it. Jesus still walks from place to place and Jesus still encounters suffering disproportionate to anything a person deserves. Jesus stills sees opportunities to be doing the work of God in that person’s life. The only difference between now and when He encountered the blind man is that Jesus needs to work through you and through me to do it. Your compassionate touch, my merciful embrace, our healing love can mediate God’s power if we are willing to be a part of the work God seeks to do.