Formations 03.27.2022: Why?

John 9:1-7, 15-16, 24-25, 30-38

The disciples ask why a man they encounter was born blind. They entertain the idea that it is punishment for some sin his parents committed. They also raise the possibility that it was because of some sin the blind man himself committed. As odd as that may sound to us, it was something the rabbis speculated about. For example, Jacob and Esau were fighting each other even in the womb (Gen 25:22). Does that constitute a prenatal sin on the part of either of them?

You’ll be relieved to know that the rabbinic consensus came down against this theory. Even so, the fact that the disciples bring it up may tell us something about their mindset.

We don’t always know how to respond to people with disabilities. Even if we want to be respectful, we don’t always know how. If you’re my age, you didn’t grow up in an environment where you were taught the degree of sensitivity that my daughter, for example, seems to come by naturally.

So the disciples try to make sense of what they see. Why are some people born blind? And they propose some explanations that rightly make us cringe, like who sinned that this should be the case?

To be honest, Jesus’ answer doesn’t make things much better: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (John 9:3). Does this mean he was born blind and lived through childhood and into his adult years without sight simply so that, on some random day, Jesus could heal him and reveal God’s works? Doesn’t that make this man a hapless pawn, a dehumanized bit of stage dressing for Jesus’ latest miracle?

The Contemporary English Version translates Jesus’ words as, “Because of his blindness, you will see God work a miracle for him.” That phrasing suggests that the man wasn’t God’s pawn but God’s opportunity.

And maybe that’s a lesson for us. One way or another, we all confront what theologians call the problem of evil. Why are things in this world less than perfect? Why do people suffer? Why are some people born blind?

Our instinct is to think of this as an intellectual problem. Like the disciples, we want to know why. And if we’re not careful, we’ll settle for simplistic answers that usually involve pointing our fingers at others.

What if the problem of evil wasn’t something we had to figure out but something God called us to confront: not a puzzle to be solved but an opportunity to do good? Another possible translation of Jesus’ words in John 9:3 is “Let God’s works be revealed!” That’s not an answer to the disciples’ question at all; it’s a call to action and a call for compassion.

If only we can see it.

Discussion

• How does the Bible’s metaphor of blindness as an indicator of spiritual deficiency make you feel? If you are uncomfortable with this metaphor, what advice would you suggest to change or soften it?
• How can able-bodied Christians become more appreciative of the humanity and dignity of those with disabilities?
• How does this chapter of John invite us to perceive the world in a new way?
• How can we display the works of God through service to others?

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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