As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”
They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.”
The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”
So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.
Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him 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.”
he disciples’ words sound despicable to our ears. Seeing a blind man begging alongside the road as they passed by, they turned to Jesus and asked, “Who is it who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Seeing his condition, the disciples were not moved so much towards compassion as they were toward judgement. The question lurking underneath the question to which they gave voice was simple. Who was it who sinned? Should we pity him for his parents’ transgression? Or should we despise him for his own?
Now, you might intercede on their behalf, arguing, “but they didn’t know better!” Certainly, that is true. The disciples would have had no concept of disease and illness, none of the wisdom that modern medicine affords us today. The best they could offer when facing illness, disability, and misfortune was divine judgement and intervention.
But I would counter that the disciples are not asking how it is that this man was born blind. They are not interested in the mechanism of his disability. What they want is a reason. When you peel back all the layers of their inquiry, the fundamental question they are asking is, “why is this man suffering?”
Why is this man suffering? It must be that God is angry! He must have done something to provoke God’s wrath! Or, perhaps it was someone close to him. Perhaps God is punishing someone close to him by making this man suffer with blindness! Why is this man suffering? Tell us! We need something, someone, to blame! Someone must be at fault!
Truth be told, we still ask this same question today, even with all our knowledge of medicine and the wisdom we have gained in modernity. We may not ask it so bluntly as the disciples did, but in a thousand subtle ways, we still ask each other in whispered tones, “Why is this person suffering?”
As a society, we look at the person struggling with addiction and cluck to ourselves about their moral character. We see the parents of a child with a developmental disability and rant on the internet, to our friends, and even occasionally to their faces about how none of this would have happened had they only not vaccinated their child, or if they had just been more careful during pregnancy. To the person who is overweight, we say to ourselves, “if only they had stronger character, better self-control.”
For the person who was raped, we ask what they were wearing. We ask what they were drinking. We ask how they were behaving and who they were with. Because, you know, it is almost certainly their fault. We just need to find the right evidence.
Cancer, ah cancer, that is a trickier one, but worry not, we persevere and find a way! We ask the obvious questions first. Was it that this person made bad decisions and smoked or spent too much time in the sun? Or was it that their employer exposed them to some toxic substance? If none of those bear fruit, we can always reassure ourselves that if the person had only eaten cleaner food, if only they had eaten more organic food, if only they had eaten purer food, they would not be stricken so.
If we are honest with ourselves, we are constantly asking “why?” when confronted with the suffering of others. We are always asking why so that we may determine whether to take pity or pass judgement. For there must be immorality at play. Someone must be at fault! We need someone, something, to blame! To have no one to blame would be unthinkable!
If no one were at fault, that would mean that life is outside of our control. It would mean that the world is random, that the universe is capricious and meaningless. It would mean that the rain and the drought fall upon the good and the evil alike. It would mean that no matter what I do, these things could also happen to me.
Ultimately what motivated the disciples’ question, indeed what motivates our same question, is fear. It is fear of meaninglessness. It is fear of emptiness. It is a fear so profound that we would rather lash out at those who suffer than face it ourselves. It is a fear so powerful that even the translators of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, the translations we use here in worship, could not bear the implications of Jesus’ answer. So, they did the next best thing. They changed Jesus’ words.
In the NRSV, Jesus answers the disciples’ questions, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me…”
Rather than face the possibility of a random world, the translators offered yet another possibility. That this man was born blind so that God’s works, God’s glory, might be revealed in him. I don’t know about you, but I don’t find a God who inflicts suffering on the people of our world simply so that God’s glory might be revealed to be any more comforting than a universe that is capricious and meaningless.
But none of this is what the actual text says. The translators added words and made specific punctuation choices in order to make this argument. According to Osvaldo Vena, a more literal translation of the Greek text would have Jesus answer the disciples’ question, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. But in order that God’s works might be revealed in him it is necessary for us to work the works of the one who sent me…”
To our perpetual question, “Why is this person suffering?” Jesus offers the simplest of answers, “It doesn’t matter.” Whether this man or his parents sinned has absolutely no bearing on his present condition.
The bad news in our gospel reading today terrifies us. For it is that bad things happen bad people and good people alike. Sometimes it is because of our own actions and decisions. Sometimes it is because of the actions and decisions of others. But most of the time it is because shit happens. Most of the time it is because the universe is random and unaccountable.
But there is hope. There is good news to be heard. For Jesus’ answer to our perpetual question continues, “But in order that God’s works might be revealed, it is necessary for us to work the works of the one who sent me.”
Jesus turns to us in our fear and tells us that we look for meaning in the wrong places. We look for meaning in what is random and empty. We seek meaning in that which is meaningless. More than that, we look for God in the wrong places. We look for God behind us, as the source of all our fortune and our misfortune. We seek God in our past in order to make sense of our present.
The Good News of the Gospel unbinds us from what has come before; it unbinds us from our terror. For the Good News is that we find meaning, not in what is behind us, but in what is still before us. For God is not behind us, a divine puppet master pulling the strings of reward and punishment. God is before us, calling us out of the places of death and despair. God is before us, calling us into new life.
For Christ came into our world and into our suffering, not to show us how we got to where we are. Christ has come to meet us in our suffering and to walk always before us, leading us on a new path to God.
As disciples, we are called to follow Christ, to always seek Christ. That means in our encounter with the suffering of the world, and most especially in the suffering of others, we must not busy ourselves with what is in their past. We must not waste our time with what is behind them, for that is not where we will find Christ. My friends, we must work the works that God has given us to do. We must help our sisters and brothers carry the burden of their suffering. We must help bear the weight of the yoke that is upon them so that together we might finally look up and see Christ before us.
For in every condition of our lives, in times of good and in times of evil and despair, God meets us and offers us a new possibility. In every moment, Christ calls us anew into life.
Preached by Adam Yates