The man born blind: discuss or heal?

In John 8, Jesus had a heated discussion about his ministry and credentials with Jewish leaders in the temple. He left, noticed a man born blind, and healed him. It was the Sabbath, so the leaders who were offended at him before became more offended and took out their frustration on the formerly blind man. Jesus’ disciples also saw the blind man, but they took it as a springboard for a theological discussion about sin (John 9:1-7). Has the church to this day understood what Jesus said and did?

Who sinned?

Christ heals the Man born blind

Healing of the Blind Man / by Duccio di Buoninsegna (1308-11)

A blind man sat near the entrance to the temple. He had been blind from birth and could support himself only by begging. If people pitied him, they tossed some change to him. Maybe a few people even stopped to chat for a while. But basically, nearly everyone passed by.

Back in the days when people hadn’t forgotten that sin is real and has real consequences, it seemed obvious that the man was under some kind of judgment for being blind. The disciples only asked a question out loud that many people must have wondered over the years: was the man born blind because he sinned? But how could anyone sin in the womb? Or perhaps was he born blind to punish his parents for some sin?

Jesus answered that neither the man nor his parents sinned to cause his blindness. If he had had any interest in continuing a theological discussion, he could have gone on to explain that Adam sinned to cause it. I almost wish he had. After all, don’t American Christians often ask the same questions?

When misfortune strikes, self-pity causes many to wonder why they’re being punished. Perhaps judgmentalism causes many more to survey the situation and wonder the same thing. Or, in the case of a natural disaster like a tornado, hurricane, earthquake, etc., religious leaders too often come out of the woodwork to explain that it’s God’s judgment on something or another. The whole discussion betrays a deficiency of both humility and love.

So what? In the Bible, some calamities were caused by identifiable sin. That hardly means that anyone can explain all calamities, or even any particular one, as a judgment on that sin. Adam (that is, generic humanity) sinned. The fall of man was high treason against God, because the humans he created decided to obey Satan instead of God. And Satan wants only to steal, kill, and destroy. We all partake of Adam’s sin. Who sinned when calamity strikes? If you’re not an immediate victim, just look in the mirror. Then look around you at everyone else you see. Who sinned? We did, from the Garden of Eden to the present day.

What does it matter who sinned?

But Jesus wasn’t interested in a theological discussion. He wasn’t interested in explaining anything. I’m no Greek scholar, but I’d like to suggest that some of our translators haven’t noticed that fact. Here is an excerpt from the NASB

And His disciples asked Him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him. We must work the works of Him who sent Me as long as it is day. . .

I chose to quote from NASB simply because that translation makes it obvious which words are not in the original text, but were added by translators to make sense. It is hardly possible to translate any extensive work or part of a work without resorting to various workarounds. So far as I know, only Bible translators, and not all of them, ever let the readers in on just which words they have supplied.

In this case, I contend that the added words do not clarify the meaning. They change it. I also point out that ancient Greek had none of our punctuation marks, or indeed, spaces between words. Translators must supply that as well. Here is what the same passage looks like without the added words and with the last period changed to a comma:

And His disciples asked Him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man sinned, nor his parents; but so that the works of God might be displayed in him, we must work the works of Him who sent Me as long as it is day. . .

And the point?

  • The disciples gave Jesus two choices. He rejected both of them.
  • When we see suffering, Adam’s sin is sufficient reason. If a more immediate sin isn’t obvious, don’t look for it.
  • The man was not born blind either for some sin of his parents or infantile sin of his own.
  • He was not born blind because God knew he would otherwise commit some heinous sin.
  • He was not born blind so that Jesus could come along later and heal him.
  • He was not born blind to punish anyone for anything. In our fallen world, these things happen.
  • Jesus wanted to display the works of God in the man. Discussing sin and judgment as an intellectual exercise can never accomplish that goal. Only doing the works of God will display the works of God.

So what are we to do when we see someone suffering? At the very least, pray that God’s will will be done. God might not intend to end the trouble right away, or ever. Whatever else God intends, he always wants to build faith and Christ-like character. He always intends for the light of Christ to shine into the darkness of the world.

Maybe you can do something besides praying. Maybe you have no choice but to try to do something more. If God gives you his work to do, work in faith for the sake of displaying God’s work while it is still day.

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