Wednesday, May 1, 2013

What Did He Do To Deserve This? (John 9:2-3)

In John 9, why was the man born blind? That the works of God might be made manifest in him.

In passing, the Gospel of John records that Jesus crosses paths with a “man blind from birth” (John 9:1). The unnamed man is evidently familiar to Jesus and his disciples as they are aware that his sightlessness is congenital (John 9:2). Intrigued, the disciples ask their teacher who is to blame for the man’s lack of vision.

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. (John 9:2-3, NASB)
Jesus refuses to be encumbered by the disciples’ limited options and offers an alternative explanation (John 9:3-5) before repairing the man’s vision (John 9:6-7).

This incident is found only in John’s gospel. Its setting is vague with no mention of a concrete time or place. The passage maintains only a tenuous connection to the preceding material.

Leon Morris (1914-2006) notes:

There is no time note. John does not relate this incident to others in his story, and we are left to guess at its place in the sequence. Sir Edwyn Hoskyns [1884-1937] says that the incident took place on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles, but this is pure assumption. It is likely that some time has elapsed since the attempt on Jesus’ life (John 8:59), but more than this we cannot say. John simply tells us that Jesus passed by (where?) and saw a man blind from birth. Nothing is said as to how Jesus knew that the man had been blind from birth, which argues that he was a well-known figure. (Morris, The Gospel According to John (The New International Commentary on the New Testament), 424)
The story is rooted more in theological argumentation than in time and space (John 9:1-5). This conversation, with its emphasis on the blindness emanating at birth, prepares the reader for a more incredible miracle. Being blind from birth is, biblically speaking, highly unusual. Outside of the gospels only one blind person is healed in the Bible (Acts 9:1-19) and this is the only miracle in the gospels where the sufferer is said to be afflicted from birth (Acts 3:2, 14:8).

It will not be this chance encounter but rather the disciples’ question that triggers the story’s action. The disciples, reappearing in John’s narrative for the first time in two chapters (John 6:70), are fascinated by the blind man (John 9:2). Their instinct is not pity or compassion but curiosity. The blind man’s condition poses a theological dilemma and as such, the disciples do not see a human being but a theological case study, a strawman to be blown down. Like many who have followed, they are haunted by the question of why, a problem theologians label theodicy.

The disciples rightly seek the insight of their “rabbi” (John 9:2) but they attempt to set parameters on his response, choosing to explore the relationship between sin and tragedy. John Chrysostom (347-407) argues that their question is prompted by John 5:14 (Homily 56.1). Whatever their motivation, it is clear that the disciples are operating under a system characterized by a tight cause-and-effect relationship; they assume that there is a direct correlation between suffering and sin. Theirs is a basic and ancient mind set, exemplified in the Book of Job (Job 8, 15, 18). On this point, the disciples have not progressed beyond Job’s ineffective “comforters”. Later in the chapter, the Pharisees will employ the same argument, only more forcefully (John 9:34).

Daniel J. Harrington (b. 1940) explains their rationale:

As an explanation for suffering, the law of retribution focuses principally on the victims. Of course, one might attribute the suffering to the wrath of God against human sinfulness or to demonic forces having power over humans. But most religious people take for granted the omnipotence and the justice of God. It is these assumptions that are examined critically in what is the fullest biblical investigation of the mystery of suffering—the Book of Job. (Harrington, Why Do We Suffer?: A Scriptural Approach to the Human Condition, 28-29)
For the disciples, the man’s condition is indicative of sin. Gail R. O’ Day (b. 1954) and Susan E. Hylen (b. 1968) clarify:
In the Fourth Gospel, “sin” is not a moral category about behavior but a theological category about one’s response to the revelation of God in Jesus...Jesus’ subsequent actions are a response to the disciple’s perspective on sin as well as to the condition of the blind man himself. (O’Day and Hylen, John (Westminster Bible Companion), 98)
From their perspective, the disciples’ question is perfectly logical as they present Jesus with the only two plausible explanations: Either the man somehow sinned at or before birth or his parents did. There is some Old Testament basis for blindness being the direct result of sin (Genesis 19:11; Exodus 4:11; II Kings 6:18). The more general connection between sin and ailment is exemplified by Job’s counselors, especially epitomized in Eliphaz’s opening argument (Job 4:7).

Given this tradition, it has been posited that the disciples are echoing conventional wisdom. Andreas J. Köstenberger (b. 1957) locates:

The disciples’ statement can be placed squarely within the context of contemporary rabbinic views. Underlying the disciples’ statement is the concern not to charge God with perpetrating evil on innocent people (cf. Exodus 20:5; Numbers 14:18; Deuteronomy 5:9). (Köstenberger, John (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), 281)
Bruce J. Malina (b. 1933) and Richard L. Rohrbaugh (b. 1936) expound:
The notion that sin caused suffering was common in the New Testament period...Stereotypical thinking at the time would have Israelites perceive that given the justice of God, suffering could only be the result of some sin, whether conscious or unconscious. As the later Pharisaic tradition [Rabbi Ammi (ca. 300)] put it, “There is no death without sin and no suffering without iniquity” (b. Shabbath 55a). (Malina and Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John, 169-70)
Blindness in particular was often examined in this light. Craig S. Keener (b. 1960) relays:
Blindness was often associated with sin; in many cultures it is natural to associate another’s affliction with a specific avoidable cause to prevent anxiety on the part of those who speculated about the causes (cf. Job 6:21). Thus one source suggests that a person was struck blind because he failed to perform sacrifices properly, though some thinkers did object that blindness could happen to anyone. Jewish literature provides many examples of the connection; one who saw a blind, lame, or otherwise seriously afflicted person should praise God as the righteous judge. (Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, 777)
Though some obviously held a close connection between sin and affliction, this belief was not universal. Jo-Ann A. Brant (b. 1956) cautions:
One should not infer from the disciples’ question that blindness was automatically equated with sin in Second Temple Jewish societies. This story stands between evidence to the contrary. Tobit (ca. third century BC) is the tale of a man whose blindness is an accidental result of his righteous actions (Tobit 2:7-10). A review of later rabbinic literature reveals that the blind were categorized with the destitute and those incapable of being valid witnesses and not with sinners. (Brant, John (Paideia: Commentaries on the New Testament), 153)
Regardless of how widespread this conviction was, the disciples take it for granted and the fact that the man’s condition existed at birth poses a unique theological dilemma. They presume that suffering is the direct result of sin and therefore if suffering is evident sin must be also. To justify this belief, the sin must be uncovered. So they offer Jesus the only two possibilities which they can see.

In doing so, the disciples provide overly facile answers to a complex question. Bruce Milne (b. 1940) reviews:

For the disciples...the answer is simple. Personal suffering of this nature is due to personal sin. The only uncertainty concerns who is directly responsible. Since the sin concerned must have been congenital, the options were either that this man committed it during his antenatal life in the womb, or his parents had committed it before his birth. While the Bible allows a general relationship between suffering and sin, due to the fall (cf. Genesis 3:1-24; Romans 5:12ff), it refuses to permit the principle to be individualized in every case. Sin has produced a suffering world, but an individual’s personal suffering is not always attributable to his or her personal sin. Sometimes of course it may be...But Scripture refuses to universalize such instances. That was the issue between Job and his friends, and the lesson of the book of Job is God’s dismissal of that simplistic theology of suffering. It is here dismissed by Jesus...The simplistic view is met today however, in much ‘popular religion’ which lives in fear of breaking the rules lest some punishment be visited. Specifically it is expressed in Hinduism with its doctrine of karma, the notion that the immortal soul has to go on working out, in a whole series of lives, the consequences of its actions, so that good is rewarded by a ‘higher’ life in the next reincarnation, and evil punished by a ‘lower’. Hindu thought would therefore offer a further possible answer to the implied question in John 9:2: ‘Did he sin in a previous life?’ This eastern idea has permeated the West through the New Age movement, which in many of its popularizers embraces the idea of multiple lives, and links what happened in previous existences to problems faced in the here and now. The Bible fundamentally rejects such notions. (Milne, The Message of John (Bible Speaks Today), 137)

The disciples’ first suggestion is that the man himself sinned prenatally. There is later rabbinic reflection on prenatal sin (Hermann Leberecht Strack [1848-1922] and Paul Billerbeck [1853-1932], Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch 2:527-29).

J. Ramsey Michaels (b. 1931) explicates:

Behind the disciples’ question is not only the biblical notion that children are sometimes held accountable for the sins of their parents (e.g., Exodus 20:5; discussed and countered in Ezekiel 18:1-32), but the view proposed by certain rabbis that a child in the womb was already involved in sin (see, e.g., Genesis Rabbah 63, 6...based on Genesis 25:22 and Psalm 58:3). It is unlikely that Hellenistic ideas about the pre-existence of the soul contributed to the raising of the question. There is little evidence that such ideas were widely held in Judaism (cf., perhaps, Wisdom of Solomon 8:20) or that they were used to explain physical misfortune. (Michaels, (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series), 163)
Frederick Dale Bruner (b. 1932) speculates:
How could the man himself have previously sinned if he was born blind? Some interpreters said that one could sin pre-natally in the womb. (Remember Jacob and Esau struggling with each other in the womb of their mother Rebekah, Genesis 25:22 and Genesis 25:26, and the womb-knowing Lord of Psalm 58:3 and Jeremiah 1:5). (Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, 564)
Though not prevalent, this belief still has advocates. Some contemporary Christian counseling training courses espouse that people may suffer because of sins committed in utero.

The disciples’ other alternative is that the parents are at fault for their child’s blindness. There are several rabbinic passages which speak to this possibility (Canticles Rabbah 1.6§3; Ruth Rabbah 6.4; Targum Pseudo-Jonathan on Deuteronomy 21:20). For instance, if a pregnant woman worships in a pagan temple her unborn fetus was regarded as participating in the pagan rite (Canticles Rabbah, I.6,§3).

Gerald L. Borchert (b. 1932) investigates:

Like the disciples, the rabbis normally would have argued from their texts the basic thesis that an individual’s burden of sin (cf. Ezekiel 18:4, 20; Jeremiah 31:29-30) was the cause for illness. Such a view would relate personal distress to a person’s own acts of transgression, particularly if the person was an adult. In the case of children the issue was not totally clear, but the Palestinian Targum (on Deuteronomy 21:20) would seem to argue that it was the duty of parents to confess their transgressions for deviations of children. But that perspective was not fully determinative among the Jews. (Borchert, John 1-11 (The New American Commentary), 313)
A contemporary scientific example of a parent’s indiscretion resulting in the blindness of a child is the case of chlamydia conjunctivitis or trachoma, a leading cause of preventable blindness worldwide. A mother having the sexually transmitted disease chlamydia can infect her child’s eyes as the baby traverses the birth canal resulting in congenital blindness. While there is no cure for this condition, if the mother is given antibiotics prior to giving birth, the occurrence is preventable.

While some Scriptures appear to support the belief that congenital illness is the result of parental transgression, other passages in both the Old Testament and Second Temple literature strongly challenge the notion that children suffer for their parents’ sin (Jeremiah 31:29-30; Ezekiel 18:1-32; Tobit 3:3).

Beauford H. Bryant (1923-1997) and Mark S. Krause (b. 1955) document:

While it is correct that Scripture draws a connection between sin and physical suffering (see Exodus 20:5; Deuteronomy 28:15; Ezekiel 18:4), it is incorrect to conclude that each and every instance of physical ailment or disability is the direct result of sin. We know from our own experience that sinful lifestyle choices may lead to disease...but that certainly not all disease may be traced to sinful behavior...We all suffer because of our own sins, and because of the general sinfulness of our culture, but this does not mean that degree of disability or illness is a measure of a person’s moral failure. To hold such a view is a way to justify a lack of mercy and compassion to those who are suffering, since it assumes they suffer justly because of God’s punishment of sin. Elsewhere, Jesus refuses to accept such a theology of sin and suffering (Luke 13:2-5). (Bryant and Krause, John (The College Press NIV Commentary), 214)
Craig Groeschel (b. 1945) distinguishes:
Just because God can use what happens doesn’t mean he causes everything. God does cause some pain (Hebrews 12:7-11 talks about God “disciplining” his children), but much pain—especially that caused by the sins of other people—is not caused by God. He may allow it, but he doesn’t cause it. That’s an important distinction. Recognizing this fact might still leave us angry with him (and I’m guessing he probably understands when it’s a person in pain). We learn to overcome this anger as we get to know God. And as we do, we learn how to trust that he is still good, loving, and wise in everything he does, even if we don’t know why things happen. (Groeschel, The Christian Atheist: Believing in God but Living As If He Doesn’t Exist, 106)

Both of the disciples’ solutions carry implicit problems which may be why they felt the need to consult the rabbi. Herman N. Ridderbos (1909-2007) critiques:

Their reaction is a question of theodicy that assumes the dogma of direct relationship between sin and sickness (and misfortune in general). Naturally, in the case of a man born blind, that belief was problematic. For who then was the guilty party? Was there a way in which the man could be responsible? Just how that could be the disciples do not say. Perhaps that is precisely the subject on which they wanted Jesus’ opinion. Or were the parents guilty of sin and hence punished in their son? Apparently both possible assumptions produced problems in the minds of the disciples. Whether with these questions they intended to challenge the entire matter in which the rabbis made a direct connection between sin and sickness (and the like) is something we cannot say. But for the disciples of Jesus that would not be so strange. (Ridderbos, The Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary, 332-33)
In asking this question, the stakes are high. Thomas L. Brodie (b. 1940) unravels:
In this view such suffering appears to be a punishment, part of a process which seems implacable, even vindictive. What is at stake ultimately is the entire problem of evil, a problem which, insofar as it consists of sin, had just been attributed to the human will and then, even more fundamentally, to an underlying diabolical force (John 8:44). In that case Jesus had not denied the reality of sin and its diabolical roots, but he had gone on to set the evil in a positive context; he had moved from a negative emphasis to an emphasis on sinlessness and God (John 8:45-47), and so in a certain sense the image of evil was swallowed up in the image of a greater good...To a significant degree, that is what Jesus does here also. The issue now...is suffering rather than sin...He discounts the sin theory of the disciples, and he accepts the reality of the suffering in a positive context, a context wherein the virtually lifeless man is to reveal the works of God (John 9:3). (Brodie, The Gospel According to John: A Literary and Theological Commentary, 346)

Thankfully perspectives on illness have changed. Gerard Sloyan (b. 1919) cautions:

Great delicacy is required in preaching on this chapter effectively because the world of the first century was not alerted to the physically handicapped in the same way ours is. Using the blind and leprous as examples of the morally culpable or the spiritually insensitive may have been usual in those days. It is intolerable today. At the same time, the confusion over physical impairment and moral fault characteristic of that age still lingers. This means that this major theme of John 9 can be put to pulpit use with ease only by the exercise of consummate skill. (Sloyan, John (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching & Preaching), 113)
While attitudes toward the disabled have changed, many religious people today hold similar beliefs, albeit often tacitly. This often comes out as people attempt to make sense of the world around them and utter some variation of the question, “What did I do to deserve this?”

N.T. Wright (b. 1948) relates:

Thinking like this is a way of trying to hold on to a belief in God’s justice. If something in the world seems ‘unfair’, but if you believe in a God who is...all-powerful, all-loving and all-fair, one way of getting round the problem is to say that it only seems ‘unfair’, but actually isn’t. There was after all some secret sin being punished. This is a comfortable sort of thing to believe if you happen to be well-off, well fed and healthy in body and mind. (In other words, if nobody can accuse you of some secret previous sin.) (Wright, John For Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-10, 133)
D. Moody Smith (b. 1931) augments:
The belief that illness or misfortune is the result of sin (John 9:2-3) is an ancient one (cf. Exodus 20:5; Luke 13:1-5), and dies hard: “What did I do to deserve this?” It is important to maintain the moral balance of one’s personal universe. Jesus, however, rejects the notion that the man’s blindness is the result of sin (John 9:3; Luke 13:1-5; but cf. John 5:15; Mark 2:5, 9). But Jesus’ explanation for its existence is scarcely more acceptable to modern sensibilities (cf. John 11:4). (Smith, John (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries), 191)
The disciples view the blind man through old lenses and consequently their eyes are clouded by ancient religiosity. Their question about the man’s blindness reveals their own spiritual blindness. Lest we feel superior, we must remember that we are all blind to something and are in need of opening our eyes that we might see more clearly.

Is the disciples’ question unreasonable? Who is most blind in this passage? Which kind of “blindness” is harder to correct, physical or spiritual? When you see tragedy is your instinct to care or condemn? How are you blind; what notions do you have that could be incorrect? Why was the man born blind?

Jesus responds to the disciples but rejects their assumption and refuses to enter into such futile discussion. He evades generalities and instead speaks to the specific case at hand. After all, that is what they ask about (John 9:2).

The disciples, like many believers who have followed them, have framed their petition to Jesus poorly. Jesus refuses to confine his answer to their box. His response exposes the fallacy of their false dilemma. This is not an either/or proposition. They have neglected the tertium quid; there is another option. In bypassing their limitations, Jesus exonerates the man and his parents.

Instead, Jesus posits that through man’s condition, the “works of God” might be “displayed.” Stephen D. Renn defines “displayed”:

The verb phaneroō occurs about sixty times with the consistent meanings of “reveal” (i.e., cause to appear), “appear” throughout...The passive sense “to be revealed” is found in a number of places, occurring with reference to God’s work in the lives of human beings (cf. John 9:3); the righteousness of God (cf. Romans. 3:21); the love of God (cf. John 4:9); eternal life through God’s word (cf. Titus 1:3); the life of Jesus in the bodies, lives of believers (cf. II Corinthians 4:10ff; Colossians 3:4); and the mystery of Christ and the gospel, communicated to the saints (cf. Colossians 1:26; I Timothy 3:16; II Timothy 1:10; I Peter 1:20; I John 1:2). The revelation of Christ to Israel is indicated in John 1:31; and to the world at large at the end of the age in I Peter 5:4; I John 2:28, 3:2). (Renn, Expository Dictionary of Bible Words: Word Studies for Key English Bible Words Based on the Hebrew And Greek Texts, 47)
The translation of Jesus’ phrasing is highly problematic. The man’s blindness happened “but that” (ASV, ESV, KJV, NKJV, RSV), “so that” (HCSB, NIV, NASB, NRSV) or “so the” (NLT) workings of God might be displayed (John 9:3). The nuance makes all the difference; from the causal “so that” to the more purposeful “but that”. “So that” could imply that God subjected a bystander to years of blindness for the sole purpose of producing later divine glory. The varying thoughts also shift the underlying focus from predestination to opportunity.

Charles H. Talbert (b. 1934) delineates:

Jesus’ answer is different depending upon the punctuation preferred. (a) “It was neither this man nor his parents who sinned, but that the works of God might be manifested in him. It is necessary for us to work the works of the one who sent while it is day. Night is coming when no one is able to work.” Here the blindness is not due to human sin, but it exists to heighten the glory of God’s acts (e.g., Exodus 7:3-5; John 11:4). Given this purpose, Jesus needs to do the works of God. (b) “It was neither this man nor his parents who sinned. But in order that the works of God might be made manifest in him, it is necessary for us to work the works of the one who sent me while it is day. Night is coming when no one is able to work.” Here blindness is not due to human sin, but no other explanation for it is given. Since the problem exists (for whatever reason), there is a divine necessity for Jesus to do God’s work so that it may be manifest in the man...Either way, the text does not function as Jesus’ exclusion of sin as a cause of suffering in all cases...Only in this particular case is sin as a cause excluded. The major difference is that the first option gives an alternative explanation for the cause of the blindness, while the second does not. (Talbert, Reading John: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Fourth Gospel and Johannine Epistles, 164)

Linguistically, both are viable possibilities. Ben Witherington III (b. 1951) asserts:

The question to be raised about John 9:3 is whether we are being told that the man was born blind for the purpose of revealing God’s work in his life, or that he was born blind and the result of this is that God has chosen to reveal his work in this man’s life. I suspect the latter, which is grammatically quite possible, is meant here, in which case we are not being told that God caused a person to be born blind just to use him as an illustration of divine power later in life. The man’s blindness will be made to serve God’s larger purposes; it will be the occasion for God to reveal his works. One should compare what is said of the case of Lazarus in John 11:4. (Witherington, John’s Wisdom: A Commentary on the Fourth Gospel, 182-83)
Gary M. Burge (b. 1952) determines:
Most English translations invite gross confusion with Jesus’ answer. The NIV reads: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” It hardly takes a careful reader to see the theological implications following this line of thought: God brought suffering to this man so that he might glorify himself in his healing. While a sound theology cannot doubt God’s sovereignty to do as he pleases, thoughtful Christians may see this as a cruel fate in which God inflicts pain on people simply to glorify himself...However, the “purpose clause” of John 9:3b (“so that the work of God...”) can just as well be applied to John 9:4, and no doubt it should. Such clauses (introduced by Greek hina) may begin the main sentence rather than follow it. Of eleven uses of the Greek all’ hina (“but so that,” John 9:3b) in John, four of them precede their main sentence (John 1:31, 13:18, 14:31, 15:25). If John 9:2-4 follows this pattern, we may translate it as follows: “‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned,’ said Jesus. ‘But so that the work of God might be displayed in his life, we must do the work of him who sent me while it is still day.’”...The purpose clause now explains that Jesus must work so that God’s work may be displayed in this man’s life. God had not made the man blind in order to show his glory; rather God has sent Jesus to do works of healing in order to show his glory. The theological nuance of the two translations cannot be more different. (Burge, John (The NIV Application Commentary), 272-73)
F.F. Bruce (1910-1990) concurs:
The clause ‘that he should be born blind’ has in Greek the form of a purpose clause (hina with the subjunctive) but the sense requires us to take it as a clause of result. On the other hand, the clause in Jesus’ reply, ‘that the works of God might be manifested...’ (again hina with the subjunctive) is a clause of purpose in meaning as well as in form...The purpose of his blindness was that a divine work should be wrought in him and the divine glory be revealed (as it is revealed in all the ‘signs’ of this Gospel). This does not mean that God deliberately caused the child to be born blind in order that, after many years, his glory should be displayed in the removal of the blindness; to think so would again be an aspersion on the character of God. It does mean that God overruled the disaster of the child’s blindness so that, when the child grew to manhood, he might, by recovering his sight, see the glory of God in the face of Christ, and others, seeing this work of God, might turn to the true Light of the World. (Bruce, The Gospel of John, 209)
Theologically, the differing translations transition from what Leslie Weatherhead (1893-1976) classified as the “intentional will of God” to the “circumstantial will of God”: God uses a negative situation for God’s purposes but did not originally plan for the situation to exist.

Regardless of one’s interpretation of the purpose clause, Jesus’ retort disconnects the man’s blindness from sin. Jesus, however, does not claim the man is without sin or that there is never a connection between sin and suffering.

D.A. Carson (b. 1946) clarifies:

Although Jesus does not disavow the generalizing connection between sin and suffering, he completely disavows a universalizing of particular connections. In this instance, he insists that neither this man nor his parents sinned. Rather, this happened so that the work [literally ‘works’] of God might be displayed in his life. Formally, the concluding clause could be taken as a result clause (‘with the result that’) or a purpose clause (‘in order that’); either way, John certainly does not think that the occurrence of blindness from birth was outside the sweep of God’s control, and therefore of his purpose. (Carson, The Gospel according to John (Pillar New Testament Commentary), 362)
Jesus’ response turns the disciples’ attention from the blame game to God’s creative work, from the blind to the One who gives sight.

Gail R. O’ Day (b. 1954) observes:

Jesus’ answer indicates that the disciples’ question is not the right way to see what is before them. The disciples ask about the cause of the blindness; Jesus answers about the purpose. (O’Day, The Word Disclosed: Preaching the Gospel of John, 67)
Anthony J. Kelly (b. 1938) and Francis J. Moloney (b. 1940) appraise:
Jesus refuses to accept their theological judgment of the situation, with its easy imputation of guilt to the sufferer and of vindictive justice to God. He brings his disciples back to the fundamental truth of what the Father is doing. The true God does not legitimate negative judgment on a suffering human being. The God of salvation is at work within the darkness and blindness shrouding the human condition. In what Jesus will do, God is revealing himself (John 9:3). God’s works are not aimed at judgment, but to bring healing, enlightenment, and new birth into the otherwise hopeless situation of the sufferer. Despite the darkness gathering around him, and the obscurity that will inevitably affect all human beings, Jesus, “the light of the world,” associates his disciples with him in his light-giving mission to the world: “We must work the works of him who sent me.” (John 9:4). (Kelly and Moloney, Experiencing God in the Gospel of John, 206)
Rodney A. Whitacre (b. 1949) applies:
We should not be concerned with assigning blame. Trying to figure out the source of suffering in an individual’s life is futile given our limited understanding, as the book of Job should teach us. (Whitacre, John (IVP New Testament Commentary), 236)
As usual, Jesus serves as a model. Max Lucado (b. 1955) applauds:
What a perspective! The man wasn’t a victim of fate; he was a miracle waiting to happen. Jesus didn’t label him. He helped him. Jesus was more concerned about the future than the past. (Lucado, A Gentle Thunder: Hearing God Through the Storm, 160)
In doing so, Jesus removes all dichotomic categories by which the disciples attempt to understand their world (e.g. righteous/sinner, insider/outsider, etc.). Thomas G. Long (b. 1946) discloses:
Blindness is connected in the minds of the citizens of this community with sinfulness. Blindness is a manifestation of sin, so the blind man is more than just a “blind man”; he is the community’s “designated sinner.”...Even Jesus’ disciples accepted this moral world...What Jesus said points not just to a different attitude but to a different moral world, and what happened next is astonishing. Like God in Genesis, Jesus bent down and took mud and created a new world and a new humanity. (Dave Fleer [b. 1953] and Dave Bland [b. 1953], Preaching John's Gospel: The World It Imagines, 55)
The disciples see only a blind man and wonder why he is blind. Jesus sees the same man and envisions ministry and a way to glorify God.

David Rensberger (b. 1948) concludes:

Theodicy here is the disciples’ interest, and Jesus’ answer says that it is the wrong one. Grammatically, he changes the man’s blindness from a result to a cause. The disciples’ question, and the viewpoint behind it, are rejected altogether. They see suffering as an occasion for moralizing about the victim. Jesus sees it as an occasion for doing the works of God, that is, for relieving the suffering. John refuses the question of technical theodicy and points instead to the need that the works of God should be “made manifest,” that they should appear, and therefore that what they are should also appear. The “work of God,” it turns out, is not punishing sinners with suffering but overcoming suffering. (Rensberger, Johannine Faith and Liberating Community, 44)
Jesus gives sight to the blind and ensures that darkness and blindness do not get the last word (John 9:6-7). As the light of the world (Matthew 5:14) and Jesus’ representatives on earth, it is the job of Christians to similarly counter suffering in the world. A good way to start is to view everyone we encounter as nothing less than a miracle waiting to happen.

How do you explain prenatal maladies? When something horrible happens, do you try to assign blame? Is their always a connection between sin and suffering? When have you asked a misguided question? When have you been so blinded by your religious understanding and traditions that you missed a ministry opportunity? Are you cooperating with God so that his works might be displayed in you?

“Judgments prevent us from seeing the good that lies beyond appearances.” - Wayne W. Dyer (b. 1940)

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