Chapter nine of John’s Gospel tells of Jesus’ encounter with a man born blind. There are a couple main questions implicit in this reading: why is the man born blind, and what has Jesus come to do?
Jesus’ disciples want to know the reason for this man’s blindness. So, they ask Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Behind this question is the assumption that this man is being punished for sin, either his own or his parents’ sin. Surely, they think, this man is being punished by God and that’s why he’s blind.
That’s actually the way a lot of the world thinks or wonders. We normally want to know why things happen, particularly bad things. Why was this man born blind, why did this other person die, why did this terrorist attack happen, why did this plane crash? These types of questions may then lead us to wonder things like: does God not care, is God not good, is God powerless to stop these things?
As we struggle with these types of questions, what happens a lot of times is that we’re tempted to speak for God in explaining these types of events. Maybe God doesn’t care, maybe God is punishing us, maybe God can’t solve the world’s problems. The thing is, though, when we attempt to speak for God and explain His actions where He Himself has not clearly spoken, what we end up doing is interjecting our own words and thoughts into the conversation, rather than trusting in God.
What I mean is that our Christian understanding of who God is rests on three basic tenets or premises. First, we believe that God is all powerful; He as the almighty Lord God and Creator of all things can do whatever He wills. Second, we believe that God is good; He desires the best for His creatures. Third, we believe that God knows everything and is everywhere; He can know and see everything everywhere because He is outside of creation and outside of time, which is also a part of His creation. But, in spite of the fact that God is all powerful, that He is all good, and that He is all knowing and omnipresent, we still have decay, death, and evil in this world. How can this be?
Now, typically, in trying to explain the presence of evil or why bad things happen, people tend to speak for God. And in the process they undermine – either purposely or inadvertently – at least one of these three pillars of what we believe about God; that He’s all powerful, all good, and all-knowing and all-present. Re-read the Old Testament book of Job sometime and see how Job’s so-called friends do this when they try to explain the reason behind Job’s suffering. They speak a lot about God, but they don’t actually speak to God to ask Him.
Jesus’ disciples, though, ask Jesus why this man was born blind. They’re at least seeking answers from the one who can give proper answers. What does Jesus say in response, though, when his disciples ask him whose sin caused this man to be born blind? As in many cases in the Gospels, he basically side-steps the false premise of their question – the premise that the man’s blindness is a punishment from God. Instead, Jesus says, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.”
Here it’s important to note that Jesus isn’t really saying that God made this man blind so that Jesus could heal him and display his power. You’ll hear a lot of people interpret this passage this way, and even some Bible translations will “fill-in” the blanks with words that seem to make sense, but which Jesus doesn’t actually say. Instead, what Jesus is saying here is that because this man was born blind, Jesus can display his power to heal.
It’s a subtle distinction, but it’s important. Jesus still isn’t really explaining why the man was born blind. So, our first question I raised earlier is still unanswered. Why was this man born blind? We don’t know; God doesn’t tell us, and that’s ok, we don’t need to feel like we need to have all the answers, let God worry about it.
However, since the man was born blind, we can see the work of God through what Jesus is about to do. And that gets to the second question I raised earlier; what has Jesus come to do? He’s come to give sight to the blind and heal and restore his fallen creation. He is Lord over creation, God incarnate, come into His creation to fix it.
As it says in Isaiah 42:14-21, for a long time the Lord had held his peace and waited, but now he has come, crying out like a woman in labor, gasping and panting to bring about a new creation. After many long generations of prophets, the Lord has come in the flesh to heal and restore his creation, and we see it with what Jesus does to this blind man. He’s come in the fulfillment of all the Old Testament promises, begun in Genesis 3:15 with the promise to Adam and Eve of the coming “seed of the woman.” So, now this seed is here. Jesus is showing that God is all powerful, all good, and all-knowing and ever present; despite the presence of evil in the world that might cause us to think otherwise. Jesus has come into his fallen world to heal it and restore it. And this begins with the giving of sight to the blind.
So, then Jesus mixes his spit with the dirt of the ground to make mud. And he anoints the man’s eyes with this mud and then tells him to go and wash in the pool of Siloam in Jerusalem. The man does it and he can now see; he has been cured of his blindness. What we’re seeing here is God working through His creation. Not only does He come down to us in the flesh, Jesus Christ, and thus sanctify our humanity, but He also works through His creation to heal us. Jesus uses the spit and mud that God had created in order to heal the man born blind.
Likewise, God also uses His creation to heal the rest of us born blind. We were born in sin, blind to God, and yet God has come to us to give us sight so that we may behold him through faith. So in Baptism, He combines His Word with the water He created in order to give us the benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection. And with the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper he continues to come to us in flesh and blood. Jesus had told his disciples, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (John 9:5). And Jesus is still in the world through these means of grace that we, as the Church and Christ’s body, bear to the rest of the world because the world needs the light of Christ and his healing. The world needs eyes to see that can only be opened through Christ.
So, this truth – that we are all born blind and need the light of Christ to give us the sight to see that we need forgiveness and healing – is what the rest of the text from John 9 is getting at. After Jesus heals the blind man, the man is hauled in front of the Pharisees to explain. They don’t believe that he was born blind, so they then call in his parents to confirm it. The parents tell the Pharisees to talk to their son directly since he’s old enough to answer for himself. They are afraid of getting thrown out of the synagogue for saying that it is Jesus who has healed their son, so they push the problem off onto their son – there’s some quality parenting right there.
So, the Pharisees call the man before them again and ask him how he was healed. After much questioning, the man says that Jesus is from God and that he proved this through the fact that he gave him his sight; only the Lord over creation could heal and re-create in this way. This makes the Pharisees angry and they say to the man, “You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us?” Here’s a truthful phrase from the Pharisees: the man was born in utter sin. But, so were the Pharisees, and so were were. And who brings forgiveness of this sin and gives us sight to behold his light? It’s Jesus.
But, the Pharisees reject Jesus, and so they cast the healed man out of the synagogue. The Pharisees believed that they were not sinners. They didn’t perceive their own blindness. But, this formerly blind man, the one “born in utter sin” has received sight from Christ and now beholds him through faith.
And this is seen in what follows. Jesus finds the man after he is cast out of the synagogue and tells the man that he, Jesus, is the Son of Man, which indicates the promised Messiah or Christ. Jesus is the one that God had promised to send and in whom all of God’s promises find their fulfillment. In response, the man says, “I believe” and worships Jesus. This is the response of faith to God’s Word; God gives, and we receive and then respond in praise and thanksgiving. This man received his sight as a free gift of God’s grace and responds in faith, even as we receive our sight as a free gift of God’s grace and respond in faith to this gift.
Then, at the end of this reading from John we come to a great Law/Gospel text. Jesus says, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind” (Jesus 9:39). This reflects what God had said through the prophet Isaiah. To those who are blind – those who are blind to their own sense of self-righteousness and trust not in their own works or merits to be saved – God says of them, “… I will lead the blind in a way that they do not know, in paths that they have not known I will guide them. I will turn the darkness before them into light, the rough places into level ground. These are the things I do, and I do not forsake them” (Isaiah 42:16). God promises that those who have recognized themselves as the blind in need of sight will be given this sight through the light of Christ. He will heal blind sinners through Christ as a free gift of His grace, and then these formerly blind will look upon God through Christ and then walk in the light, doing works of light, rather than works of darkness.
Conversely, to those who believe that they are not sinners and that they are not blind – those who rely on their own sense of self-righteousness to be saved – God says of them, “… He sees many things, but does not observe them; his ears are open, but he does not hear” (Isaiah 42:20). God says that those who do not repent and do not recognize that by nature they are spiritually blind will not see or hear the Word of God. They remain in the darkness. They do not recognize the Gospel because they do not recognize their own sin. After all, what does the Good News of the free forgiveness of sins for the sake of Christ mean to those who do not think that they are sinners, to those who do not perceive their own blindness? What does the light mean to those who are accustomed to the darkness and reject the light?
So, Jesus tells the self-righteous Pharisees, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains” (John 9:41). If the Pharisees had recognized their spiritual blindness, then they would have received Christ’s healing. But, since they claim to not be spiritually blind, their guilt remains because they are still trusting in their own sight, rather than in the light of Christ.
So, to get back to the original two questions again: why was this man born blind and what has Jesus come to do? I often think of our relationship to God as being similar to a child’s relationship to his parents. What does a child know of his parents? He knows only what his parents have revealed to him. I myself have revealed to my own children only what I want them to know and only what I know they can handle. Some things are too much for them to handle and are instead for me as their father to worry about.
Similarly, we can only know what our Heavenly Father Himself has revealed to us. We can not know His hidden thoughts or His hidden will, we can only know what He has told us. Some things are not for us to know and some things we could probably not handle, so we must let our loving Father in heaven worry about them.
So, despite what we see in the world – all manner of decay, death, and evil – we are called to hold to the goodness and power and presence of God revealed to us through Christ. Where God has not spoken, we should not try to fill the void with our own words.
Through faith in Christ we hold to what God has clearly revealed and spoken: that He is all powerful, that He is good and loves His creation, and that He knows everything and is present everywhere. And we see this power, goodness, and presence in Jesus Christ. He came in the flesh to restore his fallen creation. He died and rose to forgive you of your sins, so that we who were “born in utter sin” will not perish in this sin, but rather receive eternal life.
Jesus is with us now through Word and Sacrament, continuing to shine His light upon us so that we may shine it upon others. And we know that the decay, death, and evil that we see now in the world will one day be removed; it’s not going to last. For, Jesus has promised to completely and fully restore all things on the Last Day when he returns for the resurrection. He has already defeated sin, death, and the devil on the cross and empty tomb; so, at the resurrection of the dead, these will be no more, but only the Lord and His redeemed, healed, and restored people – you – will remain. And you will dwell in the redeemed, healed, and restored creation forever.
This is a faith that puts humanity in its proper relation to God. He is our Creator and all we know of Him is what He Himself has revealed to us. And this is a faith that looks beyond what we see now with our eyes to lay hold of the promise of Christ. This is the light of faith that comes to us when Christ opens our eyes to remove us from “utter sin.” We may not always have all the answers, but we have the most important answer – that all of God’s promises find their “Yes” in Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, the one who came to heal our blindness and give us sight so that we may behold him through faith. He is also the one returning again to complete his promises to us in the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting.
(Image: “Healing of the Blind Man” (1871) by Carl Bloch; Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Healing_of_the_Blind_Man_by_Jesus_Christ.jpg)