Faith and Thought

The Once-Blind Man

“It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed 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.”

As Jesus is leaving the Temple in Jerusalem, to avoid a crowd trying to stone him, he passes by a blind man. It’s a clunky transition but the blind man’s story is part of a longer narrative about light and dark. Jesus has been teaching during the feast of Tabernacles, when people camped in leafy shelters on roofs and in fields. The feast lasted 7 days and Jesus is forced to leave during the Sabbath. During this holiday, bowls of oil are lit and the light shined throughout Jerusalem. It’s the perfect opportunity for John to mention the healing of a man who was blind from birth.

When Jesus’ disciples see the blind man they ask Jesus whether it was the blind man or the parents whose sin caused his disability. In ancient near eastern Judaism, people saw a connection between sin and suffering. Modern readers are not immune from this kind of logic. Especially with issues of mental health, people can accuse parents of failing to raise their children correctly, or blame children for the inconvenient ways mental illness can portray itself in public.

Jesus’ reply, written above, is unexpected. He neither blames the parents or the man himself for his blindness. Instead, Jesus makes a puzzling remark, “but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” What exactly Jesus intended when he says this has been an issue of debate. This is usually translated to mean that the man is blind so God could heal him. It’s an unfortunate translation, especially for the blind man, because it puts him in the position of being disabled by God just so God can glorify himself through the healing. However, that is not the only way we have to read this text. Instead of connecting this portion of text with the first part of what Jesus says, we can connect it to the remaining portion of Jesus’ thought.[1] It would read like this:

“But that the works of God might be displayed 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.”

Moving the clause, “But that” (ἀλλ’ ἵνα) to the beginning of a sentence instead of the middle occurs four other times in John (John 1:31; 13:18; 14:31; 15:25). Here is an example:

“I am not referring to all of you; I know those I have chosen. But this (ἀλλ’ ἵνα) is to fulfill this passage of Scripture: ‘He who shared my bread has turned against me.’” (John 13:18)

Placing the statement in front changes what Jesus is saying here. Instead of implying that God blinded a man so that he could heal him, Jesus is saying that neither the blind man nor his parents sinned. He doesn’t answer the question as to the origin of the man’s blindness. Instead Jesus heals the man so that God’s power might be displayed in him. If we read the rest of the story we see that is what happens.

After the healing, people are amazed by the miracle and they bring the once-blind man to the Pharisees. These politically powerful leaders questioned the man and his family about the healing. After repeated questioning and the man’s consistent story that Jesus had healed him, he rebuffs their continued barrage. This throws the Pharisees into a fit of anger and in defense they claim the heritage of Moses and deny Jesus. Before these religious leaders the once-blind man remarks at the curiosity that these religious men claim a relationship with God but do not know Jesus whom God had used to heal him. It’s in this spark of wisdom we see God’s glory manifested for a second time. A once-blind man, who sat in the street, labeled a sinner, is empowered to stand before the religious elite and proclaim the power of God in Jesus. For the first time in this man’s life since birth he is living as the person God intended him to be.

The point: Don’t allow others or yourself, to define you by your disabilities. God has more in store for us than we believe.

[1] Gary Burge, John, The NIV Apllication Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), under “5542,” Kindle.

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