Sin in the Gospel according to John. John seems to understand sin in a way that accents a singular aspect in a way that deserves mention. Words for “sin” occur often in our text: hamartano = “to sin” (9:2, 3; elsewhere in John: 5:14 & 8:11); hamartia = “sin” (9:34, 41); hamartolos = “sinner” (9:16, 24, 25, 31 — all the occurrences in John). The question is does John’s discussion match the discussion of hamartia in the other gospels?
In our passage, the concept of sin will be quickly introduced via the disciples’ question in v.2 : “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” This reflects traditional Jewish speculation on the relationship of illness and sin (cf. 5:14). In 1st century Palestine, people commonly assumed that disease and disorders on both the personal and national level were due to sin, as summarized in the rabbinic saying from around 300 CE that “there is no death without sin and there is no suffering without iniquity” (b. shabbat 55a).
Consider the biblical text underlying 1st century thought: (a) Based on Ex 20:5 and Dt 5:9 where God promises to punish “children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation,” e.g., a birth defect must have been the result of parent’s (or grandparent’s) sin. (b) Based on Ezekiel 18:20: “A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent, nor a parent suffer for the iniquity of a child; the righteousness of the righteous shall be his own, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be his own” – a birth defect must have been the result of sins committed in the womb by the child. The rabbis debated whether fetuses could sin, some arguing they could (for example, Genesis Rabbah 63:6) and others that they could not (Genesis Rabbah 34:10) – a line of reasoning because of the enmity between Jacob and Esau in the womb. These seem to have been two views present in Jesus’ day.
But Jesus’ words in vv.3-5 turn the conversation away from the disciples’ conventional theodicy concerns. In the Fourth Gospel, “sin” is not a moral category about behavior, but is a theological category about one’s response to the revelation of God in Jesus (8:21, 24; cf. 9:39-41; 16:9) – which for John is the heart of the semeia. The man’s blindness is not an occasion for reflection on sin and causality, but is an occasion with revelatory significance. The “need” that evokes the miracle, then, is not the man’s blindness, but the need for God’s works to be made manifest. It is interesting to compare Jesus’ words in v. 3 with the framing of the Cana miracle story in 2:1-11. In that story, the revelatory dimension of the miracle is brought out explicitly at the end (2:11), but here the reader is told what to look for before the miracle occurs.
In a number of ways, Jesus challenges the common perception of sin:
- First of all, Jesus challenges the thinking that suffering was the direct result of sin. He says that it is neither (v.3; although 5:14 seems to suggest that sin and suffering are connected). Neither can it be assumed that because the Pharisees are healthy and have normal vision, that they are sinless.
- Secondly, he challenges the thinking that sinfulness is directly related to obeying the sabbath laws. Jesus does what is expressly forbidden – kneading; yet we know he is not a sinner. Neither can it be assumed that because the Pharisees perfectly obey the sabbath laws that they are sinless.
- Thirdly, he challenges the thinking that neither God nor the righteous (Pharisees) should listen to sinners (v.34). Certainly God listened to the supposedly sinner Jesus and the Pharisees should have listened to the formerly blind man. Neither can we assume that because the Pharisees (or clergy!) appear to be righteous, that God listens to them more than to sinners or that they speak for God any more than sinners can speak for God.
Healing the Blind. On a final note, before we begin, Brian Stoffregen wrote the following and it is worth repeating here: “It has been suggested that the origins of denominations occurred when the healed blind men met each other. At first they were all excited about the miracle of sight that Jesus had given them, but as they talked about how Jesus had healed them, they began to discover some significant differences. For some, the healing came with simply a touch from Jesus (Mt 9:29 ; 20:34 ). Another proudly boasted that he had enough faith so that Jesus didn’t have to touch him to perform the miracle (Mk 10:52 ). Another meekly exclaimed that Jesus not only touched him twice, but also “spit on his eyes” in order for him to see clearly (Mk 8:23 ). The final one really felt embarrassed to admit that even though a touch wasn’t part of his healing, Jesus’ “spit” wasn’t enough. Jesus had mixed his saliva with dirt and put the mud on his eyes and then told him to go and wash in some pool of water (Jn 9:6-7 ). Since each one thought his healing was normal and better than the others, they divided into spittites and non-spittites; muddites and non-muddites; touchites and non-touchites. Denominationalism was born.”
- Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, vol. 29a in The Anchor Bible, eds. William Albright and David Freeman (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1966) 368-82
- David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1996): Harold Remus, Miracle (NT), 4:856-70
- Brian Stoffregen, CrossMarks scripture notes at http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/
- Scripture quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. © 1991, 1986, 1970