This weekend we celebrate the 4th Sunday in Lent . In yesterday’s post we considered the purpose of miracles (signs) in the fourth gospel. Today, we will see how St. John treats the category of “sin.” 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. 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).

Digging a little deeper, we can turn to the Old Testament to see how sin is understood. Based on Ex 20:5 and Dt 5:9 it is understood that God promises to punish “children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation,” and so it was believed, e.g. a birth defect must have been the result of parent’s (or grandparent’s) sin. This seems counter to text from 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” But the conclusion might surprise you: 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 two views are neatly summarized: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

Jesus answered, “Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him. We have to do the works of the one who sent me while it is day. Night is coming when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” (John 9:3-5)

The response seems to move away from conventional moral categories off the table and redirect the conversation to a theological or evangelical category. Theological in that the measure is one’s response to the revelation of God in Jesus  – which for John is at the heart and purpose of the signs. The man’s blindness is not a source point for reflection on sin and causality, but serves the moment as a means of revelation. 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). Neither can we assume that because the Pharisees 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.

It gives us a point around which to consider how we think about sin.

On a lighter vein, when Jesus begins the external actions that form the “sign” he uses the good things of nature that God has provided: “When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made clay with the saliva, and smeared the clay on his eyes.” (John 9:6) Brian Stoffregen provided an interesting insight about “after the miracle” – an interesting commentary on the human condition.

“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.”

Image credit: Healing of the Man Born Blind, El Greco, 1567, Public Domain

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