“So that God’s works might be revealed…”
In John 9, Jesus’ disciples ask a question rooted in a dangerous and perverse notion: physical ailments and other hardships are the result of sin. In this view, apparently espoused by some 1st century Jewish thinkers (likely the author of John’s ideological opponents) and still touted explicitly or implicitly by adherents of various religions today, the moral calculus of the universe is straightforward: bad things happen to bad people, while the virtuous are rewarded. The second part of this equation is preached as a sort of theologized self-help thesis, “Be good and God will bless you!” Also known as the prosperity gospel, this idea has sold a lot of books for certain Christian figures, most of whom shy away from the obvious corollary -- if bad things happen, you’ve done something wrong.
That is the assumption that the disciples appear to be operating under in John 9:2. They have encountered a congenitally blind man (how they know he has been “blind from birth” is unclear) while traveling. They ask Jesus: “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus subverts the question by replying that neither the man nor his parents sinned, and that in fact the reason for the man’s blindness is positive rather than negative. He was born blind “so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”
As interpreters, we run into problems here. Certainly, Jesus’ explanation for the man’s blindness is more sympathetic and coherent than the assumption at the heart of the disciples’ question. But while Jesus’ explanation isn’t condemnatory or, frankly, horrific like the “somebody must have done wrong” assumption, it still leaves us with troubling questions. The blind man, who is never named, but only referred to as “the blind man” or “the man,” serves as a narratological prop. He is only in the story, it seems, to give Jesus a chance to show off. If Jesus’ explanation is taken at face value, the blind man has lived his entire life enduring untold hardship due to his disability—just to show God’s power in the story.
We must also read this passage in light of our disabled siblings in Christ today. It is difficult not to read the passage as ableist in a more general sense, in addition to having troubling implications for the life of the individual in the story. For disabled persons of all kinds who have had to struggled to gain acceptance as whole persons, and who may find both identity and community in their shared experience of disability, this passage offers little support. The implication is that once Jesus gives the man sight, his problems are solved. How do we relate to such a message when miracle healings of this kind are not part of our daily experience?
On its face, Jesus’ response to the disciples, and the narrative that follows, seems to take us out of the frying pan and into the warming drawer. Perhaps John’s Jesus succumbs to the all-too-human tendency to search for a simple resolution where perhaps there is none. I may prove guilty of the same, but I would like to suggest a more holistic view of this passage.
In and around John 9, the author of John is constantly relating scenarios in which the religious authorities and attitudes of the day hold someone to be at fault, to be guilty of some sin or other. At times the supposed sinner is Jesus himself; at others it is the blind man and/or his parents, the Samaritan Woman (John 4), the Woman caught in adultery (John 8), or others. In every case, the established view of who is a sinner is subverted. In chapter 4, Jesus subverts ethnocentrism by asking a drink from and talking at length with the Samaritan Woman. In chapter 8, Jesus turns the mirror of the angry mob’s “righteous anger” back on them, telling the Woman they were about to stone, “Neither do I condemn you.” In the story of the blind man, Jesus lifts up a beggar, insisting that far from having been punished with blindness, this man—not the authorities who disregard him—holds a revelation of God’s power. This is why, in the remainder of chapter 9, the religious authorities are so vexed by Jesus healing of this man. It isn’t just that they have it in for Jesus and any demonstration of his power, and incident that increases his influence makes them nervous. It’s also that he has subverted their regime. Blind beggars aren’t supposed to be important, they are! Jesus cares about the wrong people! He’s setting adulterers and ethnic minorities and the disabled above the priestly class! This is why John’s Pharisees are so enraged by Jesus, so convinced that he cannot be of God; he’s upsetting the established order. It’s quite possible that they would be fine with him performing miracles, but he doesn’t go through the proper channels. He talks to and hangs out with and makes positive examples out of the wrong people.
Here is where Jesus has been one step ahead of us the whole time. The healing in John 9 was not about him showing off in the first place. The religious authorities assume that the healing constituted Jesus performing a “sign” to show his own holiness and power, but they are missing the point. Jesus is making a statement not about himself, but about the wheres, hows, and whos of how God operates. He is making a statement about the Blind Man:
God works among the erstwhile lowly. God brings about change in and through the least advantaged and the most condemned. God foregrounds those who have been on the margins and excludes the excluders. That may not be good news to the Pharisees in John 9, but it is good news.