Today, filled with the Holy Spirit who came upon them at Pentecost, “Peter looked straight at him, as did John” (v. 4). “Looked straight at” translates a Greek word which means to stare with intent purpose. It is the same word used of the disciples as they stared at Jesus during his Ascension (Acts 1.10: “they were looking intently up into the sky”). It is the same word used of Stephen as he stared into heaven during his martyrdom (Acts 7.55: “Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God”). These men are now controlled by the Spirit of Jesus. They see what he saw.
We can tell how close we are to Jesus by the degree to which we love those he loves. The first “fruit of the Spirit,” the first result of the Spirit at work in our lives, is love (Galatians 5.22). The first commandment is that we love God, and the second is that we fulfill the first by loving our neighbor (Matthew 22.37, 39). When was the last time you stepped out of your routine to see someone as Jesus does?
Be practical (vs. 2-3)
The disciples followed their Master’s gaze, but for a very different reason. He saw a man in personal pain; they saw a theological question. He stopped to heal this man; they stopped to use him as an example for their theological discussion: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (v. 2).
Before we listen to Jesus’ answer, first let’s explore their question, lest we ask it ourselves. The rabbis taught that suffering is the result of sin: “There is no death without sin, and there is no suffering without iniquity” (Rabbi Ammi, in Shab. 55a, cited in Morris 478). First-century Judaism assumed that suffering was proof of divine wrath, and prosperity proof of his pleasure and reward. Such logic is not confined to ancient Judaism—every world religion holds an aspect of its claim.
Hindus believe in the law of karma, the idea that our present suffering is punishment for wrongs we committed in a previous lifetime. According to Gautama Buddha’s “First Sermon at Benares,” all suffering is due to wrong desire. Newspaper accounts following the Columbia tragedy quoted al-Qaeda sympathizers as attributing the disaster to America’s sins against Allah.
In Christian theology, the disciples’ question has been most fully formulated by St. Augustine. His “theodicy” (an account of evil in the light of God’s goodness and power) attributes suffering to the misuse of our free will. God created us to worship him; worship requires freedom; when we misuse this freedom, the consequences are not God’s fault but ours.
Often Augustine is right. I’ve seen marriages end because of adultery; I’ve buried alcoholics who died of cirrhosis of the liver; I’ve known drug users who contracted AIDS; I’ve watched students who didn’t study fail the test and then blame God or me. I know of suffering in my life which has come from my sins. You do too.
The disciples didn’t doubt that the man’s congenital blindness was the result of sin. They only want to know who to blame: “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9.2). It’s hard to understand how they could believe that a man’s blindness at birth could be his own fault, but many people did. The authorities would later say to this man, “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!” (John 9.34). Some Jews thought that a person could sin while still in the mother’s womb (cf. Psalm 51.5, “Surely I was sinful at birth”). Some knew the Greek idea that the soul preexisted the body (Barclay 38), and tied it to Jeremiah 1.5, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you” and Psalm 58.3, “Even from birth the wicked go astray; from the womb they are wayward and speak lies” (cf. Beasley-Murray 155). So the disciples certainly believed this man’s blindness could be his own fault.
If not his, it must be his parents’. The Jews remembered God’s warning, “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of their fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exodus 20.5-6). So the disciples were curious, not compassionate. They assumed that this man deserves his fate, and had no interest in helping him avoid it. They rushed to judgment, with no idea that the ones they judged were really themselves.
Jesus cleared up their confusion: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life” (John 9.3). Some suffering is the result of sin, but such was not the case here. Much of the world’s grief and pain is not the result of anyone’s sin or failure. Remember Job’s plight; think of the Columbia astronauts and their noble quest; remember Jesus’ innocent crucifixion. To attribute all suffering to sin often increases the suffering of the innocent.
Helen Spinks was one of the most godly people I’ve ever known. She suffered with cancer all the years I knew her in Midland, and eventually died of the disease. We were talking one day shortly before the end, and I asked her the hardest part of her ordeal. She looked at me through pain-wracked eyes and told me about all the people who had told her that if she would just repent of her sins she would be healed. She wasn’t bitter about them, but I was.
In this case, the man’s inherited blindness was no one’s fault. He had certainly not sinned, and neither had his parents’ sin caused his handicap. Rather, “this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” Now it seems that we have traded one theological dilemma for another. We are comfortable with Jesus’ claim that the man’s blindness was not caused by sin. But how do we feel about the assertion that it was caused by God, to display his glory?