Fourth Sunday of Lent: The Man Born Blind
Readings: 1 Samuel 16: 1-13; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41
In the today’s Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Lent Jesus heals the man who was born blind, and in doing so manifests His power to the astonishment of His disciples and consternation of the Jewish priests and leaders. Of course, Christ’s acts of healing, and the negative reactions they receive, are a common thread in all the Gospels. When He healed the paralysed man in Capernaum He was accused of blasphemy, or when He cured the crippled woman in the Temple He was denounced for working on the Sabbath.
Yet, what makes this Gospel so interesting is the account it gives of the reactions of the people who surround Jesus. St. John records the question of the disciples: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
The disciples presume that since the man has suffered such a fate it must be on account of some sin. To the disciples suffering seems to be explained as a result of human wickedness, an idea not confined to ancient Israel. Indeed, the belief that people reap what they sow is not uncommon even today. It is often assumed that ‘bad luck’ is a result of ‘bad karma’; wicked folk get what is coming to them. This is not an unattractive notion, that there might be some kind of self-regulating moral force to the universe brings a certain kind of sense to instances of apparent injustice. Even in the face of seemingly undeserved suffering, like that of the man born blind, a person can begin to rationalize the situation when they apply to the world that law that wicked folk get what is coming to them. We might assume with the disciples that the man was born blind on account of the ‘sins of the Father.’ Or perhaps, in modern (though equally ancient in certain places) terms, we might assume ‘he had done something bad in a previous life…’
Of course, the disciples had a little more to go on than a sub-conscious understanding about how the world worked. They could remember Jesus healing the paralytic man in Capernaum, He told him that his sins were forgiven, and this gave him the power to walk. Or they might recall the healing at the pool of Bethesda. There Jesus healed a man and then warned him: “Sin no more, that nothing worse befall you.” Even Jesus seems to say the wicked get what is coming to them!
Thus, upon seeing an instance of human suffering it is not unreasonable for the disciples to ask ‘who sinned that he was born blind?’ Yet, Jesus’s response must have confused them: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him.”
In previous instances Jesus has warned that sin causes human suffering, but it seems not to be so in the case of the blind man. Not only was the blind man not responsible, nor where his parents! However, perhaps what baffles most is not that Jesus does not describe the suffering as punishment for some sin but rather that he gives it an entirely different nature; the suffering of the man born blind is thus so that God might be glorified through it.
So suffering might not be a penalty for wrong doing but a means of glorifying God? Perhaps this idea is even less palatable than the concept of suffering as punishment. Why should God need to allow people to suffer just to manifest His glory? This does not seem to be a particularly nice thing for God to do.
Indeed, these sort of questions may have flooded the disciples’ minds. Suffering as punishment makes a certain kind of sense, it resembles justice, but the suffering Jesus has described, the undeserved but meaningful suffering of the man born blind, doesn’t seem so easy to understand.
So how can it be understood? Three questions can be asked, what is the point of this suffering? Why should God apply it to humans? And is it not still then still some form of punishment?
|The suffering of Job|
For Christians, there are two clear cases of suffering, not as a penalty for Sin, but as a means of making manifest God’s wonder. First is the case of Job. The righteous man Job was renowned even in Heaven for his upright life and unswerving piety, yet, he was afflicted with the most grievous of sufferings, and to what end? Well, the stated intention was to manifest the truth of Job’s love for God. It was to show that Job did not merely bless the hand that fed him, but also the hand that struck him. By being put to the test Job learned of the depth of his love for God, and not only that, but he was elevated in dignity, by becoming a precursor for that second case of undeserved suffering which is central to human salvation.
The Passion and Death of Jesus was simultaneously the saddest and most glorious episode in human history. Jesus, Truth and Love incarnate, was rejected and despoiled by men and offered up to die the shameful death of the cross. Man nailed Love itself to a tree. Yet God refashioned this grave betrayal on the part of man into their salvation. Man, in his sins, had offended God who is infinitely good, an offence Man, as a finite being, could never atone for. However Jesus, by virtue of his divinity, was capable of offering to God an infinite act of love and thus, as man, He could please God more than all other men could displease Him. Thus, Jesus took His life into His hands and handed it over to wicked men; for love of the Father He made himself a sacrificial lamb whose blood would atone for the sins of the world. Jesus’s suffering was undeserved: how could goodness incarnate merit any pain; and yet it was an act which made manifest the wondrous work of God. For Jesus, by becoming the sacrificial lamb who gave the act of infinite love to the Father was bestowed with the name which is above every name. Jesus, in His suffering is glorified with the name of saviour. His passion and death was His most grievous struggle, but also His most glorious crown, for it was on Calvary that He made manifest His nature, His being Love unending for the Father and His creation.
|The scourging of Christ|
When man is redeemed from his sins, he rightly rejoices; it is good to be free of a disease. However, what if a man could not merely be freed from the disease but part of the cure? If those undeserved sufferings, like those of the man born blind, in fact manifest the same suffering that Jesus went through, can the suffering man not glory in it? Does the blind man of today’s Gospel, though his life of suffering, not share in some small way in Christ’s infinite act of love? If this is the case, that undeserved suffering joins one closer with Jesus’s sacrificial act, then maybe it is right that God allows it to befall people; suffering can be like a vaccine. The needle might sting or scare the child, but it imbues into the body a new power, a protection from greater harm. So it is with our undeserved sufferings, they can bring us closer to the one who saved us and make us more like Him, which is another way of stating the meaning of life; to become like the one who made us.
So the Christian then, in the face of suffering, can utter the words of St. Paul: “I am content with weaknesses … and calamities; for when I am weak then I am strong.”