“Everything happens for a reason.”
That is the title of a book by Kate Bowler, a professor of history at Duke Divinity. Everything Happens for a Reason (and Other Lies I’ve Loved) came out this week and I, like many others, heard her interviewed on NPR. I know that Kate happens to be a friend to several of you, and you know her story much more deeply than I. At the age of 35 Kate was diagnosed with stage IV cancer, which she has been living with for the last 3 years. Her book is a memoir of her journey through her illness. She strikes me as a pretty darn thoughtful, vulnerable, profound person. All that, and delightfully hilarious.
Kate’s book includes a helpful appendix of “Things you should never say to anyone who is terminally ill.” There are some good ones. “Everything happens for a reason” is number five on the list of other painfully well-intentioned blunders of speech. Along with the terminally ill, I imagine she would include people who have any other kind of serious illness. Or have experienced trauma. Or death.
Or were, say, born blind.
Like our man in our story tonight in the gospel of John. I think he might have liked Kate’s book. I think he would have passed it around to his friends, not to mention his enemies. I have a feeling he spent his life hearing all about the reasons blindness had happened to him.
Being blind in ancient time was, as one historian put it, “disastrous.” Blind people were completely dependent on others. There were a few provisions in the law to protect the blind, commands such as “You shall not put a stumbling block before the blind” (Lev 19:14) and “cursed be anyone who misleads a blind person on the road” (Deut 27:18). But that’s about it. Truthfully, these commands do not sound to me like inspired love and compassion. They sound more like, “hey, don’t be a terrible, evil bully.” Refraining from intentionally tripping a blind person is a low bar.
Other details are perhaps more telling of how the blind were received in society. Our man in the story is a beggar, his occupation clearly liked to his blindness. Blind priests were considered “blemished” though not unclean. They could not offer sacrifices but they could partake of them. (This sounds not far off from the way the church often treats people with disabilities today.) In 2 Samuel the lofty King David uses the phrase “the blind and the lame” as an insult to his enemies the Jebusites. He spits it out “blind” as an epithet of scorn (2 Samuel 5:6-8).
Blindness is a mark. No named individual in the Old Testament is called “blind,” even those like Samson who have their eyes gouged out. The blind are identified only by their condition, their lack of sight. “The blind,” Scripture calls them. Not Jim or Sue or David or Mary. Just, “the blind.”
Ancient Near Eastern people believed that only God could heal blindness, and for good reason. Eyes are tricky. Doctors like our own Dr. King daily work the equivalent of 1st century miracles as they, for example, slice away cataracts. Bradley tells me they call it “chopping,” a process that involves using ultrasonic energy to melt and suck away chopped up pieces of an opacified lens. I have heard of more than one strong-stomached, aspiring medical student to pass out while observing surgeons dig behind gooey eye tissue to reattach retinas. My friend a couple years ago literally had parts of her eye glued together. With glue. Healing eyes is like science fiction, even for us now. People in Jesus’ time had no experience or comprehension of the blind receiving their sight.
Which is one reason why healing the blind was associated with the end of the world, a sign of the coming of the Messiah. (Sorry Bradley.) The prophet Isaiah announces that one day,
the eyes of the blind [will] be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs (Is 35:5-7).
When John the Baptist, languishing in prison, asks if Jesus is the expected Messiah, Jesus sends back messengers with the proof. “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive sight” (Lk 7:20-22).
Blindness was a common ailment. Sun damage to the eyes. Or trachoma, a common infection transmitted by poor hygiene, flies. Blindness was not ubiquitous, but it was devastating and familiar. Perhaps, for us, like cancer.
What was not common was to find people who had been born blind. Our guy, he is identified straight from the top as a man “blind from birth,” the only time the New Testament uses that phrase (Jn 9:1). Our man is doubly marked. Blind. Born that way. His is not only the only story in the Bible of a person born blind being healed. It is the only story in all of antiquity of a person born blind being healed by anyone other than a god. Further down, when the man says to the Pharisees in Jesus’ defense, “Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind,” he was not being hyperbolic. No one, in fact, has ever heard of such a thing (Jn 9:32).
Our man is a miracle. That he is even alive to receive his healing is apparently a miracle, since congenitally blind infants were often exposed. Yet here he is, in all his difficult glory.
All of which brings us to the gospel of John. Jesus is going along the road, having just slipped away from the temple grounds where people are trying to stone him, when he sees our man, blind from birth. The story of the man’s healing is surprisingly short on words from Jesus. The book of John usually involves Jesus talking. A lot. (often saying strange, inexplicable things). In this story we get fewer than average words from Jesus. (Though, not to worry, most of them are still a little strange and inexplicable.)
It begins with a fairly standard set up: disciples ask Jesus a misguided question. They see this man born blind and immediately jump to a gossip-disguised-as-spiritual-concern, “Hey Jesus, whose sin caused this? Was it his or his parents’? There must be a juicy story behind such terrible suffering.”
And aside from the spiritual curiosity of their question, the query, “Something bad happened so who did something wrong? Who sinned?” is also one of the 3,000 varieties of, “Everything happens for a reason. So….?”
Jesus doesn’t take the bait. This is the first and most important thing we see in the story.
But he doesn’t ignore their question either. Jesus has a knack for this, taking our misguided questions and completely failing to give us the answer that we want, while simultaneously accepting our inquiry, our interaction, the inherent prayerfulness of the thing. Then answering us in some other way. Often strangely, inexplicably.
“Nobody sinned,” Jesus answers, clearing up that conundrum right off the bat.
He is, dare I say, surprisingly clear. Especially clear for Jesus. Especially clear for Jesus in the book of John, who as we observed last week, tends sometimes to speak in odd, less than entirely reasoned ways.
Most of our Bibles at this point say something like this. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (9:3).
Jesus clearly steps aside from the sin leads to blindness business, a common belief at the time. We have variations of our own, ways that “sin” is the cause of illness or catastrophe. There is the spiritually laden sin-and-punishment tact (“If he had more faith, if she hadn’t gotten a divorce, if you had prayed harder, etc.”). Or our modernized, scientific consequentialism (“She was a smoker….”). Or the social responsibility argument (“He engaged in risky behavior, and that’s what happens when someone…). The result is the same, then and now. Mostly the reasons offered shame the person who is sick and suffering. And the reasoning is often not sound. Rarely, if ever, is it productive.
Jesus waves much of this away. “Nobody sinned.” But then he goes on.
“He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”
“He was born blind so that…” in the mouth of Jesus is tricky, even when he is refuting the sin-and-shame talk. Even in the mouth of Jesus it sounds like he is explaining away the blind man’s suffering. Like Jesus is “us[ing] the innocent blind man for his own ends,” namely, the man is blind so that his body can reveal God’s work. Even in the mouth of Jesus it sounds cruel, arrogant.
And here we land down the rabbit hole we have struggled with since the time when we began to try to think together about how a loving God allows, responds to, and interacts with suffering in the created world. Or, more to the point, in our worlds.
Because what the disciples are asking is, “Why? Why was this man born blind?”
And Jesus’ answer, “He was born blind so that…” sounds suspiciously like, “Everything happens for a reason. Here’s the reason for his blindness.”
This bothers me. I’ve spent a lot of time hanging out with suffering people, not to mention probing my own less dramatic suffering. I am wary of statements like, “He was born blind so that…” Even in the mouth of Jesus.
So I kept coming back to this phrase and poking around and I discovered some surprising things.
Like, maybe that’s not what Jesus is saying at all.
That phrase “he was born blind so that…” doesn’t actually appear in John’s text. Its filler, a common and accepted and often necessary way of translating Greek. Greek tends to be sparse and miserly with its words. In English we sometimes throw in context to smooth things out. Which is where the phrase “he was born blind” comes in. Contextual filler, pointing back to the preceding phrases.
But the Greek text literally reads, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. But so that the works of God might be revealed…” and it goes on.
There is no mention of blindness.
Jesus skips over the man’s blindness entirely. Jesus’ answer to the disciples is clearly a rejection of blame, of sin-as-explanation. But Jesus also, in fact, makes no judgment as to any other reason the man was born blind.
The little words, “but so that,” flow just as well, and in a more theologically coherent way, into what follows. “But so that the works of God might be revealed , we must do the work of the one who sent me” (Jn 9:3-4). Jesus’ words sound less like an explanation for why blindness happened to our man, more like a call to do the work of God in the world.
Which Jesus then proceeds to get to work on.
“But so that the work of God might be revealed in him, we must do the work of the one who sent me, as long as it is day. Night is coming, when no one can do the work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (Jn 9:3-5).
And with that magnificent theological statement, “I am the light of the world,” at once so simple, clear, inclusive, bewildering, and grand, Jesus rolls up his sleeves.
“Having said this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes” (Jn 9:6)
Spit and mud. That is what Jesus’ work looks like.
The son of God spits in the dust. He smudges it around. Makes mud. Clay. He molds it all together with his fingers. He picks it up and massages it into the thin, delicate skin of a man’s eyelids. Who knows when was the last time anyone touched the face, caressed the frame of a poor man, scorned and outcast, recognized by his peers only as a beggar on the side of a road. Marked, known only as “the man born blind.”
Jesus’ act is a shameless, gratuitous reference to creation. Water, dust, mud and clay taking form in the hands of the Creator. Jesus has healed people from a distance and up close, has healed blindness before, with nothing but a word. Jesus doesn’t need to spit. He doesn’t need dust. He doesn’t need to smear mud formed from his own holy salivary glands onto the skin of the man before him.
But he does. Jesus makes his vocation, the grand and glorious “work of God” (9:3-4) look like spit and mud. Touching the face of a stranger.
Jesus then tells the man to go and wash in the pool of Siloam, which he does. And that’s it. The man, burdened his whole life with blindness and all the difficulty it entails—he sees.
Now there is a lot more to the story. A lot more words follow. Blessed few of them are from Jesus. The words swirl around a telling and retelling of the man’s story, suspicions from his neighbours, suspicions and accusations from the Pharisees. The work of healing rarely goes unpunished. There are quasi-trials and confused back and forth among the religious authorities about who has sinned, when and how. Lots of ramble and theological disagreement. Finger-pointing and people being hauled in to account for themselves, rat out their children, condemn their healers.
Jesus, it seems, steers clear of all that mess. I imagine while they argue he is off eating the prostitutes or carving something. Partying with sinners (maybe the ones everyone else is being so careful to avoid?) Fishing. Something useful.
And the band plays on and the people keep arguing. The formerly blind man, he keeps telling his story and the authority figures keep getting it wrong, eventually twisting it back on him. Our man is brave and bold, braver and bolder as the story progresses, standing up for himself and this strange, inexplicable Jesus who rubbed spit into his eyes without him even asking. It all ends back where it began, though more viciously, with the Pharisees again asking whose sin caused the man’s malady. The disciples begin innocently(?) asking who sinned. The Pharisees end up screaming at the man in their formal court, “you were steeped in sin at birth!” as they throw him out on the street.
This is the point, of course, at which Jesus intervenes again. He hears the man has been thrown out, so Jesus goes to find him. Jesus invites our discarded, healed man to join him.
The story of the man born blind is a story where I think we can get ourselves hung up. Healing is hard. Healing raises more questions than it answers. We get stuck, not unlike the disciples, on the questions. “But Jesus, why the need for the healing? Why did this happen?”
So we fill in words for Jesus. “He was born blind so that…” “She got cancer so that…” “The accident happened so that…” “I’m hurting right now so that…”
And Jesus, being God, hears our cries. Hears our questions, our need for explanations. God does not condemn our questions, nor the answers we come up with. However far off the mark they may be.
God knows there are reasons we think this way. It is not just because we are mean or unthoughtful or inarticulate. It is not only prosperity gospel preachers who espouse reasoning. It is not only your well-meaning aunt who explains away your struggle. Theologians from Augustine to Aquinas to the folks writing commentaries published this year all trip over the awkwardness of some version of the same general idea: that God allows certain bad things to happen “because [God] intends some good.” All this bad stuff happens for a reason.
We aren’t mean. We aren’t shortsighted. We have just been listening for centuries to our forefathers.
Jesus here instead seems to shrug linguistically and skip straight to something along the lines of, “so that God might be revealed—let’s get to work.”
He includes us. John quotes Jesus with a blessed we. “We must do the work of the one who sent me.”
Jesus spits in the dust. He smooches mud onto someone’s face. He is starkly humble and radical about the whole thing.
I do not know why terrible things happen in the blessed, marvelous, lovingly created world we share. Why they happen in the blessed, marvelous, lovingly created bodies we inhabit.
I can’t explain a thing.
I can, however, follow Jesus’ example. Or try to. Wave off the judgmental passes. Get a little quieter than usual. Spit in the dirt. Plunge my hands in the muck that results. Reach out to touch beloved bodies.
Apparently that is how healing happens.
This is how we see.
 “Blindness,” New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 1 A-C.
 “tuphlos,” Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. 3.
 David Herrstrom, The Book of Unknowing: A Poet’s Response to the Gospel of John (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock: 2012), 58.
 This might sound like exegetical minutiae, but here’s the thing—it fits well with the rest of the story. The context where Jesus is conspicuously silent, absent from the extended argument that follows about why the man’s blindness happened.
 Thomas Aquinas quoting Augustine’s Enchiridion in Commentary on the Gospel of John Chapters 6-12 (Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2010), 159.