Let me preface what is to follow by saying that I wholeheartedly believe that God has a plan for creation. Well, maybe more like a dream. God’s dream for humanity and the earth we were created to care for is a wholeness. We were designed to be in relationship, perfect relationship with God, with one another, and with the world in which we live. Every part of God’s plan, which is declared good and perfect in Romans 12, is about fixing those relationships that we have screwed up, repeatedly and ad nauseam.
With that caveat in place, let me now suggest that what we will hear from Jesus in Sunday’s Gospel lesson is a very dangerous statement. The story unfolds with Jesus and his disciples happening upon a blind man. We aren’t sure how they know that he has been blind since birth, but it helps the drama of the story that he was. Anyway, the disciples, being good students of Judaism, are eager to engage their Rabbi in a theological discussion about his man. “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” It may seem uncouth, but this line of questioning is perfectly valid in the context of 1st century Judaism. In fact, those who would stick their head in the sand and say conversations like this don’t happen among 21st century Christians are just fooling themselves. Jesus’ reply seems to indicate that God’s plan included the blindness of this man, and it is an answer with which I am exceedingly uncomfortable.
The NRSV renders it thusly: “Neither than man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’ works might be reveled in him.” To my mind, this is the other side of the same coin as Pat Robertson saying Hurricane Katrina happened because of the gay agenda or the Haiti earthquake was the result of the Voodoo religion. To suggest that God’s plan, that I would remind you is both good and perfect, includes such hardships as hurricanes, earthquakes and a child born blind is to forget the purpose behind God’s plan: the restoration of all relationships. As is often the case, bad theology stems from bad translation.
In this week’s WorkingPreacher Commentary, Osvaldo Vena, Profesor de Nuevo Testamento at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, suggests a more straightforward translations of verse three. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. But in order that God’s works might be revealed in him it is necessary for us to work the works of the one who sent me … ” The man’s blindness isn’t the result of God’s plan, but rather, it is God’s plan to heal him in this moment. It wasn’t God’s plan to make this man blind so that God could later swoop in and look heroic, but rather Jesus says, it is God’s plan to overcome the broken relationships of this man’s life. Of course, as the story plays out, it’ll take a lot more healing to fix all of his relationships. After regaining his sight, he is ostracized by his neighbors, by the religious authorities, and even by his own parents, but with his newfound sight, the man is able to see a way to right relationship with God, which is the first step in right relationship with the rest of God’s creation.
This Sunday, let’s not perpetuate bad theology. Let’s not suggest that God allows us to suffer, or worse yet, that God makes us suffer, so that God can fix things later. Instead, let’s share the story of God’s saving grace, God’s perfect love for all of creation, and God’s plan to restore all things to their perfection by him through whom all things were made.