John 9 and Why Illness

As he [Jesus] went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

After saying this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means “Sent”). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing. – John 9:1-7

Our conversation centers around an encounter with a man who John describes as having been “blind from birth.” Jesus miraculously gives him sight; and the remainder of the chapter is spent with the local, religious establishment interrogating the now-seeing man. But it’s the question and answer at the beginning of the passage which is our focus.

Asking the Question: Who sinned?

In the context of Roman-occupied Judea, the disciple’s question was a natural one. Disease and disability were common actors in the context of Jesus’ day; they constantly impacted life in a way we may not be able to comprehend.

For the Romans, the reason for the disease and death that surrounded them was the curse of the fates or gods. Appealing to the gods for favor gave one a tiny bit of agency to manipulate the randomness of life, but one was generally “on your own” to figure things out.

For many religious Jews the reason for illness was Divine retribution. The One, true God judged justly; and if a person was born with a deformity or was dealing with a crippling illness, it was reasonable to presume that the sins of the individual or perhaps of the parents were the cause.  Later in the chapter, we see this attitude reflected in the Pharisee’s retort to the man-formerly-born-blind:

To this they replied, “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!” And they threw him out. – John 9:34

For the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, the “sin of this man or his parents” was clearly relevant.

So if we can accept the disciples’ question as honest and sensible – a question to which any of us would want an answer – what Jesus has to say seems worthy of the attention it has been given for 2000 years. Many have looked to Jesus’ reply to answer another similar, even more fundamental question:

“God, if you’re really all-powerful, why don’t You heal everyone?”

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” – John 9:3-5

What is going on in this passage?

Is Jesus saying that God allows or even causes illness so that, “the works of God might be displayed” or is there something we’re missing? Is Jesus just talking about this one situation, and if so, what does that mean for other circumstances of illness? How can we know when (or if) an illness might exist for the same purposes?

To circle in on an answer, let’s start by reading over the shoulder of the original audience, examining a few of the key characters in this story.

Context: The Place = south side Jerusalem

Map of 1st Century Jerusalem
A map of 1st century Jerusalem, oriented with North to the right. Credit: Enter the Bible

This story happened very close to the Pool of Siloam, along the road headed out of the city. That street goes through a small valley named Tyropoeon that separated the oldest part of the city (King David’s Jerusalem) from the Upper City (modern day Mount Zion). It’s an area of Jerusalem that is just outside the “Old City” walls in modern times – a place where real people lived (and still live today), including the man in this story and his parents. It is arguable to say that Jesus is exiting the Temple Mount, proceeding South shortly following the events of John 8:59.

The passage makes mention of an unnamed place where both the man who was healed and his parents are interrogated by Pharisees and religious leaders. This is likely the synagogue in their section of town. The relationship to the Pool of Siloam, indicates that it would have been their closest, local water source. The actual Pool has been uncovered by modern archeologists, and if you’re in good walking shape, you can visit it for yourself if you are ever in Jerusalem.

The point being: this was a real place. Not just a real city but a real neighborhood. When the passage points out that the man’s parents were intimidated because they didn’t want to be put out of the synagogue, this was a big deal because it was home. Being excommunicated from ones local synagogue wasn’t just about religious life. The synagogue was where business and family matters occurred as well, and to be “put out” was to, effectively, no longer be a functioning member of their community.

Context: The Pharisees

In many ways, the Pharisees get painted as the villain – the hapless, overmatched foil to Jesus’ Harlem-Globetrotter-like stardom. However, I want to offer an imperfect but (perhaps) more relevant analogy to shift our thinking. In many ways, the Pharisees were the Fight Club of 1st century Judaism, a place to belong and matter (supposedly, to God) if you could earn your way through the proverbial front door.

fightclub
The Pharisees: a place to belong and rediscover being part of the chosen people.

The Pharisees took literally the idea that God had called His people to be (as Exodus 19:6 invites) a “kingdom of priests.” Any man who was willing to live by the strict obligations of the Pharisees could become one; but you had to want it bad, and it wasn’t easy.

Contrary to popular misconception, the Pharisees were not religiously educated, at least not formally. That was a distinction true for scribes (the seminary-trained class), and some scribes were also Pharisees; but the majority were regular people who committed themselves to an uncommon and challenging way of life. The Pharisees learned not only God’s Law in the Old Testament but the oral traditions of rabbis who had commented on the Law. They fasted regularly, tithed faithfully, prayed fervently, and always, always, always kept the Sabbath.

Because Pharisees believed that to truly follow God’s Law required such extreme rule-following, they tended to see the rest of their fellow Israelites as misguided, especially those Jews who had embraced the foreign ideas and practices of the Greeks and Romans. As such, working to distance oneself from non-pharisees was a healthy and noble act. Living completely separate wasn’t viable, but making it clear that you were (as Jesus talks about in Luke 18:11) “not like other men” was the obligation of a good pharisee.

In some ways, their commitment and fervency was to be admired, and they certainly produced a strong level of underground and mass-appeal popularity. Yet like religious zealots in all faiths – including modern Christianity – the lifestyle was unsustainable and misguided. Perhaps that’s why Jesus spent so much time confronting them and calling the Pharisees out as play actors (hypocrites), seeking to fulfill an unattainable standard to earn God’s favor instead embracing a simple truth. God already likes and loves you the maximum amount He can, and that’s all you’ll ever want or need.

Context: The Disability

Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind.

– the man born blind, John 9:31

If you’d like to gain an accurate perspective on what this man’s life was like, you can get on a plane and fly to a country called Niger in West Africa. There you’ll encounter the 1st century reality of disability and how it still effects those who are born or living with deformity and special needs. For those with physical challenges, there is no assistance or alternative path. There is only what is, and the option before those with a disability in 21st century Niger is the same as it was for those in 1st century Palestine: begging.

Living without eyesight meant that this man spent his days encountering travelers and asking for money at either the entrance to the Temple (as we see in Acts 3) or at one of the many gates of the city (presumably the one near the Siloam Pool). One of those days is the moment in John 9 where Jesus radically transforms the trajectory of this his life. For what purpose is the subject of our next section.

Jesus has this habit of answering the question He wished you would have asked…

Jesus is confronted with a reasonable question: someone must have sinned to deserve the misfortune that this man has experienced. Who was it? To this, He offers a few locus-shifting responses:

  • Neither this man nor his parents sin caused his disability
  • This man’s condition is an opportunity for him to experience the things that only God can do (he is literally coming face-to-face with the Divine)
  • I (Jesus) am the light of the entire world – the same creative force that came from God to make everything we see (including this man),
  • and I make the deeds of God possible, right here and right now

Jesus acts in a way that communicates His identity as God, doing the things that God had always been known to do. He restores the man’s sight and resets his life to as it should be in a kingdom where God’s way rules.

This miracle, despite it’s odd process (which seems intentional by Jesus, allowing Him to confront the Pharisees for “breaking the Sabbath“), is amazing; but for followers of Jesus as well as skeptics, it threatens to leave us with more questions then answers.

For instance, if we’re to believe this story is real, there’s a hope that perhaps God might do the same for us: make the impossible, possible and restore health. At the same time, we don’t need to look very far to see so many other circumstances in which there is (seemingly) no physical restoration – only disease and death and heartache. How are we to make sense of the claims of a good and loving God who can restore our bodies but seems to do so infrequently? How can we chose to trust a God who seems to have the power to right wrongs if He doesn’t?

It’s as if He’s refusing to answer the question under the question. Jesus provides some clarity (that neither of the proposed answers – the man or his parents – are to blame), but He doesn’t seem offer an answer as to why God would chose to use (or allow) such a debilitating condition.

But perhaps we’re asking the wrong question.

…displayed in him

Jesus did not say that the man was born blind so that the works of God might be displayed. John recorded this story for our benefit, but Jesus performed this miracle for the man’s benefit. This man was touched (literally) by God, and the result was a brand new trajectory for his life. At the end of John 9, the man (who hadn’t considered it a priority to find the person who healed him) is found by Jesus. Jesus revealed who He is, and the man believed and followed. Not only was his sight restored, but the direction of his life was transformed. Through John’s writing, we are given the privilege of witnessing this event; but make no mistake. This miracle happened that the deeds that only God can do would be displayed in the life of a man who, for whatever reason, was born blind.

The works of God were made plan and clear to him.

Jesus isn’t going to answer the question of evil

In the Old Testament, a person named Job (a very good person for that matter) asked the “why”question to God directly. In response, God answered his question with a series of questions, essentially saying, If you (Job) can explain to Me (God) how I created the world and the intricate details of all the creatures I have made, then you could understand the answer I could provide; but since you can’t, you’re going to have to trust that My intentions towards you are ultimately good.

Throughout His ministry, Jesus seems to affirm – through what He said, did, and even didn’t say – that which God had always said. As such, Jesus (just like God) doesn’t use this situation to provide a universal answer to the question of “why illness?” As God declared to Job, Jesus affirms: we aren’t meant to comprehend why and God is not going to explain it. Instead, we can receive something we really need: an encounter with God.

Stumbling

This answer is a genuine stumbling block for those who feel that they can’t trust God (or even that there is a God) unless they can figure out this question. Experiencing and seeing evil and injustice in the world yet believing that God is all-powerful and good feels intellectually lazy to some. It is often the point where many “check out” of the faith conversation.

What’s often worse is that many have been hurt by organized religion, sadly and often by Christians; and some hear the answer, we can’t know but God is good anyway, as a power play between the humans who lead a religion and those who choose to brave a cold and empty universe believing there is nothing out there and no reason why.

For those who bring that perspective to this conversation, I want to offer the following for your consideration:

  • What if God isn’t saying “blindly trust Me” or “blindly trust the experience of the people who said they represented Me but came up short?”
  • What if Jesus is inviting us to know Him personally: not through a priest, pastor, or any other person but to converse with Him directly?
  • What if God is asking us to bring our doubts and concerns directly to Him – not even knowing for certain if He is there – to see how He might respond?

I don’t think any of us are going to receive the universal answer to the question of “why illness” or why any seemingly-undeserved misfortune occurs; but I do believe that each us can see the works of God displayed in us. Each of us can actually meet and touch the personal, intimate Creator of the universe through the circumstances, good and bad, that brought us to where we are right now…just as was the case for the man born blind in John 9.

By risking to talk to a God that we may not even be sure is there, we just might meet Someone who is good and trustworthy. We might find (as the Bible demonstrates over and again and as John 9 portrays) that even though we don’t get an answer to “why,” we instead meet a God who has chosen to be intensely close with those who are suffering, serving and supporting them, and giving them what they need most of all: a life-giving relationship with Him.

The LORD is close to the brokenhearted
and saves those who are crushed in spirit. – Psalm 34:18

Note: You can find the notes that I used in constructing this post here.

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