This is one of my new favorite texts in the Gospels. John does a beautiful job of showing the power of the Christ and the development of the new creation. The healing of the blind beggar is another powerful reminder that the work of Jesus removes all barriers from around all people, bringing them all together with God and with each other.
However, I am struggling with a reading of this text I have recently come across. In this reading, the blind beggar is rightly recognized as an “other” not unlike many folks living with disabilities around us. Further, the reading correctly identifies the cause of all suffering, saying “All pain and suffering is due to the fall of man.”
But then we fail to stay consistent with this line of thinking. As we read on, when Jesus responds to the disciples question, we take the latter part of Jesus’ answer out of context and blow it out of proportion. The primary goal of Jesus’ response is to blow up the idea that this man, for whatever reason, deserved his suffering. The second part of the answer can better be summed up in our vernacular as, “Now, watch me work.”
See, John uses a variety of literary devices and imagery to paint a fuller picture of Jesus’ divinity for his readers. One of the most common of these is the dualistic struggle between light and darkness. We shouldn’t have to stretch too far to see that blindness would be associated with the dark, and “that the works of God might be displayed” associated directly with the light.
So while the reading gets the source of suffering correct (our sin,) and absolves the blind man of any specific guilt, it then goes on to suggest that God somehow desires, or even needs, this man to be blind in order to display God’s power.
You read that correctly. “God needs this man to be blind so that God’s power might be displayed in him.” That was actually part of the reading.
Here we go, then. Acts 17 reminds us, in verses 24-25, that “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.”
If we say that God needs suffering to reveal God’s own glory, then we make God out to be something of a more powerful Syndrome, from The Incredibles. If you can think back to that wonderful animated movie, Syndrome is a villain who creates his own crisis situation in the form of a giant robot monster, with the goal of defeating it himself (through the use of trickery) to become a public hero. (All credit to my sweet wife, Dessa, for this comparison. She is pretty smart!)
We have no trouble spotting the false heroism here. We have no problem recognizing the evil plot, though the character itself is well-developed and particularly ambivalent. No one struggles to justify the family of actual heroes’ actions as they thwart this evil plan.
If we say that God needs suffering in order to relieve it and be glorified, then we worship a small god indeed. While this teaching attempted to criticize other interpretations of this passage, accusing them of limiting God’s knowledge or power, we fail to recognize implications in this reading that call into question, not only God’s power, but also God’s goodness.
We cannot fit God into a box. Every reading of this passage struggles to make sense of what exactly Jesus is doing here. But when we stop the reading at Jesus’ response and neglect the rest of the story, we miss out on the scope and the context of Jesus’ response. He is interested in breaking down barriers and including the outcasts in community. He is not interested in some theological debate about the source of suffering in the world. Context matters. Let God out of the box.