John 9 – Sight, Skeptics, and Stockholm Syndrome

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Today’s PassageJohn 9

Let’s just pull off the band-aid right away: today we’re opening the Theodicy Can with all its Theodicy Worms. Apparently someone put a band-aid on the Theodicy Can. I’m not sure what they thought it would do, if they thought the can was injured or maybe the band-aid would help it stay shut, but we’re tearing off the band-aid and opening up the can. All mixed metaphors aside, today’s chapter of John features Jesus healing a man blind from birth, and right off the bat his disciples ask why the man was born blind.

For some of you, Jesus’ answer will close the can as soon as it’s opened. The disciples assume that the man’s bad fortune must be punishing someone, so they ask Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?” (2). Did God know the man’s sins before he was born and preemptively punish him with blindness, or did his parents do something bad enough to deserve a blind son? But Jesus undercuts their assumptions with his response: “It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him” (3). Boom, question answered. The man was born blind so that God could work in his life for all to see. Evil and punishment don’t figure into the equation at all.

The disciples don’t have anything more to say to Jesus’ answer, perhaps because he gets down to healing the blind man before they can respond. But given the presuppositions undergirding their question, I don’t expect that all of them felt satisfied with his answer. The ancient world commonly understood justice as retributive: giving people what they were owed. A common definition of justice was “doing good to one’s friends and evil to one’s enemies;” in Plato’s Republic, a guy named Polemarchus proudly subscribes to this idea, at least until Socrates gets his dialectical hands on it. But it wasn’t just a Greek notion! Even Jews had adopted the maxim “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy” (Matthew 5:43), taking the actual text of the Law of Moses and adding their own hate-your-enemy call to vengeance. It’s a notion that Jesus takes to task in the Sermon on the Mount when he commands his audience to love their friends and enemies alike.

But the point is that to the Jewish mindset, it was fine for evil to exist as long as God punished it. There was no problem of theodicy, no question that God was just, as long as wherever bad things or suffering happened, the people to whom they happened deserved them. You can see the attitude in many of the psalms, where the psalmists tend to question God’s goodness when they see the good suffer and the evil escape punishment. They usually reach a resolution by concluding that justice is served on a sufficiently long timeline, or that we’re all evil to some degree and deserve far more suffering than God in his mercy gives us. You can see the problem that a man blind from birth poses for a retributive concept of justice, though. If God has punished the man’s parents by inflicting blindness on him, then to some extent the man suffers a punishment that he did not earn, so it would seem the only way out is to judge the man as suffering preemptively for some future evil, an attitude which is hardly charitable toward the man.

And that’s where Jesus’ answer comes in. This isn’t about who we point the finger at, who we can blame for this blindness. It’s about God letting a man live without sight so that he can show himself more powerful than sightlessness. And I’m aware that if the ancients’ notion of retributive justice appears problematic for some, it will appear equally problematic to others that, in allowing the man to be born blind and then given sight, God is basically showboating.

But maybe we should let the man afflicted speak for himself and bring, if he has one, a case against God. And he’s apparently grateful to enter the world of the seeing; his only complaint, if any, is that the Pharisees won’t quit harassing him about who healed him. (Sidebar: John notes that the Pharisees were divided in their opinions of Jesus, with some believing that miraculous healings like this one validated Jesus’ commission from God (John 9:16, #notallPharisees).) At the end of the chapter, Jesus finds the man again, and asks him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” (John 9:35), the man says, “Lord, I believe” (John 9:38) and worships Jesus.

So: a man rejoices as God takes away the suffering that he allowed to befall the man and could have prevented. Call it Stockholm Syndrome if you like; maybe you should also take God to task for not allowing us to fly, or more to the point, for not granting us infrared vision or ultrasonic hearing. The fact remains that the man has received a gift that I never have, gaining use of a brand-new sense that he had not hitherto experienced. As Jesus himself points out, the blind have their eyes opened, while those who think they can see are actually blind as bats. And frankly, I think no one is better suited to assess whether he has any grounds for grievances with God than the man himself.

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