Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise: Living Ethically in the Light of the Bible
John 9:1-12; 2 Peter 3:8-13; Job 3; Lamentations 4
The encounter between Jesus and the blind man leads to a common question about sickness and suffering. Whose fault is it? Passages like those in Lamentations, led many at the time of Jesus to believe that suffering was inflicted by God as a punishment for sin. Faced with hunger, disease and early death, the people are told this is the wrath of God, inflicted because of the sins of the prophets and the priests (Lamentations 4:11-13). While we might not put it so bluntly, this view continues to be influential. When we wonder if sickness is a symptom of our sin, or question why bad things happen to good people, to some degree we are asking a similar question: Does God send sickness and suffering to punish our sin?
This view of suffering has at least one obvious problem. How do we explain someone being born with a disease or disability? One possibility is that the person somehow sinned in the womb. That seems at odds with the idea of an age of accountability below which children are not morally responsible because they do not know good from bad. That idea goes as far back as Deuteronomy 1:39. The exact age of accountability is debated, but it would rule out someone sinning in the womb.
The others who might be responsible for someone being born blind could be the parents. This is also problematic because it seems unfair to punish a child for his parents’ sin. In addition, the Old Testament says that children are not accountable for the sins of their parents (e.g. Deuteronomy 24:16). This is not clear-cut, as other passages mention that ‘the iniquity of the fathers’ will be visited on their children (e.g. Exodus 34:7). We will discuss this more when we read Exodus 34, but these issues led the disciples to ask Jesus their question.
Jesus’ answer rejects their underlying theological assumption, but appears to create another problem. Jesus clearly denies that this specific illness was caused by sin. In a general way, all suffering is due to sin because of the Fall (Genesis 3). But here, and elsewhere, the Bible rejects the idea that all suffering can be traced back to specific sins. In Lamentations, there is a connection. In Job’s case, Satan is behind his suffering. In Luke 13:1-5, when Jesus was asked about why certain people were killed, he notes that sometimes there is no clear cause: people can be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And here, Jesus says that the man was born blind ‘so that the works of God might be displayed in him’ (John 9:3).
This response, in some ways, appears even more problematic: Did God inflict this man with blindness just so Jesus could work a miracle? That sounds like a cruel God who inflicts suffering just to show how great he is. The theological problem is created by the way Jesus’ reply is translated. The original Greek is not as clear about which phrase the ‘so that’ belongs with. This is because ancient Greek did not use punctuation (or even spaces between words). The NIV punctuates the sentence in a way that “so that” connects the works of God with the first phrase about sin. The sentence could just as well be punctuated to connect the works of God with the phrase that follows. This would give: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus. “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.”
This translation is in keeping with Luke 13: in many cases we don’t know why a particular illness or calamity occurs. In light of that, we should act as the Lord wants, trusting that he knows best. This also fits in with the advice of Ecclesiastes, who likewise saw that no simple connection could be made between sin and suffering. Bad things sometimes happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people. We cannot explain many things in life, so our best response is to trust God and live as he asks us to. Although sin and bad choices can cause some suffering, we do not need to feel guilty every time we get sick, or blame others for bringing suffering upon themselves every time bad things happen.