There he sat, the scum of society on the footstep of heaven on earth, begging the condescending mercy of pious passersby going in and out of the temple. Enough mercy today and he could eat.
This man was blind. He had been born that way. And it was his own fault. As a fetus this man had sinned in the womb against the Almighty. Either that or his parents had sinned and brought a curse upon him. Whichever it was, he was suffering a just punishment.
Those who had been righteous fetuses walked by and sometimes dropped a coin in his hand. This would merit them even more divine favor.
You see, in the law and prophets God had not explained exactly why one sinful person suffers more than another sinful person. So theologians had deduced that a person’s suffering must result directly from a specific offense(s) against God.
Interestingly, Job’s three friends1 had reached the same conclusions about Job’s suffering. Only God had rebuked them, “you have not spoken of me what is right.”2 He was poised to deliver a similar rebuke.
Jesus’ disciples had learned from the theologians. So seeing the blind man on the temple steps triggered their curiosity: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
God the Son stopped and looked at the man. Then he gave an answer that would turn their theology on its head and affect the futures of millions: “It was not that this man sinned or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.”
Okay, let’s catch our breath.
Jesus restated: God made this man blind3 in order to demonstrate his power in him. The purpose of this man’s disability was not punishment but proclamation. It’s just that no one knew it until that day.
And when Jesus spoke these words, he understood their full implications. He knew what this moment of proclamation had cost in the currency of this man’s pain.
All those years the man and his parents had labored under a perception that God had brought his judgment upon them for an unknown reason. All those years they had endured insults, indignities, injuries, poverty, loneliness, and isolation. How many were his tears? How many his prayers for mercy? No hope for an education. No hope for marriage. His only vocational option: begging.
And, according to Jesus, this was God’s plan. Was it worth it? We shall see, if God wills.
After his world-shaking statement, Jesus made the man see! In that moment everything changed. See the power of the Word! Light shown into dark eyes. A brain that had never processed optical stimuli was given immediate ability to interpret a visual world.
But even more revolutionary in its repercussions, the man went from being perceived as the object of God’s wrath to being the object of God’s kindness! And everyone discovered that God’s purpose in his blindness was to let the Light of the world shine.
So was it worth it — all the suffering? It all depends on what God gave him in return.
God so loved him that he gave his only Son so that by believing in him, this man would not perish but have eternal life.4 What this man received beyond his miraculous physical healing was the far more miraculous forgiveness of all his sins and eternal life in God’s presence where full joy and pleasures never end.5 Such a gift would be worth a thousand blind lifetimes.
Let us be very careful in interpreting God’s purposes in suffering. The man born blind reminds us that our perceptions and God’s purposes can be very different, even opposite. If we are going to be skeptical, it’s best to be skeptical of our perceptions.
And he reminds us that when Jesus finally reveals the real purposes, we will find them more glorious than we ever dreamed, and his reward so overwhelming that there will be no trace of bitterness, only overflowing gratitude.