We had a rich and wide-ranging discussion on Wednesday night after dinner. We began discussing the long-promised fifth chapter of Marcus Borg’s Heart of Christianity, which concerns the place of Jesus as central to the Christian faith. As discussions of Christianity often do, this one eventually turned to the Bible. Specifically, we talked about how our witness to the life of Jesus was written decades after his death and how our reading of that witness is affected by millennia of other readers. Even the text we now have is translated from original languages through the lens of our entire Christian history and the theologies and imagery that have developed along the way. As if on cue, the lectionary this week presents us with John 9.1-41, the story of the man born blind, a text that is rich in reading possibilities.
Unfortunately, the possibilities that are reflected in our usual translations can be dangerous. The Pharisees ask Jesus whether the man was born blind because his parents sinned or because he did. The question reflects a common view in the ancient world: bad things happen to bad people. If someone is ill, someone must have messed up. Jesus, in his Jesus-y way, is kind, saying, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of [the one] who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” It’s not anyone’s fault; we shouldn’t blame the victim. But is this response truly any more kind?
The second part of his answer is curious if we take the problem of evil seriously. There are a lot of explanations for the presence of evil in the world if one – as Christians typically do – assume that God is good. We often describe it as a condition, the consequence of sin brought into the world by Adam and Eve and a sneaky serpent. As mentioned, the Pharisees assumed that it was the direct consequence of the blind man’s or his parents’ actions. Another theory developed in the few hundred years before Jesus’ birth is that people suffer, not because they are evil, but because they are good in an evil world. All intriguing and problematic theories, but Jesus does not offer those. Instead, he appears to say that it is God’s fault.
It would seem that this man was born blind because God wants to show off. Perhaps more generously, all of existence is here to testify to God’s greatness, including suffering. So this man was born blind, reduced to begging his entire life, bringing shame on his family in an honor/shame culture, all so that Jesus can come along one day and make him better. Now people can say, “Wow. God really is awesome.” Is God awesome? Is that God awesome? The God that makes people suffer for decades and then shows up at the eleventh hour to provide relief – is that a God worthy of worship? Can that God rightly be said to be good? I have to say, I don’t think so. There must be better ways to deliver a message than in our broken bodies heaped under a mountain of mud, sitting at the bottom of an ocean, or tormented in a fire from which there is no escape. God must have better ways of showing love than inflicting us with leprosy and paralysis and diabetes and cancer and spousal abuse and stray bullets. Count me out.
Fortunately, we have nerds. All nerds are great, but Bible nerds might just save our souls. Bible grammar nerds get an extra star in their crowns.
One thing our translations obscure about the texts they represent is that Greek is all mashed together. There are no divisions, no visual cues for the reader to understand how the words go together. There’s no punctuation to tell us where a sentence ends. There are not even spaces between words to tell us where they start and stop. Look at Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees in verse 3: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” This certainly supports a common view that has emerged in the Christian tradition: that suffering is good because God wills it; that we suffer to learn a lesson or to demonstrate God’s grace. But what if we break up the sentences a little differently: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. He was born blind. So that God’s works might be revealed in him, we must work the works of [the one] who sent me while it is day.” Perhaps God and God’s love are revealed in our response to suffering. Perhaps suffering is, in fact, a bad thing, but we can redeem that suffering with love.
I won’t claim that this is the right reading of the text, or even a better reading. However, it does show that there is a choice that the translators made and that choice reflects a particular theological point of view. It is not neutral. It is not objective. It is not “simply reading the text.” It is a choice and that choice has consequences in the way that we as Christians live our lives. Now, this does not mean that reading the Bible is pointless. May it never be! Rather, it calls us to claim our own voices, to read critically and humbly, and to always know that our reading has consequences. Like our response to suffering, the way that we read a text – or do anything, really – can be revelatory of God’s work and God’s love. Or not. It’s our choice.
Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, as we talk further about the story of the man born blind. I know I said this last week about the woman at the well, but this is one of my favorite stories in the Bible. I could probably say that about every story in the Gospel of John and that won’t be the only common thread between these two stories. I hope you will read ahead and I look forward to a rich conversation on Sunday.