Bible Readings: John 9:1-41
Free Resources: Sight in the Darkness (Kids 3rd-6th)
Unit Theme (January 28—February 11): Invitation to Abundant Life
We move now from a Samaritan village to Jerusalem. In John 9, Jesus encounters a man born blind, and unlike many of the other miracles in the four Gospels, this event does not start with the man asking for help, but with the disciples asking a theological question. Generalized, it goes: is suffering for babies caused by their parents’ sin, or their own. The unstated assumption is that suffering (disability) is the result of sin, the question only being whose sin is the cause. To the disciples, the man born blind is an object lesson, a conversation starter.
Blindness and Sin
Jesus does engage the disciples in this conversation. Traditionally, Jesus’ response is to turn the question from people’s sin to God’s glory as the cause of this blindness. However, Dr. Craig Koester of Luther Seminary suggests an alternate reading. According to Koester, the translators of the NRSV created a sentence where there was none in the Greek. Instead of:
Jesus answered, “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 him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. (John 9:3-4)
It should be:
Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. But, in order that the works of God might be manifest in him, we must work the works of him who sent me, while it is day.”
This reading just takes the man’s blindness as a reality unrelated to sin and not caused by God for the purpose of this healing. That man is just a recipient of God’s grace, just like everyone else. This revelation reminded me more starkly than usual that our English Bibles are products of the interpretive process of translation, and therefore can be unintentionally skewed by the translators’ theology.
Thinking on the topic of blindness, I contacted my old college roommate, who is has been visually impaired from a very young age. He clued me into an article on John 9 from Disability Studies Quarterly. This article looks at this Bible story from the perspective of someone living with blindness. The writers point out that the metaphor comparing and contrasting physical blindness with spiritual ignorance has, and has had, negative consequences for Christians on the topic of disability in general. Even with the important clarification that Dr. Koester provides, the link is still there. This leads to an implicit theology that spiritual wholeness is related to physical wholeness, therefore someone who is disabled is not spiritually whole.
Jesus uses this encounter as an opportunity to show God’s glory. In fact, this is considered the sixth sign out of seven in the Book of Signs by some Johannine scholars. These signs are included in this Gospel because they point us to who Jesus is. His actions are, of course, important to the recipients of God’s grace, but that’s not why they are written here.
A Way Forward
In some ways, this is a fairly simple and straightforward story to teach all ages. A man was blind. Jesus healed him. There were problems with the religious leaders. The man worships Jesus as the Son of Man. But, without correction or explanation, the text as read is problematic. One might argue that issues of translation and the perspective of someone who is blind might be too complex to be taught to children. However, this can and should be addressed in a way that they can understand.
- First, use Dr. Koester’s translation of the Greek. For a younger audience, you can just stick with that. For adults, it would be helpful to offer at least a short explanation. Make it clear in your storytelling that Jesus said that disability has no connection to sin.
- Second, emphasize that the man was a whole, beloved child of God even before being healed and that the healing was a gift from Jesus that showed Jesus’ connection with God.
Despite the problematic connotations of blindness as a metaphor, kids still learn best by doing. Download our free resource this week, a Living the Word: Kids (3rd-6th) activity called, “Sight in the Darkness,” which provides a multisensory approach to this story.
-Gregory Rawn (Publisher)
For more great ideas on how to engage participants of all ages in the story of God’s love, check out our Living the Word series for elementary students, youth, adults, and intergenerational settings!
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