The Works of God Made Visible

In an interesting passage in John 9, Jesus and his disciples pass by a man “blind from birth.”  His disciples ask: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  This is a common question.  People see something bad, even a natural disaster like a hurricane or earthquake, and they wonder: “Whose fault is this?”  After an earthquake, someone wonders why God is “punishing” them.

This tendency is not exclusive to Christians.  It was even more common in the ancient pagan world. In Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus Tyrannus, a plague is besetting Thebes, and King Oedipus wants to know who is to blame. Clearly, the gods are punishing Thebes for someone’s fault, and Oedipus is determined to discover the culprit. So he calls upon the blind “seer” Tiresias to uncover who is to blame.

Although Oedipus is sighted, he is blind to the truth that the blind Tiresias “sees.”  The culprit is Oedipus himself.  He has killed his father and married his mother. So it is Oedipus himself who must suffer.  And he does.

The Scriptures did everything possible to counter this age-old pagan tendency. In the Old Testament, we find the figure of Job, who is beset by sufferings though he has committed no sin.  The attempt by his friends to convince Job he must have done something wrong angers God, and He chastises them.

In the Gospel of Luke, when Jesus is asked about the Galileans “whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices,” he replies: “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered thus?  I tell you, No.”  “And the eighteen upon whom the tower in Silo′am fell and killed them? Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem?  I tell you, No.”  So too, when the disciples ask Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” he replies: “Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him.”

One way of understanding this last sentence is to say that, since the man’s blindness is soon to be healed by Jesus, he has been born blind so Jesus can heal him. Jesus cannot heal him of blindness unless he is blind, and the healing would not have been as dramatic if the man had not been “born blind.”  (“Never since the world began has it been heard that any one opened the eyes of a man born blind,” the healed man tells the Pharisees.)


There is some truth in this, but there are also problems. If I blind a man so that, I can restore his sight, this seems more hypocritical than noble.  If I steal all your money so I can gloriously restore it to you a week later, then I am merely posing as a giver of gifts.

Christ is rarely interested in merely giving dramatic signs of his power.  Indeed, he is critical of those constantly looking for such “signs.”  “Show us you are God by showing us your power.  Hit someone with a bolt of lightning. Create a storm. That would convince us.”  Convince them of what?  That he is one of those pagan gods who constantly torments humanity? Likely. That he is the God of love who empties himself of his divinity to dwell with us in our humanity?  Not so much.

So if Christ is not interested in “showing off,” what is he doing?  We needn’t deny that he intends to heal the man born blind, and this is part of the reason he says the man was born blind, “so that the works of God should be made visible through him.” (It is an interesting irony that something should be “made visible” through a man who is blind.) But perhaps he has something more in mind as well.

If we are to be “like Christ,” then perhaps we should say to ourselves: “We are called upon to do this as well.  We are to be Christ’s body now. We are called upon to heal the blind and crippled, cure the sick, and care for the poor.”  “As you did to the least of these, so you did it to me.”

Fine so far.  But what if Christ means something even more dramatic?  If we can cure the blind and cure the crippled, then we should.  But what if we can’t?  How then are the “works of God made visible”?  Is it not in the way we care for them?  What if the blind and crippled are not hated and being punished by God, but are special gifts of His love to us? And what if we are called upon to see them with new eyes: not as sad and pitiable, but as those we are called upon to love, and as such, as gifts allowing us to become more truly “God-like,” not like the pagan gods, but “Christ-like”?

Perhaps, if our own sight were healed, we would “see” differently and judge a culture not by how many tall buildings it builds, the gold in its treasury, or the power of its army, but by how well it treats the weakest among us.  Some people look upon natural disasters as a time when humans can shine with acts of bravery.  Fair enough.  But what if, in an analogous way, we look upon the disabled as gifts of love calling forth the love of Christ.

Too often, we value strength and domination.  But this is not the way of Christ, the way of life. When given occasions to stop and realize that the value of our lives and the strength of our society depend upon how we treat the weakest among us – the disabled, the elderly, the unborn – then we can become strong with the strength of Christ, and we should be grateful that God gives us that gift and privilege.


*Image: Christ Healing the Blind by El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos), ca. 1570 [The MET, New York]. The man and woman in the lower section of the painting are thought to depict the blind man’s parents.

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Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.