Rev. Ken Kovacs preaches to the congregation at Catonsville Presbyterian Church


Stay Focused

March 19, 2023

Readings: John 9

The lectionary reading for this Third Sunday in Lent is the entire chapter. It’s impossible to preach faithfully on this text in one sermon. Instead of preaching many sermons on this text, I hope reading the story in digestible sections this morning, interspersed with a hymn, might allow us to enter the narrative flow, get carried along, engage the characters, and resonate with the emotions and feelings of the text. There’s a lot going on here.

The text also raises some serious theological questions. If we’re honest, this story might not sit well with us. From the start, we hear, “As [Jesus] walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ (Jn. 9:3). Immediately, the disciples make an enormous theological mistake, a mistake that colors how we have come to understand this story and the beliefs we hold today. This mistake requires our serious attention because it’s this mistake and all the associated questions and problems that flow from it that presents us from seeing what needs seeing and doing what needs doing.

The disciples’ mistake is that they connect suffering or disability with sin or wrongdoing. It’s this link between suffering or disability with sin or wrongdoing that needs to be severed. And Jesus is quick to do the severing. In no uncertain terms, immediately and forcefully, Jesus corrects them: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned” (Jn. 9:3). In other words, we should not assume a connection between sin and suffering. “Their question is a bad question—useless at best and harmful at worst.” [1]

Too many people have been told that their suffering or that of someone close to them is their fault. Too many people blame themselves for the suffering in their lives or the lives of someone close. I have known—and I’m sure you do too—many people who believe that what they or their loved ones are experiencing is due to something they did or failed to do long ago. They are paying the price for some sin or wrong. Whether it’s a disability or disorder, an illness, condition, or addiction, we search for a reason. We search for someone or something to blame, thinking that would make sense of the suffering. “It must be my fault,” we tell ourselves. Or we say, God is punishing me; I’m paying the price for something my parents or grandparents did. Maybe you believe that not because of anything anyone ever said to you, but because you just told that to yourself. Perhaps it’s a holdover from an archaic way of thinking. The gods punish us when we don’t behave; therefore, we must keep them happy by not sinning. Others, we think, are hurt because of our sins. “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.” I remember hearing this as a boy. My hometown in New Jersey had treelined streets whose growing roots lifted and cracked the sidewalks in many places. It was almost impossible not to step on a crack. As a child, being a literalist, I was anxious about possibly breaking my mother’s back. What a terrifying prospect for a young child.

In her beautiful commentary on John’s Gospel, Jaime Clark-Soles offers invaluable insight into this story. Clark-Soles, professor of New Testament at Perkins School of Theology at SMU, gets right to the point and says: “…we need to stop repeating stupid stuff about sin and suffering.”  [2] Sometimes what we suffer has nothing to do with us. Sometimes it does. Not all suffering has the same source, quality, quantity, degree, or “solution.” Sometimes the suffering is due to stigmatization and bad theology that shames and blames. [3]

But it’s easy to keep blame and shame theology alive within us when we have this verse in the Bible, the second half of John 9:3: “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” It sounds like his blindness was caused and allowed by God. The problem with Bible translations is that they are translations, and we’re at the mercy of the translators. But even the revered translation of most Bible scholars, the New Revised Standard Version, the most scholarly translation available, sometimes gets something wrong. I’m grateful to Clark-Soles for pointing this out. The phrase “he was born blind” in John 9:3 is not actually in the Greek text. Jesus answers the disciples’ question this way, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. In order 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.”  [4] Jesus moves away from an obsession with determining whose fault the man’s impairment was – the man, the parents, or God. It’s simply a fact: the man was born blind. That’s it. Stuff happens. The disciples, however, want to turn the blind man into an academic exercise, turn his condition into a theological quandary, a puzzle to solve at the man’s expense.

Trying to answer the question of who was to blame for his blindness blinds the disciples from seeing what matters most: the work of God embodied in the life and ministry of Jesus. Jesus doesn’t want us to worry about the past but be about the work set before us here and now. Stay focused. The disciples are distracted. Sometimes theological questions can distract us from the work at hand. The Pharisees don’t want to be about the work of God. Even the man’s parents fail him, they won’t vouch for his healing and thus are not open to the works of God right in front of their eyes. What matters most is God’s work to heal, however literal or symbolic we wish to understand this. The focus is upon God’s work. Jesus said, “We must work the works of the One who sent me while it is day.” The focus on work and works is a theme that runs through John’s Gospel. Later, Jesus will say to his disciples, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (Jn. 14:12).

The work of God is light. The work of God brings light, and allows us to see, to see the work, God’s work that is set before us, work for us to do. Earlier, in chapter 8, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world” (Jn. 8:12), and then in chapter 9, Jesus gives light and gives sight to the man born blind. Note how Jesus sends the man to the pool of Siloam to wash the mud from his eyes. For many years, scholars believe that John got this wrong because they could find no evidence of such a pool. They thought he made it up. In 2004, however, the pool was discovered. It’s no mistake that John tells us the man gains his sight only after he goes to the pool, whose name means “sent.”  We can take this healing both literally and symbolically, either way, the point is we gain our sight when our eyes are washed in the pool named “sent.” It’s the sending that matters. Jesus was sent by God, Jesus sent his disciples, the blind man was sent, and in being sent, everything came into focus. He began to see the works of God before his eyes which led to the praise and worship of God (Jn. 9:38). The same is true for us.

So let us stop saying stupid stuff about suffering and sin. Let us stay focused. We, the church, are a people sent to do the works of God, the healing works of God. That’s what matters most.

Jesus touching man's eyes


[1] I’m grateful for the scholarship of Jaime Clark-Soles. Throughout the sermon, I rely heavily on her exegesis of John 9 in Reading John for Dear Life: A Spiritual Walk with the Fourth Gospel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 47.

[2] Clark-Soles, 48.

[3] Ibid.

[4] This is Clark-Soles translation of John 9:3-4.