Registers of Meaning

In his gospel, John vividly describes the conflict that arises when Jesus gives sight to a man born blind (John 9). It is a story that not only reveals that Jesus is the Son of God, but also highlights the necessity of spiritual sight for those who would apprehend Jesus’s true nature. The story is introduced by a question from the disciples, “Master, who did sin, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” When the disciples are confronted by the sight of the blind man, their tendency is to use his situation to begin a theological debate: whose fault is this? Why does this man suffer? The disciples hope to query Jesus regarding the problem of evil.

But Jesus’ answer does not “solve” the problem for them. In fact, Jesus rather complicates the matter when he replies, “neither this man sinned nor his parents but that the works of God may be made manifest in him.” And then Jesus mixes his spit with earth and gives the man his sight. Of course this act, performed on the Sabbath, touches off controversy regarding Jesus’s identity, and when Jesus hears that the healed man has been “cast out” by the religious leaders of the day, he finds the man and questions him, “Dost thou believe on the son of man?” The formerly-blind man’s faithful response allows Jesus to observe, “For judgment I am come into this world, that they which see not might see; and that they which see might be made blind.” The man’s physical blindness, which first occasioned questions of the problem of evil, allows Jesus to show that there is spiritual blindness as well. The blind man is given sight, both physical and spiritual. The “seeing” Pharisees are blind. One can only imagine the thoughts of the disciples who, upon first seeing the blind man, only thought to initiate a theological discussion of the causes of suffering—and evil.

In a way, Jesus has participated in just such a discussion, only he has incarnated the discussion. By introducing complications, Jesus sustains tension throughout the story and frustrates his audience. But so much of Scripture is written in just this manner, for delay and frustration can serve to instruct. His story shows that some representations of the problem of evil require registers of meaning only possible in narrative form. Sin and its results are not the kind of thing that can be parsed out abstractly without loss, and suffering is not the kind of thing that has mere material causes.

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