Of First Importance

By James Cornwell

Reading from the Gospel of John, 9:1-17

1 As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3Jesus answered, “ Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. 8The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” 9Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” 10But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 11He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” 12They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. 14Now it was a Sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” 16Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the Sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. 17So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.”


“Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Like Job’s friends in our Old Testament readings this week, the disciples’ logic about human suffering is that it has a moral cause.

This is not entirely incorrect. Sin leads to alienation, hatred, and destruction. Nevertheless, Jesus rebukes his disciples, saying that the man’s blindness is the result of no one’s sin, but is instead an opportunity for the works of God to be made manifest.

Many people are suffering right now — either from the effects of the coronavirus directly or from the effects of the measures we have taken against it. Unfortunately, rather than leading us to humility and a reflection on our own radical dependence on God, we instead find ourselves continually slipping into the role occupied by the disciples, for whom the most important question was one of blame. Why did this person fall ill? Is it because he refused to observe social distancing guidelines? Or was it the woman who refused to wear a mask at the church service he attended last week? Or was it the public health expert who gave inconsistent guidance due to politics, leading to confusion? Or was it the political leader whose flawed character led to laxity or heavy-handedness or shortsightedness?

Yes, the virus spreads through the actions and inactions of human beings, many of which are sinful, and we should do everything we can to slow or prevent spread of the disease. This includes locating the causes and addressing them. But as we act, Jesus also wants our hearts oriented rightly. What is of first importance to us? Placing blame, or doing God’s works? Let us use our energy to make the works of God manifest in the midst of suffering.

James Cornwell lives and teaches in the Hudson Valley with his wife Sarah and their five children.

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