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"Who Sinned?" -- John 9 (4th Sunday of Lent) (Patrick O'Connor, preaching)

Artwork: “Insight” by Rev. Lisle Gwynn Garrity |

A Sanctified Art LLC | |

used with copyright permission

Patrick O'Connor, preaching:

Have you ever met or known a kid who asks too many questions? How do dogs see? Why is the sky blue? What time is it? Are we there yet? It shouldn’t surprise you, but I was absolutely one of those kids growing up, and I pestered my parents so much with questions I once got this giant book for my birthday titled The Big Book of Why, and it was full of trivial information answering 1000 questions about anything and everything. Asking questions helps us seek understanding, and our story today is full of questions.

As we gather on this fourth Sunday of our Lenten season, we’re continuing to explore our theme of Seeking – Honest Questions for a Deeper Faith, and we’ve been engaging our texts and stories with questions these past few weeks: Is this the fast I choose? Who will you listen to? How do I begin again? Will you give me something to drink? We ask these questions to seek understanding and meaning from our sacred stories and tradition, and our question today comes from the first question that the disciples asked Jesus as they encountered a man born blind- who sinned?

To be honest, I don’t particularly love the question that the disciples ask- I don’t think it’s that good of a question. According to our story, the disciples encounter a man born blind, and before asking if the man needs any help, any care, anything, they instead want to seek “spiritual” understanding into this man’s ailment. They ask “Who sinned to make this man be born blind?”

I would argue that it is actually the disciples themselves who are sinning by asking the question instead of seeking healing and redemption for the human they’ve come upon. The disciples want to impress Jesus with their piety and correct theology. Behind their question is the assumption that someone must have sinned so much that it caused this person to be born blind- a bad assumption informing a bad question- who sinned?

Often, our bad questions are shaped by bad assumptions. Considering our story today, the disciples begin the interrogation of the man born blind with the assumption that surely someone must have sinned because of this man’s impairment. I imagine Jesus sitting with this question the same way my parents often did when I would ask them something trivial, although I doubt Jesus rolled his eyes as much as my parents. Jesus tells the disciples that no one sinned to cause this ailment, and then he gets to the work that I think the disciples should have started with by tending to the man’s needs through healing. Jesus heals the man and then essentially dips out for the middle part of the story as everyone surrounding the healed man continues interrogating him.

This man’s community is unphased at the sheer wonder of the miracle, and instead fixates on the who and how miracle happened by asking questions. Fixated on the how so much so that no answer satisfies them, considering they ask several times and several people the same questions looking answers, and ultimately the community decides that even though the man had spent his life on the margins already because of his disability and is now healed, he still is not enough to be a part of the community. The man born blind is cast out.

You’ll notice a subtle language change in how we talk about today’s story- while growing up I was taught the story of “Jesus and the blind man”, recent scholarship from disability theologians and advocates have suggested that we instead refer first to the humanity of the person born blind, rather than their physical limitation, hence we say person born blind. In learning about this language change this week, I’ve wondered what else disability scholars might have to say about the questions and assumptions posed in this Scripture passage.

Disability theology encourages us to reconsider how we’ve traditionally interpreted this text. Deborah Beth Creamer says “Disability studies scholars and theologians have identified at least four different models of how to think about disability: moral, medial, social, and limits. Within the moral model, attention is paid to how disability is interpreted as either good or bad, and how people with disabilities are imbued with moral weight” (340). Traditionally, our story today of Jesus encountering the man born blind falls within the moral model, which we’ll come back to. The medical model includes treatment and understanding the physiological causes of disability. “Rather than equating disability with physical impairment, the social model suggests that the ‘problem’ of disability lies in society itself—in architecture, attitudes, and assumptions… and is the foundation for most advocacy and scholarly work on disability today (340-341). Finally the limits model takes the social model a step further and questions our assumptions about what it is to be “normal” or “disabled” in the first place.

We traditionally interpret the story of Jesus healing the man born blind under the morals model, equating belief and faithfulness with physical healing. Yet Jesus moves to heal the man without questioning the man’s belief or lack thereof. The man embraces the mystery around Jesus and his healing. Jesus embraces the man. Jesus offers healing with no assumptions of sin made of the man born blind, and the man comes back seeing in both literally and spiritually.

Those surrounding the man- the disciples, his community, and the Pharisees, are seen offering lots of assumptions behind their questions beginning with the first question asked-- who sinned? “This question assumes that illness and disability are the result of sin; it assumes that man deserved to be born blind; it assumes that physical blindness is a form of failure.” When dissecting the miracle, the crowd assumes “that there must be a cause and effect—someone’s fault and God’s judgement at play, and when the actual effect is made known, the crowd refuses to believe the cause that has been given credit.” Rev. Bruce Reyes Chow says, “We want to believe, but only on our terms. The disciples' first reaction is to debate the blindness and not deal at all with the human. Intellectualizing and theologizing outside of seeing the created being right in front of them led them to ask the wrong questions. Rather than ask, “How can we heal? How can we help?” they ask, “What’s wrong with him? Whose fault is it?”

In our story today, Jesus invites us to consider the whole of a person, not just a specific aspect of the identity. As I mentioned earlier, the limits model of disability theology challenges us to reconsider what we think of and “know” to be normal or not. “It highlights impairment as an unsurprising aspect of the human condition, something that we all experience at some point in our lives” (Creamer 341). Looking at our story through the limits model helps us challenge the assumption that a person’s impairment is the result of sin.

In reconsidering what we assume to be “normal” through this model, perhaps we can reconsider the assumption of the symbol of a wheelchair. Instead of seeing it as a sign of disability, Deborah Beth Creamer suggests that we consider it as “a piece of technology that assists the human journey, as does a car, calculator, or eyeglasses” (341).

Author Stuart Strachan Jr. tells the story of “an American woman visiting the Philippines, [who] observed an elderly woman on the outskirts of Manila. She looked poverty-stricken and walked with the help of a cane down into a ditch alongside a main road. The American observed the woman struggling and assumed she needed help. As she approached the elderly woman, the woman began to shake her cane at the American, hurling curse words and a barrage of threats. While somewhat unsure of the situation, the American continued to pursue the woman. It was not until she got close enough that she realized her mistake: the woman was not in trouble, she was just attempting to have her daily “bathroom” visit in peace without the help of an over-anxious, do-gooder American.”

On the first Sunday after moving from Alabama to San Anselmo to begin seminary, I walked with my next door neighbor, Willa, to First Pres for my first visit. I remember the choir singing “We’re All in This Together” from Disney’s High School Musical movie as the benediction, and as millennials she and I loved it. After worship, I walked over to Duncan Hall for some coffee and to meet folks. I wish I could remember who it was, but as I introduced myself to one of you, you asked about Willa and who she was in relationship to me. “Is that your wife?” you asked. I chuckled and said “no just my neighbor”, and then one of you absolutely surprised me. There was a major assumption behind your question. The conversation typically quickly shifts to another introductory question, but that didn’t happen this time. Instead, one of you looked me square in the eyes and said, “Oh, I’m sorry I made that assumption.” That is the moment that begins my own journey of healing, learning with you all just how much grace abounds.

© 2023 Patrick O'Connor


“Disability Theology,” by Deborah Beth Creamer. Religion Compass

6/7 (2012), 339–346.

Commentary by Rev. Bruce Reyes Chow from Seeking – Honest Questions for a Deeper Faith


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