John in July: God’s Response to the Question of Suffering (Jn 9 -10)

Screenshot 2014-07-18 18.21.05 This last week I sat in on a class taught by the Right Reverend John Shelby Spong or “Jack” as he prefers being called (pictured on the right).  He taught on the subject of his recently published book The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic and invited the students to write a paper on a passage in John using one of his recommended commentaries. I decided to use The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel by C. H. Dodd (pictured on the left) to penetrate the story of the man born blind and its subsequent discourses…

Chapters 9 & 10: God’s Response to the Question of Suffering

Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? – John 9:2

Jesus, the fully human one, offers the only pathway to God because the pathway to divinity can be found only through the expansion and the transcendence of the limits of the human.[1]  – John Shelby Spong

About five centuries before Christ, a young prince snuck out of his palace of paradise to see the world. And what he saw in the world was suffering. He encountered an elderly person struggling with a deteriorating body, a sick person suffering from severe disease, a corpse about to be buried in the earth, and an ascetic monk. Deeply disturbed by what he saw, he wanted to know, “Why? Why is there so much suffering? What was the origin and cause of suffering?” He asked this question to the Universe and then waited for a response by fasting and meditating and seeking wisdom from all kinds of spiritual leaders. Eventually, after what-felt-like ages, he received an answer and the answer enlightened him. His name was Siddhartha Gautama but after attaining enlightenment, he was given a new name: the “Enlightened One” which, in Sanskrit, is the Buddha.  And the answer he received was fourfold: first, accept the reality that life involves suffering; second, understand that suffering stems from desire; third, when one can extinguish desire one can be free from suffering; and fourth, suffering can be extinguished by cultivating the right kind of virtues. The Buddha’s life and the lives of millions of his followers have been changed because he asked the question of suffering and expected an answer.

It’s a question that most people ask at one point or another. In the Western tradition, we often pose the problem by asking, “If God is all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving (omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent), then why is there so much suffering in the world and in our own lives?” Western philosophers and theologians have offered many answers throughout the centuries, expanding and thickening the theological project known as theodicy. Yet how many of us bring the question of suffering to God in prayer? And how many of us actually expect an answer? And what do you think God would say? The Buddha received an answer that changed the world. What about us? The story of the man born blind in John 9 invites us to accompany Jesus and his disciples as they encounter suffering in a blind man. And like the Buddha, the disciples ask the question, “Why? Where does this suffering come from? What is its cause and origin?” Specifically, they ask the question, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Informed by the commonly held understanding that illness was often (if not always) the consequence of sin, the disciples wanted to know who was to blame.

Jesus’ Initial Response

Jesus initially responds by saying, “Neither he nor his parents sinned, but in order that the works of God be made manifest in him.”[2] According to Colin Kruse, “[Jesus’ response] presents an unattractive theodicy, implying that God allowed the man to be born blind so that many years later God’s power could be shown in the restoration of his sight.”[3] As a result, Colin Kruse highlights the fact that there is no punctuation in the Greek text and suggests Jesus’ answer be rendered thus: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. In order that the works of God may be revealed in him it is necessary for us to work the works of him who sent me.” Although Kruse is correct about the lack of punctuation in the Greek, he fails to account for the Greek word ἀλλ, which clearly serves as a conjunction within the sentence rather than a word at the beginning of a new sentence.

If we allow ourselves to see the rest of the pericope as the fourth evangelist’s response to the question of suffering we will not have to resort to ignoring or omitting Greek words. Using C. H. Dodd’s commentary The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, I intend to demonstrate how the author’s response to the question of suffering continues far beyond the initial response of Jesus to include the following 73 verses.

Extending the Response

The connection between the healing narrative (9:1-12) and the following discourse, that takes form as a trial scene (9:13- 41), is clear. However, C. H. Dodd explores the possibility that the episode continues into chapter ten, explaining that “it is not until the beginning of [chapter 11] that a fresh narrative begins.”[4] Dodd highlights two clear sections in chapter ten: the Good Shepherd discourse (10:1-21) and the Chanukkah dialogue (10: 22-39). Both of these sections, which follow a pattern of discourse and response,[5] are held together by the word ἔργον (“work” in 10:25, 32, 33, 37, 38) and a references to shepherd and sheep. Furthermore, the reference to Jesus healing the blind, which is couched within accusations of demonic influence (10:20-21), connects the conclusion of the Good Shepherd discourse with the preceding sign narrative. Indeed, Dodd asserts that the reference “would be senseless unless [9:1-7] had preceded it” and sees it as a “clamp” which holds the whole pericope (9:1 – 10:21) together as a cohesive unit. [6] Within this unit, Dodd detects the following sequence: narrative, followed by a pattern of dialogue and monologue, and followed yet again by dialogue transitioning into monologue with the key phrase Ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν (“truly, truly, I say to you”); a sequence he also observes in chapter 3.[7] Although verse 10:22 introduces a new time and place, Dodd understands this verse and its following verses to serve as an epilogue much like 3:22-36, 5:60-71 and 11:45-53, which append their preceding discourses, elaborating on themes previously discussed. Based on this very brief overview of Dodd’s literary analysis, we can now begin to investigate the themes explored in the pericope and see how they function as a divine response to the question of suffering.

Themes of Judgment, Light and Sheep

According to Dodd, “the dominant theme of this episode is not the coming of light as such, but its effect in judgment.”[8] Appropriately, he titles his chapter on this pericope “Judgment by the Light” and, in his exposition of leading Johannine themes, he associates “light” with “judgment” in a chapter titled “Light, Glory, Judgment.” In examining the Johannine theme of light, Dodd acknowledges the influences of Zoroastrianism, Plato, Philo, Hermeticism (viz. The Bowl), the Psalms (viz. 36:9; 27:1), and Genesis (viz. 15:7-20).[9] Dodd seeks to read the Fourth Gospel with Jewish eyes, but he also seems to recognize that Jewish eyes at this time were deeply Hellenized. In fact, in unpacking the theme of “judgment” in the Fourth Gospel, Dodd finds the Greek concept of krinein to be more helpful than the Hebrew concept of mishpat in understanding the fourth evangelist’s meaning. While the Hebrew word mishpat refers primarily to a sovereign authority rewarding the good and punishing the wicked, the Greek word krinein speaks more to the act of discerning.[10] The Greek focus on judgment as discernment makes sense in connection to light, which functions as a “medium” of discernment.[11] Light does not reward the good and punish the wicked; instead, it reveals and illumines those who are engaged in good and wicked actions and “men [sic] by their response to the manifestation of the light declare themselves, and so pronounce their own ‘judgment.’ It is this fact,” Dodd continues, “that is exhibited dramatically in the denouement of the trial scene in 9:41 [If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.]”[12]

Dodd recognizes the shepherd imagery in chapter 10 as deepening this theme of judgment, explaining that the Good Shepherd discourse along with the reference to shepherd and sheep in the Chanukkah discourse are “not to be fully understood without reference to a passage in the [Hebrew Scriptures] which must have been in the author’s mind.”[13] The passage is Ezekiel chapter 34, which is primarily “a sentence of judgment upon unworthy rulers of Israel, who are denounced both for robbing and killing the sheep [Ez 34:3] and for abandoning them to beasts of prey [34:8].”[14] Although Dodd does not explicitly link the light imagery with the shepherd imagery, one can infer that the discerning light helps the shepherd distinguish between the sheep and the wolves while also helping the sheep distinguish between the good shepherd and the thief.[15]

So how do these themes help us understand the fourth evangelist’s response to the question of suffering? Is Jesus as “light” meant to enlighten the reader about the nature of suffering in a similar way that the Buddha was enlightened? If so, how do we make sense of all this judgment?

Interpreting the Response

In order to begin to see Dodd’s themes as part of the Gospel’s response to the question of suffering, I will need to employ the insights of French anthropologist René Girard, who, like the Buddha, also sees desire as the root of violence and suffering. According to Girard, humans fall prey to the power of mimetic desire (imitating each other’s desires) and subsequent rivalry and violence. Instead of allowing the rivalry to lead to an all-against-all war, humans have figured out how to temper the violence by scapegoating innocent victims. If there is any such thing as “Original Sin” or “the Fall of humanity” it is human participation and complicity in the victimization of innocent scapegoats, which, Girard argues, lies at the root of human culture and religion (ie. sacrifice).[16]

With this in mind, let us look again at our question about suffering. The disciples ask, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Spong paraphrases the disciples’ question: “Who is to be blamed for this man having been born blind?”[17] By articulating our questions to God we can begin to see the logic underneath our questions. And when it comes to the problem of suffering, we may need to stop and ask ourselves if our drive for an answer is connected to our drive to find someone to blame. Although the “common theological wisdom of that day held that sickness and tragedy were instruments of divine punishment,” I would argue that this “theological wisdom” reinforces the human compulsion to scapegoat and blame. Throughout history, humanity has succumbed to this compulsion and clothed it with religion so that we end up “practicing a victimizing religion.”[18] Some of us become victims to our own compulsion to blame and, by blaming ourselves, suffer from self-hate, self-destructive habits and, in some cases, suicide.

The Jewish people, who have suffered for centuries from the Christian compulsion to scapegoat and blame, have creatively and, in my opinion, brilliantly directed this human compulsion to blame towards God. Though both Jews and Christians share the Hebrew Scriptures, which include the protests of Job and the authors of the Lament Psalms, the Jewish tradition of protest against God has persisted through the centuries.[19] Not only does this tradition serve as a helpful resource in the midst of catastrophe, it also creates space for honesty, allowing some light to shine on our human compulsion to blame. When we direct this compulsion to blame towards God, God responds by opening our eyes to see how blinded we have become by our drive to scapegoat and blame. This is why Jesus’ healing of the man born blind should be seen as part of the Gospel’s answer to the disciples’ question, “Who is to be blamed?” God responds by shedding light to help us discern whether we are on the side of the victim or the victimizer, whether we are on the side of the wolves or the sheep, the animal most commonly used in ritualized scapegoating. This is why the imagery of light and sheep are part of the Gospel’s answer to the disciples’ question.

The judgment, which the light brings, is not a judgment of condemnation, but an illumination that helps humanity to see our compulsion to blame and to discern (κρινω) whose side we are on: the victim’s or the accuser’s.[20] If we remain blind to our impulse to blame we unwittingly submit to its power and become controlled by it. When this impulse takes over we begin to demonize innocent victims, which is exactly what the accusers do to Jesus in verses 10:20-21. The discerning light reveals that the “demon” is truly innocent while those who are demonizing are on the side of the Accuser (ha Satan), who is the personification of the violent scapegoat phenomenon.[21] In other words, the light discerns between the innocent “demon” and the demonizing Satan. Though the accusers throughout most of the Fourth Gospel are the literary characters known as Ioudaios, the accusers throughout most of church history have proved to be Christians who have used these very texts to perpetuate satanic accusations against the Jewish people. In doing so, anti-Semitic Christians have chosen to be on the side of Satan.

The Gospel’s response to the disciples’ question of suffering continues and reaches its climax when Jesus says, “I lay down my life for the sheep” (10:15). With these words, Jesus not only says that he is willing to give his life in defense of his flock and “act as Advocate (Parakletos) for His persecuted followers.”[22] Jesus also says that he is willing to take the blame even if that means dying. Dodd writes, “In the imagery of the discourse the heroic shepherd goes out to meet the wolf, and lays down his life in defense of his flock. This provides the evangelist with the clearest and most explicit statement he has yet permitted himself upon the Passion of Christ as voluntary and vicarious self-sacrifice.”[23] Sometimes we ourselves are the wolf that our heroic shepherd goes out to meet, when we allow our compulsion to blame to violently control our behavior. And the heroic shepherd, even though he dies by the wolf, still does not give up on the wolf. “Jesus,” Spong says, “responded to everyone by loving. They betrayed, tortured, and killed him and he responded by loving them.”[24] This is God’s ultimate response to the question of suffering: allowing Godself to be the object of blame in Christ even to the point of death.

In Guilt, Anger, and God: The Patterns of Our Discontents, Christopher FitzSimons Allison writes,

If we understand that we have a natural aggression which is aggravated by the inevitable frustrations of life [ie. the human compulsion to blame]…that we use each other and ourselves as scapegoats, that deepest aspect of our anger is in the face of innocent suffering and injustice, and that the often unrecognized but primary object of our anger is toward God, then we are at that very center of Christianity asking the question to which the crucifixion of Christ is the answer.

The god of atheists is that aloof and all powerful principle which, because of evil it will not heal, is denied by the atheist in the angry name of his own sense of justice. The God of Christians is he whom we see in Jesus Christ. He takes our resentment in his torn hands, our bitterness in his nailed feet, our hatred in his pierced side and buries them. Yet it is not as a scapegoat that Christ takes our anger but as a lamb. The all important difference between a scapegoat and a lamb is that the Lamb makes us responsible. Scapegoats for our anger are projections that feed our self-righteousness. We always attempt to justify ourselves with scapegoats. The Lamb of God puts the responsibility back in our laps where we are no longer able to justify ourselves.[25]

The Lamb of God is also our heroic shepherd, willing to die as a victim of our violence and respond with love in order to reveal to us that we are being wolves and that we no longer need to be. Through his love and sacrifice, he invites us out of our blame-bound existence into the abundant life (10:10). In this abundant life, we can learn to participate in the divine through self-giving love, no longer bound by the compulsion to blame. In his concluding words on this Johannine episode, Spong explains, “The pathway to divinity can be found only through the expansion and the transcendence of the limits of human,” including the human impulse to demonize and victimize.[26]

In the epilogue, the Johannine Jesus invites the reader into mystical union with the divine through participation in heroic, self-giving love. “It is here,” Dodd writes, “for the first time that His claim [to be the Messiah, the Son of God] is both public and explicit.”[27] By publicly claiming to be the Son of God, he makes himself much more vulnerable to the vicious wolves of human accusation. Being divine seems to be deeply connected to being vulnerable. He also quotes Psalm 82:6, which suggests that other people (including the reader) can participate in the divine, not just him. The rest of the epilogue shows that the way we participate in the divine is by standing up for the victim even if that means being a victim ourselves. We participate in the divine through self-giving love, even at the risk of losing our lives.

Conclusion

The Gospel’s response to the question of suffering has proven to be much more involved than Jesus’ initial answer. Though we may not have arrived at the same Four Noble Truths that Buddha attained, we have seen how the discerning Light has revealed the human compulsion to blame, a compulsion that often propels our questions of suffering. We have seen how we ourselves sometimes take the side of the satanic accuser when we scapegoat innocent victims. And we have seen how our heroic shepherd is always on the side of the victim. Moreover, our heroic shepherd is also the Lamb of God who is willing to die not only for us but also by us when we allow our inner wolves to take over. And finally, the Jesus of the Fourth Gospel invites us to move out of our blame-bound existence into the abundant life of self-giving love and divine vulnerability.

[1] John Shelby Spong, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic (New York: Harper Collins, 2013), 151.

[2]Οὔτε οὗτος ἥμαρτεν οὔτεοἱ γονεῖς αὐτοῦ, ἀλλ ἵνα φανερωθῇ τὰ ἔργα τοῦ θεοῦἐν αὐτῷ.

[3]Colin Kruse, John: The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, 220 -1.

[4] Dodd, The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, 354.

[5] Good Shepherd Discourse: Discourse (10:1-5), Response (10:6), Discourse (10:7-18), Response (10:19-21). Chanukkah Discourse: Discourse (10:22-30), Response (10:31), Discourse (10:32- 38), Response (10:39).

[6] Dodd, 356.

[7] Brief narrative (3:1), dialogue and monologue (3:2-10), dialogue transitioning into monologue with Ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω (3:11-21).

[8] Dodd, 358.

[9] Dodd, 201-12.

[10] Dodd, 208.

[11] “The medium of discrimination is light.” Dodd, 210.

[12] Dodd, 210-1.

[13] Dodd, 358.

[14] Dodd, 359.

[15] Dodd invites this conclusion when he writes, “The divine Shepherd is ‘discriminating between sheep and sheep, between rams and he-goats,’ as Ezekiel said he would (34:17).” 361.

[16] See René Girard, Violence and the Sacred (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979).

[17] Spong, Jewish Mystic, 145

[18] John Shelby Spong, “The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic,” Lecture on Atonement, Summer Session at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley CA, July 17, 2014.

[19] Protest against God can be seen clearly in Lamentations Rabbah, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, Zvi Kolitz, Elie Wiesel, Jon D. Levenson, David Blumenthal, Martin Buber and Harold Kushner. The following books attest to the tradition: Anson Laytner, Arguing with God: A Jewish Tradition (New Jersey: Jason Aronson, 1990); David G. Roskies, The Literature of Destruction: Jewish Responses to Catastrophe (New York: Jewish Publication Society, 1989)

[20] “We shall not be wrong in finding…a protest against what the evangelist regarded as a crude misinterpretation of the idea of Christ as Judge” Dodd, 209.

[21] This reading sheds light on John 8:44 in which the demonized Jesus reveals how those who are demonizing him are actually the ones on the side of the Accuser (children of the devil)

[22] Note 1 in Dodd, 358.

[23] Dodd, 360.

[24] Spong, Lecture on Atonement, July 17, 2014.

[25] Christopher FitzSimons Allison, Guilt, Anger, and God: The Patterns of Our Discontents (New York: Seabury Press, 1972), 86.

[26] Spong, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, 151

[27] Dodd, 362.

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