Do you notice the difference between “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” and “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”? It’s called an Oxford comma, and the conventions around its use often invoke strong opinions among editors, grammarians, and lexicographers. (If you want to know whether I’m for or against it, look at the previous sentence.) Last week news outlets reported that a group of truck drivers won a lawsuit for overtime pay because their employee manual didn’t use the Oxford comma. Small choices about how we communicate can have large and lasting impact.
We see this in today’s gospel. Jesus’ disciples ask whether a man’s congenital blindness is connected to some sin that was committed before his birth. Jesus responds: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day.” That’s the translation we use—the New Revised Standard Version—but if you dig around in the original Greek you’ll realize that the phrase “he was born blind” isn’t there. A more literal translation would be: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (English Standard Version).
Do you notice the difference between these translations? The first one claims that God deliberately caused a baby to be born blind so that decades later when that baby was grown up Jesus could do a miracle to demonstrate God’s love and power to the world. In the second translation, there is more ambiguity. We are left to puzzle for ourselves—and alongside the disciples and Pharisees—why the man was born blind and whether God might allow (or even cause) illness and disability.
There’s yet another way to translate Jesus’ words, and this one hinges on punctuation. Osvaldo Vena, who teaches New Testament at Garrett Theological Seminary in Evanston, suggests this translation: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. But in order that God’s works might be revealed in him it is necessary for us to work the works of the one who sent me.” Now the emphasis isn’t on what caused the man’s blindness, but rather on how God calls us to do Jesus’ work in the world. How might our world be different if we were to imagine our own work as revealing God’s grace?
Pastor Elizabeth Palmer