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March 19, 2023*
(4th Sunday of Lent)
By Pastor John Partridge
There is a way of misinterpreting scripture that may have grown out of the primitive worship of gods and idols that existed long before God revealed himself to Abraham. For primitive people, if you prayed for rain, and it rained, then it was clear that the gods loved you. But if there was a drought, then it must be because the gods were angry with you. Despite testimony to the contrary that we find in the story of Job, that frame of mind shows up with some regularity in the Old Testament, where we find people claiming that they were wealthy because God loved them but that if you were poor, it much be because you sinned or did something wrong. If we pay attention, we will notice that there are plenty of times in scripture where bad things happen to faithful, and good, even beloved, followers of God.
This attitude toward the poor, the unfortunate, the victims of accidents, the sick, the infirm, the crippled, those with birth defects, and many others, continues into the time of the New Testament and, if we’re honest, still rears its ugly head in the words we hear from some televangelists and others who are selling some variation of what is now referred to as the prosperity gospel. Jesus specifically preached against this attitude and understanding on multiple occasions, but one of the clearest of these is found in the story of his healing of the man who was born blind. (John 9:1-41)
9:1 As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
So common was this method of interpretation, that Jesus’ own disciples assumed that this man’s blindness simply must have been the result of someone’s sin. For the disciples asking this question, that part of the equation wasn’t even in doubt. The puzzle for them wasn’t if someone sinned, but who it was who had sinned. Sin and punishment was assumed to be a part of this man’s infirmity and so the question that the disciples ask Jesus is “who sinned?” They likely wonder how the blind man might have sinned even before he was born, or if God was somehow punishing the sin of his parents by making him to be born blind, which certainly seems unfair. But Jesus replies that both options are wrong.
3 “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. 4 As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. 5 While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
Jesus explains that sin isn’t the only reason that bad things happen. But it’s also important to note that neither does Jesus say that God intentionally caused the man to be blind. He doesn’t say that God made the man blind. But he does say that God intends to use the man’s blindness for a higher purpose. In this particular instance, God has chosen to use this man’s blindness to reveal a little bit of Jesus’ light to the world.
6 After saying this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. 7 “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means “Sent”). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.
8 His neighbors and those who had formerly seen him begging asked, “Isn’t this the same man who used to sit and beg?” 9 Some claimed that he was.
Others said, “No, he only looks like him.”
It’s worth stopping again here to point out that some of the man’s neighbors didn’t even consider the possibility of blindness being cured. Even though they saw this guy every single day, they assumed that if the man in front of them wasn’t blind, then it simply had to be someone else.
But he himself insisted, “I am the man.”
The man insistently tells his neighbors “No, REALLY, it MEEEE!
10 “How then were your eyes opened?” they asked.
11 He replied, “The man they call Jesus made some mud and put it on my eyes. He told me to go to Siloam and wash. So, I went and washed, and then I could see.”
12 “Where is this man?” they asked him.
“I don’t know,” he said.
And here we gain some additional insight into the minds of the blind man’s neighbors, and maybe into the entire culture of that time. As soon as they determine that their neighbor is no longer blind, their first reaction isn’t to throw a party, or to congratulate him, or to celebrate with him, their first response is to drag him into court. To be fair, maybe this is because whenever a leper was cured of leprosy (which could have been any one of a dozen or more different skin diseases such as psoriasis), the cured person had to be brought into the temple, inspected by a priest, and “legally” or “officially” declared to be clean. In that case, what we see here is that his neighbors bring the man into the courts of the temple so that he can be declared to be cleansed from the “sin” that had presented itself as blindness and therefore welcomed back into worship.
13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had been blind. 14 Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud and opened the man’s eyes was a Sabbath. 15 Therefore the Pharisees also asked him how he had received his sight. “He put mud on my eyes,” the man replied, “and I washed, and now I see.”
16 Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.”
It is obvious that the man is no longer blind. And so, now the argument shifts from his blindness to Jesus. They don’t like Jesus and they don’t want to admit that Jesus could have been the agent who performed the healing of the blind man. But the only way to deny that Jesus healed the blind man, is to discredit him and insist that because Jesus is a sinner, that the blind man was somehow healed some other way. And, as we will see, this turns into an almost laughably funny circular argument.
But others asked, “How can a sinner perform such signs?” So, they were divided.
17 Then they turned again to the blind man, “What have you to say about him? It was your eyes he opened.”
The man replied, “He is a prophet.”
18 They still did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they sent for the man’s parents. 19 “Is this your son?” they asked. “Is this the one you say was born blind? How is it that now he can see?”
20 “We know he is our son,” the parents answered, “and we know he was born blind. 21 But how he can see now, or who opened his eyes, we don’t know. Ask him. He is of age; he will speak for himself.” 22 His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders, who already had decided that anyone who acknowledged that Jesus was the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23 That was why his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”
The blind man’s parents are dragged in front of these powerful leaders and even before they are summoned, they already know that these powerful men do not like Jesus and have threatened to excommunicate anyone who claims that Jesus is the Messiah. And so, being good and faithful Jews, but also parents who love their son, they do the best that they can to stay out of whatever trouble he is in, and not get caught between Jesus and these angry and powerful leaders. They want to support their son, but they don’t want to get thrown out of the temple or their local synagogue. And so, their answers don’t go any farther than they must. They tell the truth but refuse to speculate beyond their own knowledge. They swear that their son was, indeed, born blind but they have no firsthand knowledge of how he was healed, or who healed him and they refuse to speculate or comment further.
Their son, on the other hand, has spent his entire life outside the temple. His blindness, much like leprosy, though not communicable, was seen as uncleanness, or more specifically un-wholeness, and thus prohibited him entering into a holy space. Not only does he want to support the man that healed him, he literally has nothing to lose because they are threatening to take away something that he has never had. And so…
24 A second time they summoned the man who had been blind. “Give glory to God by telling the truth, “They said. “We know this man is a sinner.”
25 He replied, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!”
26 Then they asked him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”
27 He answered, “I have told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples too?”
28 Then they hurled insults at him and said, “You are this fellow’s disciple! We are disciples of Moses! 29 We know that God spoke to Moses, but as for this fellow, we don’t even know where he comes from.”
30 The man answered, “Now that is remarkable! You don’t know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes. 31 We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly person who does his will. 32 Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. 33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”
34 To this they replied, “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!” And they threw him out.
And right there we see that these church leaders believe the same misinterpretation of scripture that the disciples had. They dismiss the (formerly) blind man and dismiss the value of his opinion and the value of his eyewitness testimony, because they believe that his blindness must have been caused by either his parents’ sinfulness or his own, and this continued blindness must, therefore, have been an outward sign of his sin and of God’s displeasure. But…
35 Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”
36 “Who is he, sir?” the man asked. “Tell me so that I may believe in him.”
37 Jesus said, “You have now seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you.”
38 Then the man said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him.
39 Jesus said, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.”
40 Some Pharisees who were with him heard him say this and asked, “What? Are we blind too?”
41 Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.
The Pharisees that were listening to Jesus teach were not stupid men. They had dedicated their lives to studying scripture, and a strict obedience to keeping the oral and written law and they were surprised and offended that Jesus would call them blind. But Jesus says that their blindness came because of their insistence that only their interpretation of scripture could be correct.
The truth was that bad things happen to good people. The truth is that being poor doesn’t mean that God hates you, or is angry with you, or that God is punishing you for being sinful. The truth is that being rich, or living in a rich nation, doesn’t mean that God loves you any more than poor people or people who live in other nations, or that your wealth is a sign of your righteousness. The truth is that good people can be rich or poor, American, Asian, European, or African. The truth is that sometimes bad things happen. But when we have faith, God can use those bad things to accomplish good.
The other truth is that what God wants isn’t always obvious. And, even when we spend our lives trying to get it right, we need to have the humility to recognize that sometimes we can get it wrong.
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*You have been reading a message presented at Christ United Methodist Church on the date noted at the top of the first page. Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, Ohio. Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you. Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601. These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership. You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at secretary@CUMCAlliance.org. These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.com . All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.comThe “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™