Lent 4A, 2011
Scripture: John 9:1-41
“Rabbi,” teacher, the disciples ask Jesus “who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?”
This is not an unfamiliar question to us. I don’t mean that we are familiar with this account from the Gospel of John, but that we are familiar with the sentiment expressed by the question. The sentiment–even if avoided in our more self-aware moments or overcome by our empathy and learning–to identify people first by their limitations. In modern medical care this tendency can most clearly be revealed as a challenge. When I did my chaplaincy training, one of the issues that came up repeatedly in the training I observed of doctors, nurses and others in the hospital was the tendency to refer to patients by their affliction, i.e. “the heart” in bed 1 or the “knee” or “leg” in another… To some degree this sort of thing is understandable, especially in a situation where one is dealing with a large number and quick turnover of patients. But it is a distancing behavior that can easily and quickly become a method if dehumanizing–which is of course why the hospital was trying to stop it.
This is part of a broader human tendency to lump people into groups or teams. Scientists who study group behavior for example, say that people will generally band together by ethnic group/appearance naturally–but that by putting diverse people in the same uniform, that natural grouping can be altered and people with naturally gravitate toward people with, say, the same t-shirt. In other areas it’s added to the color of history, as we can talk about Charles the Bald or Pepin the Fat or my favorite Æthelred the Unready (uneducated, badly counseled).
When this tendency is unchecked, it leads to situations in which people are no longer seen as human beings of worth, but are only identified by limitation or difference, which can expand to the point of being used as a sort of negative icon or totem, which was the situation with those who were afflicted with blindness, various skin diseases etc… during the first century. The antidote today, as it was then, is to first see the person (connect to and respect them as human beings). And this is precisely what Jesus does.
As he is walking along, John tells us that Jesus “saw a man blind from birth.” We might say that this phrasing is unimportant, except for the way that scene plays out. Jesus sees the man, his disciples see the affliction. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, we can say their question was motivated out of honest frustration with the predicament the man found himself in, but their frame of thinking wouldn’t let them see the man first. Instead, the question is about the man in the role of warning sign: who sinned, this man or his parents? It was obvious to them that someone had done something to result in this evil, and that the man therefore stood not as a person in his own right, but as a warning to others (it’s understandable that such a way of thinking would find its way into modern “demotivators”).
The phrasing of the question is revealing. Often we leave off the first part, asking about the man’s sin. But consider this: how could the man be responsible for his own affliction, if he was born with it? Some scholars think that this part of the question demonstrates the prevalence of popular Platonic thought and the influence of Hellenistic culture among the Jews of the day. For some, the man’s blindness would’ve been evidence in the “badness” of his pre-existent soul. This understanding can be found, for example, in the Wisdom of Solomon 8:19-20: “As a child I was naturally gifted, and a good soul fell to my lot; or rather, being good, I entered an undefiled body.”
The older, Hebrew perspective is revealed in the second half of the question, asking about the culpability of the parents, and whether the man’s affliction was attributable to their sin. This understanding is revealed in the popular expression, challenged by both Jeremiah and Ezekiel: “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (Jer. 31:29 & Ezekiel 18:2).
Jesus refuses to affirm either presupposition: the challenge of the man’s affliction presents an opportunity for the grace of God, and finds it’s meaning in two things: the heart-breaking purposelessness of tragedy in the world, and the grace of God in being present with the afflicted, seeing them and offering hope in hopelessness, and bringing the possibility of meaning out of meaninglessness. The great Episcopal theologian, William P. Dubose wrote that God “shares and endures with us and in us, all the extremest conditions and experiences of human life and destiny” (The Gospel in the Gospel’s, cited in The Theology of William Porcher DuBose by Robert Boak Slocum, p. 64).
The God who is with and for us desires that we be with and for each other. Christ enlists his disciples in the work of God before healing the man, saying “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work” (John 9:4). The call to work for the kingdom, to bring healing and hope to others, is nothing less than the affirmation of God’s love for humanity in all our frailty.
The work of God includes the alleviation of suffering, the healing of disease–all those works that Jesus did in his earthly ministry, which he then called his church to continue as his body. To the degree that we participate in these things, we are participating in the work of God and the process of redemption through the spreading Kingdom of God. But it is also the manner in which these things are done that is important.
Jesus refuses to acknowledge a view that would make suffering into a consequence of divine judgment for sin or other failings. In rejecting the notion that the man could’ve been responsible, because of some quality of his soul, for his own suffering, Jesus lays the foundation for the later Christian rejection of the idea of the pre-existence of souls, and of the (Gnostic) idea that the body is a prison for the soul. In contrast, the overwhelming biblical tradition is that the soul and body are intertwined. One of the great mysteries of the Christian faith is that we are not Souls with Bodies, but that we are our bodies, imperfect though they may be. The creeping gnosticism of our popular religion cannot snuff out the fact that God’s purpose is to redeem all creation, all flesh because we are God’s beloved dust.
We participate in this creation-wide process of redemption by following Christ, and by seeing other human beings as the image-bearers of God. Because each person is invaluable to God, we should be invaluable to each other. The first means of demonstrating this care is to actually see one another and ourselves as human beings beloved of God.
There were those at the time of our gospel lesson, as there are today, for whom this was and is impossible. They could not break out of their habits of seeing afflictions and trials–their own as well as someone else’s–as evidence of sin, and of God’s displeasure. These are those for whom existence itself, and not only trials, is seen as a prison, life as a series of chains. The message of the Gospel is that we can endure the trial without giving up on life, or seeing it as a curse.
“You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” they ask the man who had been blind, that Jesus healed, before they drove him out.
When Jesus heard what had happened, he went and found the man and said “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”
He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him (John 9:34-38).
We have received the grace of God in being saved and called to follow Christ, in being truly known and truly loved. We are called to share that grace with others, but it all begins with really seeing one another as God sees us. And the hope we testify to is that while God may not remove all our trials, he will be with us in them. Amen.