This is lent. A time for self-examination, and in stricter traditions, a time to give up something for the Lord as a matter of sacrifice and dedication. To be sure, in centuries past the idea of giving up something edible was a response to the seasons and harvest conditions as much as anything else. Everyone had to cut back before the spring bloom and new food sources could be gathered in – but so?
The principle of giving up something for the Lord is sound, and when I couple that with the idea of taking the time for self-examination, I often recommend giving up bad habits, or as we say in the ministry biz, sins.
This Sunday’s reading is about Jesus healing the man born blind. You might think, what? This story is about receiving something – the grace of God showered down on one poor individual. He was blind but now he sees. It isn’t about giving up anything, is it? Well……….yes it is.
You see, the point and purpose of grace shown in Jesus’ lifetime was to both manifest and illustrate the way, the life and the truth. It was to shine the light in the darkness so that both the power of God and an understanding of God could be shown.
After years of reflection, John in particular was quick to see both sides of the coin of Jesus’ activities. Indeed, he framed his gospel according to the signs of Jesus, and by that he did not simply mean the miracles of Jesus. The miracles show the love and mercy of God to be sure, but John understood them to be more than just for rejoicing and giving thanks. Think of them as road signs pointing the way to God. John says these are so we might believe in Jesus.
In this case, as is John’s want, he sets the framework of the miracle in a contrast in order to talk about blindness – real blindness. In this case, we have the man born blind, his chicken parents and the stumbling disciples on one side. And we have the Pharisees and rulers of the synagogues on the other. And the stumbling disciples bring the key of the contrast into perspective right at the start: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
What they were asking was what we ask all the time of one another. What did he do wrong to be rejected, to end up poor or have to struggle so hard? What did he do wrong? She is the result of her own bad choices, isn’t she? And we so often pass judgment on our fellow travelers and their “wrongness” and justify our “rightness” and sincerely believe that we deserve the blessings we have received in our lives…and somehow they don’t.
How Pharisaical of us.
Jesus rejects that whole interpretation of life from the start. 3 “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” Sin is very much the issue here, but it is not the way we think. The blind man was made to see. He was no doubt grateful that Jesus smeared mud on his eyes, so even though he could not see Jesus, he could feel the mud, know something real was happening and participate in the process God set for him.
Then his cowardly parents confirm that he was indeed the one born blind.
Then the Pharisees reject the whole event (and Jesus with it): “I don’t believe it. It is impossible. God would not do such a thing.” What they were saying is “We deserve such blessings because we are the faithful. This man was born to be a blind beggar because obviously he is unworthy. God made him blind at birth and set him in a life to suffer, now why would God change his mind?” (Why indeed? Something for the non-interventionists, the anti-miracle minded scholars and other deists to consider, just in case some are listening in).
Jesus then concludes, saying in effect that this man now sees. He sees Jesus, the savior of the world. The Pharisees, by contrast are the truly blind ones. Why should some suffer in physical, emotional and mental ways while others live what appears to be blessed lives? Who can say? That question is not answered here. What is clear, though, is the world is broken. In the natural course of life, some will suffer, be rejected, make bad choices or otherwise – only that is not the end of the story.
Listen: Jesus came into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the whole world might be saved through him. The man born blind was saved through him. The Pharisees, despite the fact that they believed they deserved God’s grace received none of it. In rejecting Jesus, their sins remained with them like a perpetual wall blocking the perpetual light of God.
The Pharisees were given a clear sign, but refused to read it – and no doubt thought they were being very sensible about the whole thing. But the result of not reading God’s road sign is to remain lost in the wilderness, not knowing which way to go. They walk a path that looks promising but in the end will lead to nowhere. And unless and until they find the ears to hear and the eyes to see, they might continue to wander in the wilderness forever.
I am with Paul. I don’t want anyone in my church to think more of themselves than they ought. Yes, people make bad choices, but they don’t believe they are bad choices when they make them. No one makes a choice truly believing it is wrong. And as for those who seem rejected in this world, who are subject to failure and struggle their whole lives. We must not fall prey to the temptation to reject them ourselves. And never, ever think they deserve it while we deserve better.
Rather, we must understand that in this broken world, the natural course is that some will suffer. We need to reach out to them. A little acceptance can go a long way. A little encouragement, a word of hope, our every support. In this way we come close to Jesus bringing sight to the man born blind. In this way we participate in the course God has set for us. In this way we confess that these have not sinned any more than ourselves, only these have suffered the brokenness of the world where we have been more often spared. Still, the sin remains in all of us, but for Christ, the savior of the world.
That was John’s main point. That is always John’s main point. We all need Jesus, and those who have been blessed with success in this world need Jesus no less than those who have struggled and failed. And as for the giving up…well, how about starting by giving up the attitude that people get what they deserve? Rich and poor alike, we all need Jesus. Period.