Why do bad things happen?
That isn’t the question this passage answers. Nor does it answer why we suffer, why some are blind or disabled, or why some of us are total jerks.
Instead, it tells a story. A story of people willfully blind to the beauty of God.
Lent 4A | John 9:1-41
The Pharisees, remember, are devoted, compassionate people. They’re leaders. They know the law, scripture, and are among the most spiritually connected people in Jesus’s day.
And even as the writer of John is contrasting them with Jesus, we need to resist seeing the Pharisees as the enemy. Out of touch. Ignorant. They aren’t.
Nor should they be seen as maniacal and evil. They aren’t the picture of pure villainy.
In John, they’re the foil and the contrast. And the depth of that contrast comes alive in this story.
Here’s a brief recap of the story.
Jesus comes upon a Man Born Blind, rejected and ignored by everyone. Jesus gives the man sight…on the Sabbath.
The Pharisees can’t understand what happened. Jesus broke Sabbath Law–a big no-no. But then, people don’t just stop being blind because of a little mud in their eyes. So they reason:
- Either God did it.
- Or a demon did it.
- Since God wouldn’t break Sabbath law, it must be demonic.
Now of course, we know this is a false dichotomy based on a bad assumption: that God wouldn’t act on the Sabbath. Jesus reveals that this isn’t true. So the whole basis for their argument is faulty. However, they don’t know that. And worse, they feel they have to justify themselves. So they double-down on their decision. They can’t have their understanding of God refuted by this insignificant man in front of others people!
So they get aggressive. They start throwing their power around, strong-arming the public, the parents, and then the Man Born Blind. The one who is healed by Jesus becomes the victim of abuse.
What the Pharisees do to the parents and the Man Born Blind is terribly abusive and seems awfully close to what we now call gaslighting: when an abuser tries to force another person to understand their mutual experience differently through manipulation and malice.
And yet the man is undeterred and keeps telling the truth. So they reject him and drive him away.
And Jesus takes him in.
Notice where the faulty premise has taken the situation.
How far the Pharisees are from who they want to be.
How far the Man Born Blind is from being included in community.
And notice that this story opens with the disciples making the same mistake.
The link between sin and disability was not a universal teaching. You can’t look to Scripture and tradition and say they’ve always believed that. We can find much the opposite there.
So what we should see instead is not blessing or curse with divine intention or punishment, but diversity in genetics and the opportunity for God to reveal things to us.
The power of this faulty premise, taken from a narrow view of God, of nature, and of this whole bloody life we share is where it leads us. Away from Jesus. It takes us away from the one who reveals God and God’s purpose to us. It draws us away from mercy and love and toward hate and rejection.
They reject the one who is different and cast him out. They lie and impose their will on him and his parents, who shrink before them. This tough guy routine pushes a lie upon them, and upon all the people, that they can’t see the truth in their midst. A truth about Jesus.
Jesus reveals that God restores while humans divide
The story uses this powerful image of sight to help us see what understanding looks like in people’s lives. And to reveal God’s restorative power when we connect with one another with love and mercy in Jesus.
It isn’t only that a single human received sight. Nor is the lesson Jesus teaches at the end, the only teaching. A teaching he offered to people who didn’t get the visual parable in the healing of the Man Born Blind. The lesson he was teaching them through him: the very mercy of God is revealed in Jesus’s mercy.
Jesus is showing them God’s mercy in their midst. And the ones who couldn’t see will be able to through God.
But these Pharisees, who already know God and can see the beauty of God’s mercy, reject Jesus, and show their very blindness to God.
A blindness which resorts to the use of power to oppress the weak and deprive the righteous. And they use that power against the little ones who now see what God has come to do. How God has come to them.
God is revealed in the healing.
God is revealed in the Man Born Blind seeing Jesus for who he is. Seeing him for the first time and accepting the invitation he gives the Man. An invitation to new life.
Even this story itself can be used to avoid seeing the mercy of God in Jesus. To see the evil in the Pharisees or the ignorance of the disciples. That it doesn’t end with the Man restored to his community, but rejected might send us away blind to the dimensions of God’s love and the restorative character of Jesus.
It reveals our own shortcomings and tendencies. And how willing we often are to avoid seeing the generous nature of God. Like the God revealed in challenging parables about workers receiving fair wages or contrasted with a wicked master; the one who throws the slave out for refusing to exploit or manipulate his neighbors.
We might miss in this story that the only one not blind to Jesus is the Man Born Blind. The only one who knows the mercy in his body is the only one in the end who can see him.
And in the midst of rejection, he is the only one who tells the truth and the only one who proclaims the gospel. In other words, of all the people in this gospel story, the Man Born Blind is the only one who can give us sight. He’s the only one who can help us see Jesus.
In our blindness to the Christ in our midst, the suffering of our neighbors, and the incredible beauty of creation, may Jesus open our eyes with the very dirt beneath our feet.