Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Fourth Sunday of Lent, 19 March 2023
‘You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?’
Today, like last week, we hear a magnificent story from the Gospel according to John, a tale of light and sight and blindness, in which faith is born and faith is lost. The story begins with a question about God’s justice. Jews, and we Christians who follow them, believe that God created everything, that there has been no equivalent, evil, power interfering and marring God’s good creation. But if everything is made by a good God, why do bad things happen? How can any baby be born blind? One, false, explanation that has sometimes been offered is that such tragedies are the result of our sin. So the disciples ask Jesus when they see a man born blind: ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus says that it was neither, that ‘he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him’. We need to be careful that we do not take this and create another false explanation for tragedies; that they have come from God as teaching moments. What Jesus now does could only have been done while he was walking the earth.
What Jesus does is immediately begin the healing of the man. The man was born blind, his community would have believed that his creation from the dust of the earth was incomplete, so Jesus completes it, spitting on the ground and making mud with the dust and the saliva, and sending the man to wash the mud off. In Hebrew the word for the ‘mud’ Jesus makes would be adamah; just as Adam was made from the dust of the ground, so the man born blind’s healing is completed using that same dust. Then, for most of the story, Jesus disappears. After being present, healing the man, at the very beginning, Jesus is absent during the conversations and debates that make up most of the story, only reappearing at the very end. For most of the story, the man born blind and those around him are in the same position that the Johannine community was in and that the Church is in now. Jesus was here, but he is no longer physically present. And he has left behind confusion and uncertainty.
Naively, we might believe that the healing of someone once blind would be a cause of great joy. Sadly, it is not. We might think that it would lead to praise of God. Instead, it leads to schism. At first, some of the man’s neighbours don’t even believe that this sighted person is the same man, which suggests that they never really saw the man born blind as more than his disability. Later his parents come close to disowning him, trying to avoid being involved in a controversy that might get them put out of the synagogue. Finally, the religious authorities get involved, and we all know that that is not going to end well.
Over the course of the story, the faith of the man born blind gradually increases, as he works out for himself what has happened by participating in various interrogations. To his neighbours he describes his healer as ‘the man called Jesus’. Then, when the religious leaders talk to him for the first time, they ask ‘What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened,’ and to this the man born blind answers ‘He is a prophet.’ During the second interrogation, in which the religious leaders try to lead the witness and have him declare that the one who healed him is a sinner, the man points out the wonder of his healing and declares: ‘If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.’ From describing his healer as the man called Jesus; to describing him as a prophet; to now describing him as someone who comes from God, the man’s faith has grown as it has been questioned and challenged. Finally, when the man born blind meets Jesus again, he is willing to believe in him as the Son of Man: ‘He said, ‘Lord,* I believe.’ And he worshipped him.’
The man born blind offers us a model for faith not just in the way that his faith grows and develops, but in its limits, in the fact that the man is willing to admit that his knowledge is not complete. Three times the man born blind admits that he does not know. First, his neighbours ask him where Jesus is and he answers, ‘I do not know’. Then the religious leaders ask him to give glory to God by admitting that Jesus is a sinner, and the man born blind answers, ‘I do not know whether he is a sinner.’ Finally, Jesus asks him whether he believes in the Son of Man, and the man answers, ‘And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.’ The man’s ability to admit that there are things that he does not know is a sign of his faith. The opposite of faith is not doubt or uncertainty, but mistrust. At the very beginning of his encounter with ‘the man called Jesus’ the man born blind trusts him enough to allow Jesus to place mud on his eyes, and to obey Jesus’ instruction to go and wash in the pool of Siloam. And his trust is not misplaced.
Sadly at the same time as the faith of the man born blind is increasing, the faith of others is being destroyed. When they first discuss this miraculous healing the religious leaders are divided; some argue that Jesus could not be from God because he healed on the Sabbath, while others ask how a sinner could heal. The leaders obviously see such division among themselves as dangerous, because they attempt to solve it, first by arguing that the man was never blind to begin with, calling on his parents for evidence. If the cure never happened, there is no problem. The man’s parents obviously know that getting in the middle of a religious dispute is dangerous, so they quickly offer their son up to the leaders, ‘We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.’ This is not the bravest response, but it is understandable. John tells us of the fear of the parents of the man born blind that they would be put out of the synagogue, and while this is anachronistic because no such thing happened during Jesus’ lifetime, we all know situations in which authorities, whether religious or secular, turn on those whose truth disagrees with the authorities’ propaganda.
The authorities now tempt the man born blind: ‘Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.’ What they are saying is obvious; if the man born blind wants to continue to belong to the people of God, he will agree with the ways in which these religious authorities construct God. It does not matter what really happened; all that matters is that everyone can agree on the same story. The man born blind has too much integrity for this. He is not going to denounce his healer to maintain his place in the group. So he mocks them: ‘I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?’ This, predictably, does not go down well. The religious authorities no longer invite the man born blind to be part of their group. They distinguish him from them; he is a disciple of Jesus; they are disciples of Moses. The man refuses this division. ‘We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will.’ The man still considers himself to be part of the people of God, part of those who describe themselves as ‘we’. But to the religious authorities he is now one of ‘them’. He will not agree with their interpretation of his healing, and so they reject him. The encounter began with Jesus’ disciples asking whether it was the man or his parents who had sinned. The religious authorities seem to believe it was both: ‘“You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.’
As twenty-first-century Uniting Church Christians, we can read this story from a place of superiority. We do not believe that disability is a result of sin, whatever our Jewish and Christian ancestors and those in more fundamentalist denominations might believe. We are above such things, we do not need to learn the lesson that Jesus is teaching his disciples. Except of course that we do. We are just as prone to blaming the victim as the religious authorities in this story. I have preached before about this deeply human tendency, and we have just seen an appalling example of it in the Robodebt Royal Commission. We will need to wait for the Commissioner’s final report to know exactly how things went wrong, but I have been listening in to the live stream as I have worked, and the apparent attitudes of some politicians and senior public servants to people who need to access Centrelink have been dreadful. ‘Robodebts’ were illegal, unethical, and inaccurate, and yet they seem to have been imposed because of a false belief that welfare recipients must be ripping off the system. As one man, who had a heart attack after being told that he had to pay back a debt he never owed, told the Royal Commission, ‘I really struggle with the way that politicians talk about people like me, it makes me feel like a welfare cheat.’ That attitude, that people who need welfare are often cheats, that there is a large number of ‘dole-bludgers,’ is pervasive in Australia, and while it continues we cannot believe ourselves better than Jesus’ first disciples.
We also need to recognise that we are just as prone to create in-groups and out-groups, to divide people into ‘us and them,’ as the religious authorities were. Creating an external enemy is the easiest way to ensure unity. Once the religious authorities had decided to blame the man born blind for his healing, there was no longer any division among them about whether someone who healed on the Sabbath was a sinner. The authorities were once again united. Loyalty to the groups to which we belong is another deeply human impulse, and in moderation it is perfectly acceptable. There is nothing wrong with identifying as a member of the Uniting Church or an Australian and feeling a sense of solidarity with every other member of the Uniting Church or Australian. There is no problem in saying ‘we’ and ‘us’ unless those words are used to attack ‘you’ and ‘them’. There would have been no problem with the religious authorities describing themselves as ‘disciples of Moses’ if they were not specifically claiming that identity to deny it to the man born blind. This is a story that begins by denying sin, but ends by revealing what the true sin is and who the real sinners are. The sin is exclusion; the sinners are those who reject others. This has remained true throughout Christian history; following Jesus means imitating God’s inclusion; rejecting other children of God because they are different from us is sin.
At different times and in different contexts we may be most like Jesus’ disciples, like the man born blind, or like the religious authorities. There are still tragedies that might lead us, like the disciples, to ask ‘Rabbi, who sinned?’ and if so we need to be reminded that people’s tragedies cannot and must not be explained away by their sin. There are times when, like the man born blind, we can only slowly grope our way to faith, accepting that there remain questions to which we, like him, can only answer ‘I don’t know’. There are also times when we may be tempted to say ‘we see’ with such certainty that we exclude those who disagree with us, as the religious authorities did, in which case we might, like them, be spiritually blind and need our eyes opened by God.
Wherever we find ourselves in this story, let us continue to do the works of the God who sent the light into the world, holding onto the faith that one day Jesus will find us and that then, with all our blindness cured, we will see him face to face. Thanks be to God. Amen.