Brief synopsis of the readings: In our first reading we see the prophet Samuel called by God to travel to the home of Jesse of Bethlehem. There, he was told, God will call the next king of Israel from among Jesse’s sons. Samuel was told to ignore the height or strength of Jesse’s sons for that is not God’s criteria. Jesse presented seven of his sons to Samuel, but none of them were suitable. Samuel asked Jesse if he had other sons and Jesse told him of his youngest who was tending sheep. This son, David, was summoned and God commanded Samuel to anoint David as king of Israel. John’s Gospel recounts the iconic story of the man born blind. Jesus’ disciples presented him with a man who was born blind and begged for his living. They asked Jesus if he was blind because of his own sin or his parents’ sin. Jesus told them that his blindness was not the result of sin but instead so that “the works of God might be displayed in him.” Jesus then spit on the ground, and smeared the mud on the man’s eyes; he then instructed him to wash in the Pool of Siloam. When others noticed that he could see they brought him to the Pharisees. The Pharisees seized on the fact that Jesus cured him on the Sabbath, even though Jews were prohibited from working on the Sabbath. They then determined that Jesus could not be from God as he violated the Sabbath. When the man defended Jesus he was expelled from the Temple. Jesus then told the man that he (Jesus) was the Son of Man (the Messiah) and the man believed.
Sometimes being a Christian can be annoying. We are called to love people we don’t like, we are called to make unpopular choices, and we are called act with courage when we want to belong.
Our first reading from Samuel comes at a difficult time in our history. Earlier in the the book of Samuel, Saul was anointed as King of Israel and all appeared to be right with the world. But God, in addition to appointing kings, also appointed prophets. Several times in the Bible these (God appointed) prophets were tasked with giving bad news to their kings. And while Saul was chosen by God, Samuel recognized that Saul fell out of God’s favor and needed to be replaced.
And so our first reading began with God’s command that Samuel find Saul’s successor, and that he find him among the sons of Jesse. Obediently, Samuel went to Jesse asked him to produce his sons, and Jesse produced the sons he thought were worthy to rule Israel. But God had other plans. When Samuel recognized that none of Jesse’s sons brought to him would rule Israel he asked Jesse if he overlooked someone. Yes, yes he did. Jesse had another son who was out in the fields. When summoned from the fields, Jesse’s son David was anointed by Samuel to be King of Israel. Many of us chuckle at this because we recognize the phrase from Psalm 118 that “the stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” And so we can trace our history back to King David, the son that Jesse ignored. And yes, I’m aware that we traditionally think that David wrote many of the Psalms, and perhaps Psalm 118.
The kingship of David has commanded countless accounts, stories, and books from his life to ours I have no desire to walk that journey. Let me suffice it to say that God’s plans for us don’t always follow our desires.
And we can see this in today’s Gospel. By the time of Jesus, and since, the Israelites accepted King David’s reign as the summit of their history; they (and we) can only hope and pray for a time as good as David’s reign.
This nostalgia, while enjoyable, can blind us into a dangerous complacency, a belief that just as Samuel recognized God’s will so can we.
Today’s Gospel teaches us nothing if it does not teach us that we don’t fully understand God’s will for us. The people of Jesus’ time believed that God worked through human blessing and suffering. Just as David’s blessing from God made him King, those who suffered did so because of God’s displeasure. Infertile couples and the disabled were chosen by God for punishment for their sins.
Most of us recognize the story of the “man born blind” but we see him differently from Jesus’ followers. They were puzzled by his blindness and they assumed his blindness resulted from someone’s sin. As a matter of fact the reading begins with Jesus’ disciples asking who was being punished for his blindness. Was it him or his parents? Frankly this offends our ears. Clearly he was not being punished as he was blind from birth and had no ability to sin. But what god would punish his parents for their sin by blinding their son? None of this makes sense to those of us who follow Jesus 2,000 later. And it shouldn’t.
As I said it made sense to them. When pondering questions about God’s will and intentions many sought the Pharisees for answers. It’s commonly known that these Pharisees were some of the smartest and most educated people of their time. They were also frequently Jesus’ targets. Jesus had no problem with their intelligence or their education, but did have a problem with their intransigence. They were in charge but also lived with a constant awareness that, much like the kings of old, their status was imperiled by someone new who claimed to speak for God. Without drawing too strong a line, If Jesus was the new Samuel, the Pharisees were the new Saul. As long as ordinary people asked the Pharisees the questions they were asking Jesus, the Pharisees could maintain their status, but once they asked Jesus, all bets were off.
Given that the blind man looked to them like a man who was cursed. And they had every reason to block Jesus’ words that his blindness was not a curse but an opportunity for healing. Instead of rejoicing that this man could now see, they denounced Jesus for “breaking the Sabbath.” Jews of that time (and Orthodox Jews to this day) prohibit work on the Sabbath. But if the Sabbath is meant to be a day devoted to God, what can be better than healing someone?
At first they tried to portray this healing as fake news: they interrogated his parents and attempted to coerce them into saying that this sighted man can’t be their son because their son is blind. We can’t blame them but they were intimidated and they fearfully dodged the question by suggesting they ask their son directly. Changing their target, they then demanded that this man denounce Jesus as a sinner. When he refused he was driven away. This being “driven away” is more important than it sounds. It wasn’t just “leave this place” or “see you later.” It was exile. As a blind begger he didn’t have much going for him, but he could cobble together a miserable, but possible, life. But this “driven away” meant he his sight cost him everything. We don’t know what happened to him, but it wasn’t good.
At the end of the Gospel this man professes belief in Jesus as the Messiah so we can hope that he was included in the first believers in Jesus, a member of the earliest days of our church.
I hope so because he showed us incredible courage. Had he denounced Jesus as a sinner he could have received the best of all worlds: he gained his sight and maintained his place in the community (though he likely would have had to stop begging and get a job).
But the heart of this issue gives us something deeper. While the Pharisees continued to see this in terms of “who can we blame,” Jesus sees this in terms of “what can we do” and acts to heal his blindness. This is where we come in.
When faced with evil, or suffering, or disease, or disability, we should act as Jesus and not as the Pharisees. Fair enough, if we’re not ophthalmologists we likely can’t cure someone from blindness, but that’s too narrow the focus. Through the power of Christ we do have the power to heal, even (and especially) when it takes courage.
Most of us have worked in several places, some good, some bad. In my experience I’ve found a dichotomy between them. In my best experiences I’ve worked where the corporate ethos was “how can we make this better?” But I’ve also worked where the ethos was “who can I blame?” The first is empowering and the second is fearful.
When we find ourselves in a place with the “who can I blame” ethos we are not powerless. Jesus teaches us that we have the power to transform and empower. It takes courage but we can reach out to this blind man instead of blaming him or someone else.
I admire the man born blind because his courage stood in the face of the fear of the Pharisees. The Pharisees looked on this miracle with fear because they worried for their status. The (formerly) blind man’s parents looked on it with fear because they feared the same thing. But this man showed courage in refusing to denounce Jesus.
At the beginning of this homily I spoke about our call to choose courage when we want to belong. The call to remain silent for fear of being driven away or exiled is strong. But our commitment to follow Jesus calls us to the courage to stand with the man born blind instead of the Pharisees. And it calls us to speak our truth when the ethos demands us to give in to fear.