Brief synopsis of the readings: In the Book of Samuel, God commanded Samuel to go to Jesse of Bethlehem because God will choose one of Jesse’s sons to be king. Jesse gathered his sons but God did not choose any of them. Upon inquiry Samuel learned of Jesse’s youngest son, David. Jesse then sent for him, and when Samuel saw that he was God’s chosen one, and anointed him. In John’s Gospel (and I’ll use the shorter version), Jesus and his disciples noticed a man who had been born blind. Jesus’ disciples asked if his blindness was caused by his own sin, or the sin of his parents. Jesus told them he was the light of the world and cured the man. His neighbors knew the previously blind man because he used to sit and beg. They asked him what happened and he told them that Jesus cured him. The man was then brought to the Pharisees. On hearing the story they dismissed Jesus, reasoning that no man of God would cure someone on the Sabbath. They questioned the man about Jesus and he said he believed Jesus to be a prophet at which point the Pharisees threw him out. Jesus then found the man and revealed himself as the Son of Man.
At first blush Samuel had an easy job: find Jesse and identify which of his sons should be king. But once again, God threw us a curve ball and confounded us. To quote the prophet Isaiah, God’s ways are not our ways and God chose the overlooked son. We know the rest of the story: David went on to become the greatest king in our history. He slew Goliath and built the first Temple and his name continues to be great.
And even though we are told again and again that we cannot fully understand God, we keeping thinking we can. Granted, in our role as disciples we are called to understand God, but we need to recognize that this quest for understanding is never done. We get into trouble when we think we have it all figured out.
Case in point: today’s Gospel. From the moment we are born we try to figure out cause and effect. When we eat (or nurse) we stop feeling hungry. When we figure out balance we can walk. Later on we learn how to please our parents and teachers.
Scripture and our teachers also taught us what pleased God, and more to the point, what displeased God. First we learn the rules (Commandments) and are told we will be rewarded for goodness and punished for wickedness. Hopefully as we grow and mature we move beyond this to a mutual, loving relationship with God. Hopefully we grow out a relationship with God that centers on simple obedience to one that centers on a faithfulness that encompasses obedience but goes much further.
I say hopefully because inevitably we slip back into childhood reasoning, and we reverse engineer the idea that bad outcomes result from bad behavior. We see something wrong and try to figure out what or whose sin caused that bad thing to happen. The entire book of Job should tell us not to do this, but we do.
Why was this man born blind? Indeed, why do bad things happen to good people, and why can’t we simply accept the randomness of the universe?
Well, we can’t, and in John’s Gospel the people who have the worst time of all are the ones we think of as the most learned, the Pharisees. By any measure curing someone of blindness is a joyful thing that should be celebrated. But the Pharisees just couldn’t celebrate or live in the wonder of this event. They were not just the “smartest” guys in the room, they were in charge of interpreting the rules.
First they dismissed Jesus as someone who couldn’t have acted for God because he broke a rule: he worked on the Sabbath. Then they went after man and threw them out. Why did they do this? Why couldn’t they have been happy for him?
Unfortunately the reason is still true today. They feared this miracle would undermine their authority, and to be fair they were right. But for all their learning they were still trapped in the faith they were taught as children. If you do good things, good things will happen to you and if you do bad things, bad things will happen to you. And if something bad happens, it must have been the result of something you did. If you don’t think we are dealing with Pharisees in our own day, I remind you that in the days after 9/11 Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson claimed that “abortionists, feminists, and gays” caused the terrorist attacks.
Can’t we, in the 21st Century, understand that whatever happens, there are things beyond our understanding? I think so. We’ve made remarkable strides in curing the diseases we find in Scripture: blindness, epilepsy, leprosy, etc. But despite our best efforts we have not cured or eliminated either disease or suffering.
If nothing else today’s readings call us to recognize that we are not called to understand suffering, and we are absolutely not called to assign blame to it. We are instead called see him as Jesus did: heal him if you can (and often we cannot) and love him.
At the end of the Gospel the previously blind man again encountered Jesus and Jesus revealed himself as the Son of Man. There’s more to this line and I’ll probably expand on this when these readings come again in 2023 but I love the fact that when this man is thrown out, Jesus welcomes him.
At this point in our Lenten journey let’s keep our eyes open to those who have been thrown out.