March 19, 2023

Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin in the First Book of Samuel where Samuel is tasked by God to anoint God’s choice for the next king who will be one of the sons of Jesse of Bethlehem. Jesse then lined up seven sons but God told Samuel that it was not one of them. When questioned Jesse admitted that his youngest son David was looking after the sheep. When David arrived Samuel anointed him with oil. John’s Gospel describes a scene where Jesus and his disciples come upon a man born blind. Jesus was asked if this man’s blindness resulted from his own sin or his parents’. Jesus replied that this man was blind so that all could see God’s works could be seen. He then cured the man of his blindness. When others noticed him and remembered him as being blind they asked him what happened and he recounted Jesus’ actions. He was then taken to the Pharisees who announced that this could not have come from God as Jesus healed him on the sabbath. They then questioned the man’s parents who (out of fear) said their son should speak for himself. They then pressed the man to denounce Jesus and when he refused they turned on him. At the end Jesus appeared to him and told him that he was the Son of Man.

From our earliest days we are told that God’s love and patience are infinite and sometimes it seems that we all do everything we can to test those limits. Again and again we assume we know what God will do, who God will choose, and why things happen. And even when it becomes clear that God’s ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8) we continue to hold on to our beliefs.

Let’s begin with Jesse. Imagine someone coming to your door and telling you that one of your sons will be the next kin. I know all parents claim they love all their children equally and have no favorites, but face it: if you were Jesse you would almost certainly have in mind which son Samuel was looking for. Maybe it would be the oldest, or the smartest, or the holiest. After all, who knows children better than their parents?

OK, God does. God saw (or created) in David something that eluded everyone else there. What that was continues to elude us. Centuries after these words were written we humans came up with something we call the scientific method. It’s a regimented way to find the truth. We observe, we develop a hypothesis to explain what we observe and we test it. If the test shows we were right we eventually find our way to a theory. If the test shows we were wrong we go back to our observation and develop a new hypothesis, except when we don’t.

Nobody wants his hypothesis to be wrong and we find ourselves in a position where we deny what we see, and that brings us to our Gospel reading. Pharisees normally don’t come out well when they come up against Jesus and perhaps they never look worse than they did here. They viewed Jesus with anything from suspicion to outright hostility because he wasn’t “one of them.” And so when they find that Jesus healed a man of his blindness they found a way to discredit him: he couldn’t be who he says he is because he healed on the Sabbath. Imagine for a moment Jesus telling the blind man to wait 24 hours to get his sight back to placate the Pharisees.

Their hypothesis, that blindness is a punishment for evildoing, clearly didn’t stand up to scrutiny. They needed to find a new hypothesis. But instead of developing a new hypothesis to explain his blindness they stuck with their previous belief. It had the advantage of keeping the Pharisees comfortable but it just doesn’t work. If he was blind from birth how could his blindness been his fault? And if his parents were to blame why punish him? But they doubled down on their hypothesis, not only accusing Jesus of wrongdoing but also terrifying the man’s parents and eventually driving the blind man away. In the end the man and Jesus reunite for a better day and the Pharisees continue being blind to the real search for truth.

I’d like to say that 20 centuries later we’ve outgrown this stubbornness and have embraced the scientific method. Alas, that would be premature. In 1859 Charles Darwin wrote The Origin of Species suggesting that life has evolved over millions of years and in 1925 in Tennessee the science teacher John Scopes was tried and convicted of teaching evolution. Conspiracy theorists claim that the moon landing was faked, that 9/11 was a government inside job and floride in drinking water is toxic. No amount of scientific proof will convince them.

That’s fine for science but we also find it in the faithful. After giving a workshop on teaching faith to teenagers I was accosted by a woman to accused me of seeing nothing wrong with couples using artificial birth control. I posited this question to her: “How would you react if, after you died and were welcomed into Heaven, you learned that couples who used oral contraceptives were also saved?” I got the angriest stink eye I’ve ever seen and she hinted that she would report me to this bishop.

Being an adult in our faith sometimes calls us to rethink what we’ve always known. Almost nobody today believes blindness is God’s punishment for sin but I’ve spoken with several couples who struggle with infidelity who wonder if this is God’s punishment. There are still those who believe God punishes homosexuals by giving them AIDS or that Hurricane Katrina was the natural result of sinful lifestyles in New Orleans.

We all want to end suffering but holding on to old beliefs doesn’t get us there. It didn’t help the man born blind and it doesn’t help suffering today. It may give us a certain smugness but that’s all. It’s hard to see suffering and not know the cause (even if we know the cure) but understanding God and God’s motives are not a reasonable expectation. We love God and neighbor and we look for what we can do.

We are approaching Easter and we will celebrate God’s greatest mystery: the resurrection of Jesus. Let us not be Pharisees who continue to look for ways to stay in power but instead seek to love everyone. Everyone.