As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man who had been blind from birth. “Rabbi,” his disciples asked him, “why was this man born blind? Was it because of his own sins or his parents’ sins?”“It was not because of his sins or his parents’ sins,” Jesus answered. “This happened so the power of God could be seen in him. We must quickly carry out the tasks assigned us by the one who sent us. The night is coming, and then no one can work. 5But while I am here in the world, I am the light of the world.”Then he spit on the ground, made mud with the saliva, and spread the mud over the blind man’s eyes. 7He told him, “Go wash yourself in the pool of Siloam” (Siloam means “sent”). So the man went and washed and came back seeing!His neighbors and others who knew him as a blind beggar asked each other, “Isn’t this the man who used to sit and beg?” Some said he was, and others said, “No, he just looks like him!”But the beggar kept saying, “Yes, I am the same one!”They asked, “Who healed you? What happened?”He told them, “The man they call Jesus made mud and spread it over my eyes and told me, ‘Go to the pool of Siloam and wash yourself.’ So I went and washed, and now I can see!”“Where is he now?” they asked.“I don’t know,” he replied.Then they took the man who had been blind to the Pharisees, because it was on the Sabbath that Jesus had made the mud and healed him. The Pharisees asked the man all about it. So he told them, “He put the mud over my eyes, and when I washed it away, I could see!”Some of the Pharisees said, “This man Jesus is not from God, for he is working on the Sabbath.” Others said, “But how could an ordinary sinner do such miraculous signs?” So there was a deep division of opinion among them.Then the Pharisees again questioned the man who had been blind and demanded, “What’s your opinion about this man who healed you?”The man replied, “I think he must be a prophet.”The Jewish leaders still refused to believe the man had been blind and could now see, so they called in his parents. They asked them, “Is this your son? Was he born blind? If so, how can he now see?”His parents replied, “We know this is our son and that he was born blind, but we don’t know how he can see or who healed him. Ask him. He is old enough to speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders, who had announced that anyone saying Jesus was the Messiah would be expelled from the synagogue. That’s why they said, “He is old enough. Ask him.”So for the second time they called in the man who had been blind and told him, “God should get the glory for this,because we know this man Jesus is a sinner.”“I don’t know whether he is a sinner,” the man replied. “But I know this: I was blind, and now I can see!”“But what did he do?” they asked. “How did he heal you?”“Look!” the man exclaimed. “I told you once. Didn’t you listen? Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples, too?”Then they cursed him and said, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses! We know God spoke to Moses, but we don’t even know where this man comes from.”“Why, that’s very strange!” the man replied. “He healed my eyes, and yet you don’t know where he comes from? We know that God doesn’t listen to sinners, but he is ready to hear those who worship him and do his will. Ever since the world began, no one has been able to open the eyes of someone born blind. If this man were not from God, he couldn’t have done it.”“You were born a total sinner!” they answered. “Are you trying to teach us?” And they threw him out of the synagogue.Spiritual BlindnessWhen Jesus heard what had happened, he found the man and asked, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”The man answered, “Who is he, sir? I want to believe in him.”“You have seen him,” Jesus said, “and he is speaking to you!”“Yes, Lord, I believe!” the man said. And he worshiped Jesus.Then Jesus told him, “I entered this world to render judgment—to give sight to the blind and to show those who think they see that they are blind.”Some Pharisees who were standing nearby heard him and asked, “Are you saying we’re blind?”“If you were blind, you wouldn’t be guilty,” Jesus replied.“But you remain guilty because you claim you can see. – JOHN 9 (NLT)
PORTRAITS OF GOD
The writers of the gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – are all trying to tell us a story. Their story is focused on Jesus, on who he is, and what he is about. More importantly, for each of them, they are trying to communicate the picture of God that we are given through Jesus.
And let’s face it, regardless of whether we are believers or sceptics, theists or atheists, we all have a concept of God. A picture of the divine that either intrigues us or repulses us. A portrait of God, that some of us maybe stand back and admire, while others of us stand back in order to get a better aim.
How did we come to get this picture? Well, that’s the more complex bit, and it varies for all of us. But it’s a portrait that has been painted using the palette of our life experiences; the stories that we have discovered and explored or have had forced upon us; the examples that have been presented to us – some good, others terrible; our cultures; our relationships; our religion…
Whatever journey we have taken, the idea of God sparks imagination and opinion in all of us.
We all have a picture of the divine tucked away somewhere in the proverbial pocket of our consciousness.
But how accurate is that picture we hold, and how do we react when that picture is challenged by another image claiming to be the authority?
For those of us who feel we have the picture, the clearest image, sometimes, the ways in which we have taken out that image and flashed it around has actually distorted and crinkled it, resulting in it not really being transmitted in a way that reveals it in it’s fullest resolution, it best light and its glory.
Maybe, come to think of it, one definition of a religious fundamentalist (or even a non-religious fundamentalist) would be the the kind of person who takes out their picture and waves it about, antagonistically slapping it across people faces and describing it as the only truest likeness, whilst at the same time they remain ignorant of all the folds and creases, the wear and tear, the smeared fingerprints, and damage that they have self-inflicted onto that image over the years.
By the way, when I talk about the ways in which we transmit this image, how we ‘flash it about’, I’m not talking about our religious rhetoric or rituals, or lack of them. Most of the time, the image we have perceived of God and the image we transmit of God boils down to how we and those around us have worn our humanity – our humanness.
Now, to state my standpoint clearly, I’m with the gospel writers and the remaining writers of New Testament – Jesus is the perfect image of God; He is God in flesh. The story presented to us in the gospels is one where God comes and clothes himself in our humanness; incarnation gives us a clearer image of what the divine is like. This three-dimensional, fleshy, breath-filled human presentation is a far better image than what we’ll ever get from any Blu-ray or 41 mega pixel photo.
That said, I am conscious that the ways in which some Christians (including myself, over the years) have taken Jesus and waved him about, hasn’t really aided in the transmission of this picture of God. And that actually, through some of the ways in which we have waved Jesus about, we have ended up reinforcing and recreating certain images of God that Jesus – God himself – came to tear up.
Could it be, that we have told stories about God that are simply not true?
Stories that present an inverted image of the portrait that the gospel writers tell us?
I want to dig into a few of these stories over the course of the next few weeks, taking a look at the portrait of God that the gospel writers give us; beginning with the story above about the healing of a blind man.
Central to the story above are untrue ideas about who God is, and how God views certain people.
Idea’s that make it sound like God has prejudices and preferences; that there are certain kinds of people who God loves, and God welcomes, and God blesses, and then there are other kinds of people who God rejects, that God loathes, and that are unwanted in his presence. In fact there are – in some people’s heads – certain kinds of people who God even curses and inflicts suffering upon just to purposely demonstrate how unwanted they are; as if God sign-posts the people he is not interested in with infirmities, tragedies and natural disasters.
Which is a disturbing portrait to hold in your minds-eye about the character and nature of God!
But, although archaic, maybe this is a picture we still hold in our modern minds – maybe we’ve been slapped around the face with this image, too?
Within this story though, these horrible, excluding and alienating ideas about how God feels about certain people, all centre on this man who was born blind. These attitudes book-end this whole chapter:
Right at the start of this story (in verse 2), it’s Jesus’ disciples who ask him this really strange question about the man’s condition; about why he happens to be blind. In their minds, this man’s blindness is an outward sign that speaks of this man being God forsaken, unwanted and cursed. And this forsaken position, they conclude, is either a result of his sin or his parents’ sin.
And near the end of this story, this attitude is brazenly captured within the words of a religious group known as the Pharisees (summed up within v34). After dragging this man through the coals about his healing, about how it happened and who did it, some of the Pharisees are really blunt with their opinion of this man when he tries to intrude on their picture of God – “You can’t teach us about God, you’re a sinner!”…
…they might as well be saying, “You can know nothing of God, because God doesn’t want to know you!”
For both groups of bystanders, this man is seen as a sinner.
Now sin, and what that word means, is a big topic. The Old Testament has six or seven different Hebrew words and ideas for what we, in our English language, just jumble together and place under the label sin. And to call someone a sinner, can mean different things in different places, to different people; Sometimes – like in this story – it actually represents a human opinion of someone and not actually Gods.
In Jesus’ day, to be known as a sinner was its own social category; ultimately it was label given to those who were not permitted access to certain parts of the Temple for worship. The Temple was seen as the place where heaven and earth interacted, where God met with humanity, where the divine touched people. And so, to be seen as a sinner was to be seen as unwelcome in God’s house; they were the kind of people who others felt were unacceptable or displeasing to God.
In this story, both Jesus’ disciples and the Pharisees see this man as a manifestation of sin. For them, this blind man is the textbook example of what it means to be “cursed” and “unwanted” and “rejected” by God.
This man’s earthly condition, from their perspective, was heaven’s expressed opinion of him.
For both groups, this preconceived and culturally reinforced incorrect idea of who God is, and how God works, and who God is “for”, has blinded them to knowing what God is actually like.
And so Jesus – who John, through his writing, is wanting us to see as the real visible image of God’s interaction with humanity, the real Temple; the place where God meets with humanity – set’s out to show them how wrong this silly idea is
Hence the miracle – it’s not just for the sake of doing a miracle. In the gospels, Jesus never does a miracle just for the sake of showmanship, or bling, or entertainment value; Jesus wasn’t an old world version of Dynamo or David Blaine. Everyone of Jesus’ miracles were always an attempt to show us something of God’s nature and intent for humanity and creation.
As such, Jesus pre-warns his disciples of his intent before carrying out this healing of a man born blind; ‘This man isn’t cursed. He was born blind so that the power of God could be seen in him’ .
Now let’s pause for a minute, because we could misread what Jesus is saying here. It could be understood as Jesus saying something along the lines of, “Yeah, it was God who caused his blindness, but this is all a set-up for what I am just about to do” … which doesn’t sound like a good portrait of God either; the kind of God who causes suffering only so he looks good when he sweeps in to save the day. If you wanted a modern take on this, this kind of ploy just makes Jesus look like the character Syndrome in Pixar’s The Incredibles; an antogonist who purposely creates problems in order to make himself look like the saviour.
To grasp what Jesus is saying we need to remember how people viewed this man in the first place. In the minds of some, this man’s infirmity was a label of him being under the curse of God – he’s a walking advertisement that reinforced the portrait they had of a God who curses those he rejects. The only thing this man’s condition speaks of, is sin.
And yet Jesus says the opposite – this man doesn’t carry sins image, but God’s. Even though he is blind, he’s not cursed, he isn’t unwanted; God’s not angry with him – he’s not been designed as a vehicle to advertise divine wrath, but divine power.
“You’ve been looking at this guy all wrong, and through this stupid view of this man, you’ve also been looking at God wrong”, Jesus is saying. “And just to show you how wrong you are, God is now going to use this blind-man to enable people to see who God actually is’.
Jesus words aren’t necessarily a statement about the man being healed – although he will be healed – but it’s a statement about the challenge that this miracle will cause to those who hold to this stupid, ridiculous, and blind notion that God only loves and desires and blesses and works in the lives of certain types of people, while he rejects and curses and avoids any involvement in the lives of others.
You see, this man was born with no vision. But one day, while Jesus was walking along, Jesus uses this man to give people a better and clearer vision of what God is actually like.
In one day, a man born blind, a man who has known rejection and prejudice all his life, gets a clearer perspective of who God is, and presents that clearer picture of who God is to a group of people who are blinded by their religious stereotypes; a group that claim that they know what God looks like.
But they’re claim to know what God is like is shown to be false. They are shown to be the ones who are ignorant and blind.
As Jesus smooths his freshly made spit and dust mixture over the blind man’s eyes, he is also rubbing dirt into the minds-eye of those who hold to these pictures of God.
Any of this sound familiar?
Of course not. We don’t hold to these stupid ideas any more. For those of us who have discovered the image of God shown to us through Jesus, we no longer hold to an image of God who loves some but loathes others; who shows preference to some through our ideas of blessings, and spits on others through our ideas of curses – we’ve moved passed all that!
I wonder, how many of us need Jesus to teach us to see? How many of us are quick to perceive and stereotype and to label people as “unwanted”. It’s very easy to stigmatise people. It’s very easy to “label”, it’s very easy to “judge” and assume that we know “their story”…
However, God’s not into stereotypes.
“They say the devil is in the details…he’s actually in the over-generalizations” – Jonathan Martin (On Twitter)
This isn’t some troubling ancient problem, it is still around today. Our culture and media are awash with stereotypes and over-generalisations about people groups, individuals and nationalities; whether that’s the poor, or the foreigner, or Muslims.
As the church of Jesus – the people who have seen him and who have been called to make him visible – we cannot afford to buy shares in these stereotypes. We shouldn’t be jumping on board with these things, even when some of these stereotypes stem from our churches!
When we buy into stereotypes, we risk expressing opinions that are not God’s.
The sad thing is, the wrong thinking that is exposed in this story is still expressed today. I have heard it, read it, and “googled” it – that God sends curses and tragedy and infirmity to express his feelings about human activity. I’m tired of narratives on natural disasters that claim that God was behind all of this death and destruction as a warning of how unhappy he is with some people.
To be clear; Cancer, Aids, Hurricanes, Earthquakes, etc… are not God’s expressed opinion of people. The God shown to us through Jesus doesn’t send illness and curses when he wants to express his feelings about us. Actually, he sent his Son, to die for us and give his life as a ransom for many!
If we are going to over-generalise, then the only over-generalisation that is applicable to all of us is that we are all sinners.
But this isn’t a label describing a certain kind of people which God wants to clear away and reject and curse; but a people who God, through Jesus, has come to save, redeem, restore, to reconcile and resurrect! These are the people who God desires to pull closer – and I am among that number, so are you.
On the flip side of this portrait of a God who rejects some people; our health, our wealth, our real-estate value and our social status, are not indications that God has a preference towards us either!
I’m also extremely tired of this kind of preaching, too. We really need to stop buying into the kind of thinking that says God has any preferences full stop.
Now it needs to be said, we know nothing about this man who was healed of his blindness. He could be a really good guy, the kind of person you would want as your next-door neighbour. However, he could be totally corrupt, a religious fanatic and a neighbour from hell. But this story is not about him! Jesus healing this man is not his endorsement of this man’s life – it’s an act of grace. An act that speaks of God. An act that shatters our preconceptions of God’s prejudices and demonstrates to us God’s compassionate, merciful, gracious all-consuming love.
As Paul reminds us “God can always point to us as examples of the incredible wealth of his favour and kindness toward us…” (Ephesians 2:7)
God has no favourites, and no-one is crossed of his list – all is grace!
Experiencing God’s love should be enabling us to see who God is. And we should be humbled and in awe of this true picture of God that we are given through Jesus. Having our eyes opened should enable us to see that there is not a single human being on this planet that is not loved and wanted by God.
We can all know something of God, because he has made himself known. Without our permission, or our request, God came and took on flesh, and through this mixture of dust and water he longs to open our eyes and wash away our preconceived divine stereotypes.
But maybe we are the ones who need Jesus to come and rub mud into our eyes?
Lord God. You are great in mercy, and rich in love.
Through Jesus, you have made yourself visible.
Heal our vision. Open our eyes.
Help us, through your Holy Spirit, to see you, and to express you.
We have been born to make your glory visible.
Help us not to let ourselves, or our opinions, get in the way of that task.