“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” John 9:2
Most of us will probably remember things we were told time and time again when we were young; things remain in our head a long time after we heard them. One of the things I remember being told frequently was, ‘God looks after those who look after themselves’. I’m not sure why God even came into the conversation, we weren’t religious people; but the message was clear, work hard, behave yourself and someone will make sure that you are rewarded.
Everyone thought the same; you worked hard because that was the only way you knew. ‘God will look after those who look after themselves’. I was astonished years later to discover that our way of thinking hadn’t just sprung from nowhere; it was deeply rooted in the pages of the Old Testament. In Deuteronomy 28, it was clearly summed up, be honest, keep the rules, work hard and you will be abundantly prosperous.
The view of life was that if you looked after yourself, then God would look after you. Psalm 37 says, ‘I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging for bread’.?
The message is clear, keep the rules and all will go well. The message is also clear for those who are going through hard times, “they must have done something to deserve it”.
Jewish people had a very firm belief that God was active at all times and in all places; if someone was suffering, then God must have a reason for it. We read in today’s Gospel reading, in John Chapter 9, about Jesus having a row with the Pharisees . Jesus heals a man who has been born blind and Jesus’ own disciples ask him, “who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” If God looked after those who kept the rules, if there was something wrong, then you must have done something wrong to deserve it.
The Old Testament attitude towards life became very deeply rooted in the popular thinking of Protestant countries: work hard and all will go well; if things go wrong, then it’s your own fault.
When the great famine hit Ireland in the 1840s years ago the response of the English government was based on this thinking. The Times newspaper in London commented, “It is the old thing, the old malady breaking out. It is the national character, the national thoughtlessness, the national indolence”. The English logic was that if Irish people were dying of starvation, then it must be their own fault, because that was the way the world worked.
Even worse than the logic of the London Times was the argument of Protestant evangelicals like Alexander Dallas and the Society for Irish Church Missions who viewed the famine as God’s judgment on the Irish people for remaining Roman Catholics, the famine was caused by what Dallas saw as their sin. To say to people that God is causing their children to die because they belong to the wrong church seems very far from Jesus.
“God looks after those who look after themselves”can motivate people to get up and work hard, it can also make people who have suffered misfortune in their lives feel that God has not favoured them and that they have no part in a church community where everyone else is outwardly successful.
It is important that we understand this ethos of health and wealth if we are going to understand today’s Gospel reading. If people obeyed God, if people kept the rules, then Deuteronomy promised that people would receive abundant blessings. In the light of what people heard in the scriptures, the disciples’ question made perfect sense, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
Jesus rejects the old teaching, in Chapter 9 Verse 3, he says, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” Far from being someone who was being punished for sin, the man is someone in whom we might see God at work. The Pharisees do not like this, they are determined to hold on to their ideas that people got what they deserved, even a miracle does not bring a change of heart. In verse 34, they say to the man, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” John adds a sad note to their words, “And they drove him out”. A man in whom God’s work has been revealed is put out of the synagogue, driven out of his community.
How do we respond to the words and works of Jesus in saint John Chapter 9? Any of us who have read those chapters from Deuteronomy, any of us who have read the lines from Psalm 37, will know that this is not the way the world is. We have all known good, honest, hard-working people who have endured terrible hardship, suffering or tragedy; we have all known people who have obeyed God and laboured hard all their lives and never had a penny to spare.
Jesus questions the attitudes of those around him and, in so doing, he questions us. Of course, he expects us to work hard; of course, he expects us to regard what we have as a blessing from God; but he does not expect us to be like the Pharisees, he does not expect us to see people’s misfortune as their own fault. Jesus challenges the thinking that faith brings health and wealth, he challenges us to see in our own lives, and in the lives of those around us, the works of God being revealed. “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day”, says Jesus in Verse 4- sometimes those works will appear unlikely ways, sometimes they will appear in unexpected ways, but they will appear always in God’s way.